BRITAIN’S Golden summer has cast a long shadow over the Premier League. The humble heroes of our Olympic and Paralympic teams swept a nation off their feet, beguiling us with their modesty as they conquered the world during London’s terrific summer.
Then in the wee hours of Tuesday morning Andy Murray ended nearly a century of hurt by winning the US Open – and celebrated with a $6 lemon soda.
Inevitably, their hard work and dedication has been used as a stick to beat the protagonists of our national game – who are often characterised as fame-hungry, vain and motivated by money.
The reality, in the vast majority of cases, is quite different. For while some professional footballers singularly fail to grasp the responsibilities of a life lived in the spotlight, plenty of others are quietly using their wealth and profile to make a difference.
Nowhere is that more apparent than Sunderland’s Craig Gardner. On a quiet Tuesday morning before training, we arrived to talk about the vagaries of a midfielder playing right-back and the weekend meeting with Liverpool.
But we end up talking about a young family that Gardner had befriended three years ago whose young son’s leukaemia has just returned.
It has clearly affected the midfielder, who has used his Twitter account to try and raise awareness of the young boy’s fight against cancer.
It is not the first time that Gardner – a dyed in the wool Brummie who admits to feeling homesick when he first moved to the North East – has displayed his charitable side.
He made headlines last season after buying a special £500 chair for two-year-old Danyl Brough, a severely disabled boy whose parents he got speaking to by chance in a restaurant in Birmingham.
It is put to him that this is the side of the game that often goes unnoted and Gardner’s response is typically modest.
“There are lads who do things for charity and do good things but you don’t do it for publicity,” he said.
“That’s not me, to be honest, I don’t do it for the fame or to show what I’m all about. I just think its the way you’re brought up.
“With buying that chair, it came from when we were sat in a restaurant and there was a young family next to us. My little daughter was looking, she’s really nosey as it is, and I asked her what she was looking at.
“There was a little lad who was being fed through a tube and me and my wife were talking to the mum and dad and they said he had CHARGE disease, which means he goes to physio one hour a week and he gets this special chair which is where he feels comfortable and he can sit up.
“I asked why the NHS hadn’t done anything, and they were like ‘Craig, it doesn’t work like that.’ I said ‘You’re joking, there must be something – why don’t you buy the chair?’ and they had no money – it was £5-600.
“I got up to go to the cash machine but they said I couldn’t do it, and I said I wanted to help. They burst into tears – it was horrible.
“But the kid’s got the chair now, everybody’s happy and we get emails with pictures and we all keep in touch. It’s brilliant. A lad with such a disease to be so happy, it’s mad.
“There’s another lad, baby Charlie, who I went to see three years ago when I was at Birmingham, he’d just been diagnosed with leukaemia. I kept in touch with him and he’d just got the all-clear, then I spoke to his mum yesterday.
“He’s only three or four and his mum took him to the doctors, he’d been sleeping a lot but the doctors said it was just a fever. His mum disagreed and got a second opinion and he’s been diagnosed with leukaemia again.
“I was talking to the mum, you can follow them on twitter (@CordsForLife), it’s so horrible. He’s so happy on the phone but he doesn’t know. It’s really horrible and I just wish them all the best.”
It will not come as a surprise that Gardner has a healthy sense of perspective about the problems that brought his career to a crossroads last year.
Struggling to cope with life in a new city, the Sunderland star became disenchanted and began to lose interest and let his own levels drop. At one point, he confesses, he got into a routine of wanting to finish training and head straight back home.
“I was buzzing for the move but as time went on I wasn’t playing, I was missing home and it was tough, I can’t lie,” he said.
“To be honest, when I first came in – and I know it sounds bad – but I just wanted to finish training and get home. It’s not me at all.
“So I spoke to my family, I spoke to my wife and they all said “get a grip”. One day I woke up and I thought ‘You know what, I’m here. I’ve got to live with it’.
“It was like a light switched on and from then on in I’ve never looked back. I’ve just kept going forward and forward, and now I’m playing I’m happy.
“I’ve done a total 180. I love it here now. I wish I’d got my head down sooner because I’ve wasted four or five months just sitting on the bench.
“It’s over now, I’m playing, it’s a brilliant club – the facilities, the staff, the players, the fans – everybody here is friendly and have made me feel welcome.
“The fans have been brilliant with me and I want to thank them all for sticking by me. They’re top-class fans who are passionate about the game.”