WHEN Luke O'Nien was taken off after just 45 minutes of his Sunderland debut, he could never have possibly imagined that would be the first of 251 appearances for the Black Cats.

And counting.

Only Lee Cattermole and John O'Shea had reached the 250-game milestone this century on Wearside before O'Nien celebrated the landmark appearance in the recent home win over Stoke City.

And it's a tally that will continue to quickly rise, for O'Nien is as crucial to the Sunderland cause as he has ever been since joining from Wycombe Wanderers in the summer of 2018.

It's been quite the rollercoaster ride for the 29-year-old over the course of the last six years. He's both endured and enjoyed play-off and cup final heartbreak and delight on the pitch; off the pitch, he got married in the region and his two young children were born in the North East.

O'Nien reflects on his time at Sunderland so far with pride but this is by no means the end of his story and there's one box he's still desperate to tick.

"My journey has been great," said the defender, whose current contract runs until the summer of 2026.

"I've ticked a lot of goals off but there's still a long way to go. I want to get to the Premier League and I want to do it with this club, there's a lot of work to do between then and now. We got close last year, we're in a good position this year. The main target is to get promotion."

O'Nien wasn't aware he was about to clock up his 250th appearance until he was told about it just prior to the Stoke game.

"It feels pretty surreal. I remember my first like it was yesterday so to be on 250, it's something I can't even say I dreamed of as a kid because I didn't even think it was imaginable," he said, in conversation with the club's website.

"I'm very proud. There are a lot of people who have helped me get to this number. A big shout out to my family, they've been my biggest supporters since day one.

"It's been a good journey so far. I've loved it. I've had two kids in the North East, got married here.

"As well as what we've achieved on the pitch, there have been the losses, the cup finals, spending as much time as we did in League One. Those moments aren't the highest moments but they are some of the reasons I'm still here. How long I lasted on my debut, even though those moments are difficult, they're the ones I've extracted the most learnings from.

"When you come here you have to learn on fast forward, it's a club that needs instant success. The good and bad all come together to make a really nice story and something I'm dead proud of.

"I was talking about it with my wife yesterday, she's been one of my biggest supporters. My little girl had her first steps on the pitch and my little man isn't too far away either. A lot has happened in the North East, I'm dead proud to have pulled the shirt on once, never mind 250 times.

"I know so many people watching would do anything to be in that situation. I would never take that for granted, every single appearance I make sure I give my all because I know every single person would up here. I don't always get it right but I can promise you I'll always work as hard as I can and train as hard as I can to put in the best performance I can."


It's fitting for O'Nien that he's joined Cattermole in reaching 250 appearances for the Black Cats, for it's the former Sunderland captain and midfielder who helped him settle when he endured something of an uncertain start on Wearside.

"He was one of the biggest reasons I settled at the club," says O'Nien.

"It's well documented I got off to a tough start. He was a consistent voice in what I needed to do to settle here. Bally (Kevin Ball) as well. They were very important to me. To be mentioned in the same sentence as them (Cattermole and O'Shea), it's a privilege and an honour."

O'Nien's unwavering commitment to the Sunderland cause has ensured he's formed a strong bond with the club's supporters.

"The relationship I've got with the fans is incredible," he says.

"I didn't get off to a flying start and a few people did let me know that on social media but equally that's important, that's part and parcel of football.

"What I'm most proud of is when I talk to my kids, my life hasn't always been straight forward, when you do have tough moments, it's more important how you react as a person.

"A lot of people have backed me and given me time to settle and incredible support. I feel the best way I can reciprocate that is continuing to put in the best performances I can; being a good teammate and friend and I'll try to continue to do that every single day.

"As a club, we all pull in the same direction and the most important thing is you leave your shirt and number in a better place than when you came in."