SUNDERLAND might be finding the Premier League tough-going this season but, as Craig Gardner tells Neil Cameron, results are not affecting morale.
IF spirit and togetherness were what decided a football team’s season then Sunderland would be in fine fettle.
The last refuge of any struggling side has always been to get the message out that everyone was pulling in the same direction and that that would get them through the tough times.
It can be nothing more than a smokescreen, of course.
When results go against any side, it tends to bring frustrations to the fore and little splits in harmony appear.
However, it does seem Sunderland can boast a genuinely close dressing room, which, while it does not make up for a lack of world-class player, such as Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez who have blitzed them recently, does help when your back is against the wall.
Craig Gardner, Sunderland’s go-to utility man, is a positive person by nature.
You will never read an interview with him moaning about things being all doom and gloom. He could fine a positive from the darkest situation.
Not that Sunderland are in desperate trouble, they sit in 14th position, but January is going to be the most important month of this campaign.
First of all, Martin O’Neill needs to bring in players, anywhere in the region of three to five, to bolster a team and squad which is weak.
The next four weeks are also a great chance for the team to win games.
West Ham and Swansea at home sandwich a trip to Wigan. They then travel to Reading on February 2.
These are all winnable matches and the run starts with Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup tomorrow afternoon.
Gardner said: “It’s been a tough Christmas period for us as we had to play Manchester City, Tottenham and then Liverpool away.
It’s been tough to have four games in 12 days, but we cannot dwell on the fact we lost and we have to go again.
“There are a lot of positives and the transfer window is open now so maybe the manager will be trying to add to the squad, to bring in some extra strength in depth.
“It would be great if he could. As I say, we need to pick ourselves up regardless of what happens this month.
“I don’t know anything about what the manager intends in the transfer market. None of the players do.
“That’s up to the gaffer. He knows what he is doing, he has been in this position before and is a top-class manager. We all trust him and we are all behind him.
“We have quite a small squad. The closeness of the squad and the atmosphere in the changing room would make you think there were hundreds in there.
“Everyone gets on with everybody. We all have each other’s backs on the pitch as well.
“From the outside we have a small squad, but we all get on with each other and we all stick together.” Sunderland’s problem within the dressing room, and to be fair it is rather important, is a lack of numbers and a bit of quality as well.
It’s not that they are a bad side, but against Tottenham and then at Anfield on Wednesday night, when Liverpool won 3-0, they looked well short of their opponents. Even so, had James McClean taken his excellent chance at 1-0 then it might not have been as difficult an evening.
Gardner added: “When you go behind at Anfield you cannot afford to miss the chances you do get to get back into the game.
“We went back out for the second half and we needed to score that first goal. To concede a third goal so early was a killer blow.
“The lads could have folded, but we stuck in there. It could have been six or seven and we never let it get to that level.
“The fans were brilliant and we needed to keep going for them.”
Sunderland’s priority is, of course, the Premier League, but a FA Cup run would be welcome. Championship Bolton are no great shakes, but they will fancy causing an upset on their own patch.
Gardner can remember last season’s run which took the Wearsiders to a quarter-final replay against Everton, with Arsenal defeated along the way.
A repeat of that or better would, the player hopes, have a positive effect on the league games.
Gardner said: “The FA Cup is massive. It can get your confidence up if you get a good run going.
“It gets the fans buzzing and gets the whole place buzzing if you get in the next round.
“That’s what we want to do because we want to go as far as we can in the competition.
“The gaffer came in last year and the whole place was buzzing with what we did in the FA Cup when we got to the quarter-finals.
“We want to get that buzz back and we are showing signs of doing just that, especially at home. “