Interview: Luke O'Nien reflects on squad progress

A man with the years of service that Luke O’Nien has given to Sunderland AFC makes him well positioned to discuss the progress of the club in recent times.

210 appearances, 17 goals and memories to last a lifetime paints the picture of his time on Wearside. If there is one man who has experienced rocky spells over the years, it’s the 28-year-old utilityman. However, it will no doubt give him extra joy when the positives come round. By all accounts, O’Nien and his team mates have been part of the turbulent but, eventual, fruitful journey.

As we approach the home straight of the Sky Bet Championship season, O’Nien has been reflecting on where the team is currently placed and how it represents the upward trajectory the club has been on since the turn of 2022.

“When we take each game in isolation, there is no reason why we can’t compete” he said. “We were competitive against Norwich and Sheffield United and we should have taken some points. Burnley when they came to our place, we were 2-0 up.

“If you take each game in isolation, there has been two or three games where we haven’t turned up and that is down to ourselves. There is no reason why we can’t go on and get lots more points.

“The team is in a really good position. Where we are, I think we would have taken that at the start of the season at this point. But now we are where we are, we’ve got to make sure we don’t rest on our laurels and kick on.”

The Lads find themselves perched in 11th place in the table heading into the international break. A youthful Sunderland side have shown they can more than hold their own in the second tier of English football which has impressed the senior heads in the squad.

With an average age in the squad of just over 23-years-old, the squad has a new look compared to when O’Nien first arrived in 2018.

“It’s different to when I first joined. I think where we are is really positive” continued the 28-year-old utility man.

“We’ve got young players making their introduction on a very big stage, one of the biggest stages in football. Not many people have the privilege of playing in front of 38,000 people.

“To make your entrance on a stage like this, I don’t think people appreciate how hard that is. I did it with more than 100 league games under my belt and struggled.

“These kids are coming in without that experience and sometimes stepping out is a win for them. They are going to learn and develop.

“Take Abdoullah Ba for example, the other day he gave the ball away a couple of times and then got an assist. That is some character to do that. He is only going to grow.

“Edouard Michut is putting in some really good performances and he has come a long way. These are their first starts in the Football League and you have got to remember how difficult that is.

“I look at that and say fair play to them. That’s some character to step out and do what they are doing when the judgement is high and there is a lot of pressure.

“I look at those guys and hope they carry on playing, developing, learning and making mistakes. That’s how you learn.”

As football tells us over the years, the right blend of youthfulness and experience usually tends to result in a recipe for success. But it’s a test of character for the senior heads in the squad to help the younger players navigate through the bumps in the road during their careers.

With the expectation increasingly growing at the Club, the hurdles could only become bigger for those who are just starting out as O’Nien only knows too well.

Speaking about overcoming those hurdles, he added: “That crowd has groaned many times at the amount of passes I’ve given away but it’s how I learn. It’s my driving force to become better.

“Instead of focusing on the moments, I focus on where I’ve broke down in my mechanics, where I’ve gone wrong. It’s easier when you get older because you get better at learning and get better with your judgement.

“It’s hard for younger players and that is important for us senior players to take them through the process. It’s something I didn’t learn about for a while now. Go and make mistakes. Do you know why? Because it makes you a better player.

“Look at Dan Neil. He’s made a few mistakes and look at the player he’s turned into over the years. He is one of the first names on the team sheets.

“There is not one player out there who has made mistakes. You just hope that when you make mistakes, your team backs you up.

“You look at Lynden Gooch as an example (against Luton Town). He comes on and he sets the example like he’s always done. We’ve got a really nice balance and that’s why it’s important that I’ve got to step up and really help these boys.”

Once the international break comes to an end, O’Nien and the Lads return to competitive league action on a Friday night when they make the trip to Burnley.

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