CRAIG Gardner is sat in O’Neill’s office wearing a mischievous smile.
He has been here before, usually being disarmed by the rapier wit of his manager – who has the happy knack of retaining the affection of his players despite his penchant for cutting them off at the knees with a snappy one-liner.
Lee Cattermole got ‘the treatment’ in an open Press conference last week, when the Sunderland boss admitted that the midfielder will probably never grow up.
And Gardner remembers when he was subject to it, being subtly reminded that he was living in the North East and not Beirut when he yearned for his friends and family in Birmingham.
This time Gardner is happy. Contented with life in the North East and delighted that he is playing regularly, there is a spring in his step as he contemplates the next assignment in Sunderland’s tricky start to the season.
First, a bit of context. The O’Neill in question here is Biddick Hall Junior School’s deputy headteacher Jenny, her office having been requisitioned for Gardner to talk football after an afternoon spent working with the club’s renowned Foundation.
Gardner was in South Tyneside to lend his support to the ‘Family Learning through Football’ scheme that promotes learning for parents over two-hour bite-sized sessions.
Being back in school was a bit of an uneasy experience for Gardner, and not just because a few of the fathers in the classroom were dyed-in-the-wool Newcastle United supporters.
“It was a bit weird,” he admits. “To be honest, when I was at school I only thought I was going to be a footballer. I wasn’t the brightest at school but it was always in me that I was going to be a footballer. I have real belief that if you really want to do it you will do it.
“More kids should think that. If they want to be a footballer, a singer, a teacher they can do it, it’s just about hard work.”
It helps that Gardner’s current tutor is a bit more appreciative of the dyed-in-the-wool Brummie than his Secondary school teacher used to be.
Gardner’s uncomplicated manner means he is a natural fit for Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland, where respect is rewarded with respect.
One by one players line up to talk of the way he can inspire them, but it is not an unconditional love from a manager who imposes high standards.
“It is well-known in football. Martin O’Neill is someone who knows how to get the best out of you, encouraging them and working them hard in training, getting on to them,” he said.
“He is so experienced, and with his reputation, no one disrespects him. All the players love to come into training and love to be around the place and work hard for him. Taking the mickey, he’ll do it to your face, he doesn’t do it to have a dig at you but to get a positive reaction.
“All the lads have the utmost respect for him, and just as importantly he does for us so we will give everything we have for him. He referees our games sometimes. You wouldn’t want to argue with him when he’s the referee or he’ll just send you on a run!
“He’s just a great manager and his past tells you everything.”
The combination of O’Neill’s alchemy and a string of signings that left Gardner, in his own words, “flipping impressed” should probably already have secured a maiden win for Sunderland.
Something seems to be missing, though. Whether it is the right alignment of players being fit and in-form or simply the weather playing ball, Sunderland are yet to illustrate why they are so confident about bettering last season’s 13th place.
“It’s been stop-start, but if you look at our first three games of the season – if you’d have asked me whether I’d have taken going unbeaten out of Arsenal, Swansea away and Liverpool we’d have taken it,” he said.
“We put in three performances and we haven’t lost. There are still players who are new, we are getting there, we are getting fitter. I’m sure we’ll do fine this year.”
After his initial wobble about moving away from the second city, Gardner is a natural optimist. No wonder.
He has earned some profile beyond Sunderland for taking a personal interest in two families stricken by misfortune in the Midlands.
Through a chance meeting in the food court at Selfridges in Birmingham he ended up striking a friendship with the family of a young boy who required a £500 therapeutic chair – an aid that he later paid for. For another, he is providing a shoulder to cry on as their son Charlie undergoes a second bout of chemotherapy.
It is a side of football that many don’t see. Gardner argues that is for a reason.
“Footballers do a lot of stuff all the time, but when they do something little that’s bad it gets blown up, I don’t know why,” he said.
“A lot of footballers that do things don’t want it to come out. That’s like me, I didn’t want this to come out. I hate doing things for the publicity.”
What Gardner would accept accolades for is hitting the top-eight target set for the club by Ellis Short in the summer. It is do-able, the midfielder insists.
“We definitely want to finish higher than last season,” he said.
“We want to finish in the top 10, even top eight and push on from there. I think we’re capable of it, with the squad and the manager we’ve got.”