SOMETIMES, in life, you come to a crossroads where your head is telling you one thing and your heart is saying quite another. For Luke O’Nien, that moment arrived earlier this summer.

With his previous contract at Sunderland having expired, the 26-year-old found himself inundated with offers. Clubs in the Championship wanted to sign him. At least a couple were willing to offer him more money than he had been on at the Stadium of Light. After three solid years of service with the Black Cats, unsuccessfully trying to help lift the club back into the second tier, surely it was time to move on?

And yet somewhere in the back of O’Nien’s mind, a different series of thoughts nagged away. Yes, playing in the Championship would be good, but wouldn’t it be better to do that with Sunderland? A pay rise would be nice, but if an acceptable deal could be agreed with the Black Cats’ new owners, might that not be a worthwhile compromise? Was it really time to sever the bonds that had been established in the previous three seasons? Head or heart? In the end, O’Nien freely admits that the latter won out.

“I think I made it clear in interviews that there were options,” he explained. “My head kind of wanted to take me there, but my heart just kept bringing me back here. You just have to look at the crowds we bring in, Lincoln at home (in the play-offs), and the excitement it brings. The history of the club is something that I wanted to continue to play for, and I will continue to give my all for the club.

“It was a weird off season, but everything gravitated me back towards here. I didn’t want to leave, and I’m just desperate to play in the Championship with this club. They gave me a lot of time to settle here, and I think I owe them to continue to give my all for the club, to get us in the Championship and keep building.”

Like Aiden McGeady, O’Nien signed new terms with the Black Cats. Clearly, loyalty played an important role in his decision. It was not an entirely altruistic act, though, with the former Watford youth product agreeing to put pen to paper once he had listened to Lee Johnson’s plans for rebuilding a side that missed out in the play-offs last season.

That rebuilding process remains ongoing, with a couple of key issues still be addressed ahead of the season opener against Wigan Athletic in less than a fortnight’s time, but O’Nien is optimistic about what the next nine months will have in store.

Promotion is the clearly-stated ambition, as it has been in Sunderland’s three previous seasons in League One. The club has fallen short previously, but O’Nien is confident things will be different this time around.

“Speaking to the gaffer and everyone, the direction is promotion,” he said. “The last few seasons we haven't quite got it. Football isn't as simple as we'd all like it to be, so we learn from the last few seasons.

“We get better and we lay stronger foundations so that when we do go up, we don't come back down again.

"Everyone knows Sunderland is a sleeping giant and it's just a matter of time. Now it's time for the gaffer, the staff and this group of players to make sure that time is now.”

O’Nien will assume a senior leadership role this season – he skippered the side during Saturday’s pre-season win at Harrogate and must have a good chance of claiming the armband on a permanent basis in the next few weeks – and has been particularly impressed with the development of Sunderland’s younger players over the last few weeks.

“We had a good trip away in Scotland,” said O’Nien. “And I think what's clear is how well the young players have done.

"You've got Callum (Doyle) coming through at the back who has been brilliant. He's been brilliant but we can't get too carried away.

“It’s our job to help him, and it’s his job to keep doing what he's doing and make sure he gets that starting shirt. You've got Dan Neil in the middle, Jack Diamond is looking sharp - all the young boys are doing really, really well.”