Luke O’Neill’s burning desire to prove himself meant that he had plenty of loan spells during his early career.
Now aged 27 and one of the senior members of our current squad, the summer signing from Gillingham said that his appetite for the game hasn’t diminished – and the lure of being a big part of Wimbledon’s plans tempted him here. Luke developed his game at Leicester City and Burnley, but now it's the challenge of pushing The Dons forward and playing in a new stadium that really excites him.
For those supporters that missed it, Luke’s full interview that featured in the Rotherham programme is reproduced below.
Luke O’Neill has never been a player who has taken the easy option in his football career, and there was further evidence of that when he decided to turn down a new contract at Gillingham.
After two seasons with the Kent club and 90 appearances in which he earned a reputation as one of the best attacking full-backs in League One, Luke could have stayed put, but at this stage of his career he is seeking a new challenge. Despite interest shown by other clubs in our division, he decided that a move to AFC Wimbledon would meet his ambitions.
“I really enjoyed my time at Gillingham as I played 90 games for them, but I needed a new challenge,” Luke told us earlier this week. “It felt like there was a bit of a standstill at the club, that there was no ambition there. Obviously, the people at the top decided to get rid of Steve Lovell. I was never staying there, even though they offered me a contract. I was also looking to move a bit closer to home. I did have a couple of other options to go to other clubs in this division, but I wanted to come here, and I’m happy to be at Wimbledon.
“Once I met with the manager I knew straight away that I wanted to come here. He laid out what he wanted from me and said I’d be a big part of the team. That’s always great to hear – and I feel I will be a big part of the team, so I can’t wait to get going!
“The manager made me aware of the situation with the club moving to a new stadium. That’s another incentive, and it will be brilliant for the club when it happens. Hopefully, Wimbledon can get another promotion while I’m here as well. When I’ve played here before, the fans have been brilliant. They’re always onside in terms of getting behind their team, and I just can’t wait to get going and start the new season.”
Luke’s burning desire to go out and play games has resulted in plenty of loan spells during his career, starting when he joined Tranmere Rovers at the age of 18. He had made his first-team debut for Leicester City, and now he wanted to play regular football as soon as possible.
“I trained with the first team at Leicester when I was a 15 or 16. It was a lot to take in at that age, and I made my first-team debut against Hartlepool in the Football League Trophy when Nigel Pearson was manager. He was the one who had given me a three-year contract. I moved to Leicester when I was 16 and I loved it as a place – plus I met my partner there as well. I had a good time there and I still go back quite often now. I have a lot of friends in Leicester and I still follow the club. It was great for them to win the Premier League.
“I needed to go out and play men’s football when I was at Leicester, though. My first loan was at Tranmere Rovers, when I was 18. If you stay and play U21s football it’s not the same – you don’t get the same level of competitiveness. I went out to learn the game properly at a young age. I’ve played for quite a few teams, so I like to think that I’ve got quite a lot of experience.
“I’m one of those players who wants to play. When I was at Burnley I wasn’t really playing. In my first year I was there I was on the bench, but I wanted to be up there playing. I don’t want to sit around and just watch. Touch wood, I’ve not really had serious injuries in my career so far. For me, the loan spells were good because I was going out on loan and playing games and I got more experience, so that worked out well.
“It’s hard when you’re a young boy going out on loan. You don’t know anyone, but you learn a lot as a person. People have asked me how I’ve settled in here, and it’s been easy as I knew a few of the boys here already. The lads have been brilliant. I think I’ve fitted in well, and I can’t wait to get started.”
After leaving Leicester City, Luke had one season at Mansfield Town before making the switch to Burnley. It’s understandable that he failed to make regular appearances at Turf Moor with current Atlético Madrid and England international Kieran Trippier the automatic choice for the right-back berth. However, Luke believes that what he learned at Burnley has been of great benefit to his career.
“I learned a lot from my time there, particularly with Kieran as the first-choice right-back. He’s one of those full-backs that likes to get forward as well, and what I learned at Burnley helped me in terms of going forward in my career. It didn’t quite work out as well as I hoped it would, but I have no regrets. Eddie Howe brought me in, and he was brilliant to work for, but so too was Sean Dyche. I can’t say a bad word about my time there.”
Born in Slough and raised in Wokingham, Luke was snapped up by Reading as a seven-year-old – and he’s not one of those footballers who ever contemplated an alternative career.
“When I was at school, I was always told that I needed a back-up plan and another option in case football didn’t work out. But I always felt that I would be a footballer, and I’m very grateful that it worked out that way.
“I started my career at Reading when I was seven. I was spotted playing for Wokingham Town – my family was living in Wokingham at the time. I was at Reading for about three or four years, and then my parents moved to Northampton. Brendan Rodgers was in charge of the academy at the time, and he said that I could come back, but at that age you’re only allowed to do a certain amount of travelling. However, Reading were speaking to Leicester, so I signed for them. I did a one-year scholarship there and three years as a pro. My parents have played a massive part in my career, taking me everywhere to play football as a young boy, and my partner has been brilliant as well.”
Luke became a favourite with Gills supporters during his two seasons in Kent, with his attacking play and free-kicks earning him plenty of adulation. It’s something he’s aiming to replicate here – and he certainly doesn’t feel the pressure of taking set-pieces in big-game situations!
“I don’t practise them too much, but I feel I’ve developed that ability over the years to whip in a ball from the wing and take free-kicks. I enjoy it as I like taking free-kicks and corners – and even the odd penalty as well. I trust my ability to deliver a good free-kick. I don’t fear the pressure, I embrace it, and hopefully I can score a few next season. The free-kick I scored at Luton last season is probably my best one, but there was a good one against Burton at home too. To be fair, I’ve scored quite a few free-kicks.
“I’ve always liked to get forward and join in with the attacking play. I try to get in as many crosses as I can, plus assists and goals, to help the team. Hopefully, that will continue here and I can score a few more at Wimbledon. As a young boy I played in central midfield, but then I got moved to right-back and I’ve never looked back since. I can play as a centre-half as well, but first and foremost I want to play as a right-back.
“I want to play as many games as I can and help the team to push up the table, to build on the form that the team showed in the second half of last season. The boys think we can do a lot better than last season, and hopefully I can carry on from where I left off last season in terms of my own performances.”