BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Luke O’Neill is aiming to finish top of the assists charts for AFC Wimbledon.
The attacking right-back used to be on set-piece duties at previous club Gillingham – aiding him in providing a supply line.
O’Neill has four assists in 13 League One matches for the Dons, who he joined on a two-year contract in the summer, along with two goals.
The former Leicester youngster – who was also part of Burnley’s Championship promotion-winning squad – set up Joe Pigott’s heading home in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Doncaster in the FA Cup.
And the 28-year-old had marked his return from a month out with a grade two tear of his soleus muscle by being the provider for Kwesi Appiah’s 90th-minute equaliser against Lincoln City in the fixture before that.
O’Neill produced 14 assists in 90 matches for the Gills. He had the same total in half that amount of games for Mansfield Town in the Conference.
“That is definitely my little personal thing [to finish top of Wimbledon’s assists],” said O’Neill. “At my last club I probably took a little more of the set-pieces, but we’ve got other players here who can do that as well.
“If I can get an assist it is better for me and better for the team as well.
“I’m just glad to be back out there after the last month with my calf – it was the muscle just under it. I’d felt it in training but thought it was a dead leg or tightness. I played against Peterborough when I probably shouldn’t have and then the day after I couldn’t walk on it.
“I’m fit anyway and have played enough games this season to come straight back in. Some of the boys might need a little mini pre-season or a few reserve matches. But I felt good.”
O’Neill signed for Wimbledon on July 4 – Toby Sibbick’s transfer to Barnsley opening up a vacancy on that side of the backline.
The Slough-born defender cited a lack of ambition by Gillingham when he turned down a new deal in Kent.
“Steve Lovell was the manager at the time and about three weeks before the end of the season he said that he wanted to offer me another contract,” explained O’Neill. “But I wanted to look at my options. That’s why I didn’t play the last game of the season at Blackpool, they knew I wasn’t going to be staying and that I didn’t want to get injured.
“I felt I needed a new challenge. I had quite a few clubs up north interested but I’ve got a family – two kids and a missus. My little one is coming up for nine and is in school – I didn’t really want to be moving up and down the country.
“I’ve lived up north before but financially things had to be right for all of us. Wimbledon was a no-brainer. I’m coming to a club which wants to build and is going into a new stadium as well.
“I’m 28 and some people say this is the peak period of your career. I want to play at the highest level and I know I can play higher, but it’s a matter of opinions. Hopefully I can do that with AFC Wimbledon in the future.”
O’Neill made his debut for Leicester in the EFL Trophy in September 2008, not long after signing a three-year professional contract.
The Foxes got promoted to the Championship under Nigel Pearson.
“He told me to make sure I was ready – that I was going to play a big part – but just before we came back to pre-season he went to Hull. Paulo Sousa came in and it just didn’t work out.
“Sven-Goran Eriksson was brilliant. He pulled me at the end of my contract and said: ‘I could offer you another year, but you’re not going to be playing – the best thing is to go out and play’.”
O’Neill heeded the Swede’s advice – declining interest from Notts County – and his displays for the Stags saw him join Eddie Howe’s Burnley for an undisclosed fee in the summer of 2012. Cardiff and Birmingham had also been linked.
“Kieran Trippier was ahead of me – and he was brilliant,” said O’Neill. “I went there because he was supposed to be leaving, but that didn’t happen until later on.
“We became a Premier League club under Sean Dyche and I haven’t got a bad word to say about him.
“My first year there I was on the bench a lot in the Championship. But when they got into the Premier League they brought in new players, it happens.”
O’Neill has been used to being a first-team regular since leaving Turf Moor and recently passed the 250-game milestone.
“I get down when I’m not playing,” he said. “I’m loving my time at Wimbledon.”
PICTURE BY PAUL EDWARDS