CRAIG Gardner is aiming to hit double figures from midfield again next season – and finally shed his tag as Sunderland’s Mr Versatile.
Gardner was signed on the back of scoring 10 goals for relegated Birmingham but was lightly used by Steve Bruce, and asked to fill in at right-back by Martin O’Neill for spells in the second half of last season.
That lack of a settled run in the side was compounded by persistent talk of him being homesick – speculation that he has now squashed by insisting he is settled and enjoying life in the North East.
He has put those teething problems behind him though, and intends to take a critical season in his career by the scruff of its neck after spending large parts of the summer working with his brother to keep on top of his fitness.
Although Gardner would never shirk his duties if asked to fill in elsewhere, he hopes his attitude and work-rate will be enough to persuade O’Neill to play him in his preferred position of central midfield. If that happens, he believes he can be among the goals again next term.
He said: “I feel I am a goalscoring midfielder and for me next season I want to get into double figures again, like I did the previous season at Birmingham City.
“The first half of last season didn’t do me any favours as I wasn’t picked by Steve Bruce. I came here as an attacking midfielder and I don’t know what I ended up as. I played every position bar keeper.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind playing anywhere as I just want to get into the team, but I feel like an attacking midfielder.
“If the gaffer asks me to play anywhere I will do. I am the type of person that just wants three points for the club. I’d do anything to achieve that.
“I am sure you get some players who don’t feel that way, but that’s the way I think about it. There are 30 to 40,000 fans out there just wanting to see you do your job, so if I turned my nose up at playing right back what would they think about me?
“You are paid to do a job, so you should do it to the best of your ability and get on with it.”
If Gardner could re-produce his Birmingham form, it would certainly solve a problem for O’Neill – who knows he must improve the Black Cats’ attacking threat next term.
His bullish mood will also be noted by O’Neill, who had to answer a stream of questions about Gardner being unsettled last year. Too much was made of it, the midfielder insists.
“I do like it up here. I have never once come out and said I didn’t like it,” he said.
“I did say I found it hard and I’ll admit that. It was hard. At the start when I first moved here it was a bit of a reality check for me. I had moved away from Birmingham, where I have always been but I like it here now.
“Martin O’Neill said it was the North-east not the Middle East, which was quite funny. I can take jokes like that on the chin because it was funny, but I have wised up to the situation now and I really enjoy it now. The lads have really helped me along and I am loving it here.”
Gardner was speaking at the launch of Sunderland’s new away kit, which will be emblazoned with new sponsors Invest in Africa.
The significant commercial news heralds the beginning of a big summer for the club – and a potentially crucial campaign on the pitch.
“It’s a massive season for the club,” Gardner acknowledges.
“There are a lot of new things happening and the players are very proud to wear the Sunderland shirt. There are loads of opportunities available to the players next season. Hopefully we will also bring in two or three new faces and will push on next year.”