FEW epitomise the turnaround at Sunderland this season better than Craig Gardner.
When Steve Bruce was saying his goodbyes, the 25-year-old midfielder looked a waste of £6m.
Signed in the summer from Birmingham City to score goals, he had just one. “Homesick” in the words of his departing manager, Gardner had not started a game since October 1, never mind influenced one.
Now the boy from Solihull is a key figure. He may have only two more – spectacular – goals, but has become a regular, even filling in effectively at right-back.
Just being given his opportunity has been the main difference, according to Gardner, who has been spurred on by Sunderland’s fervent fans – most notably the one leaping around the technical area.
When Martin O’Neill is fighting your corner – almost literally at times as Newcastle United’s bench goaded him last week – it must be hard not to give everything.
Gardner said: It is like he is still playing the game, not just in the changing room and on the touchline.
“If you ever need any support, all you have to do is look to the touchline and he is there jumping up and down, kicking every ball, fighting your corner. That is exactly what you want.
“On Sunday, we had (Stéphane) Sessègnon sent off with more than half an hour to go.
“The lads are thinking, ‘we need to do this’ and you see the gaffer jumping up and down, buzzing about. That spurs you on.” To hear a Sunderland player gush about O’Neill is normal, but Gardner is someone the Ulsterman sold at Aston Villa.
He added: “Yeah, but he sold me because I needed first-team football. Not being big-headed, but I was too good to play in the reserves and what happens after that?
“You get forgotten about and drop down two divisions. No disrespect to the Championship or League One, but I did not want to play there, I wanted to be a Premier League footballer. I had that opportunity with Birmingham.
“I did well there, the opportunity to move to Sunderland came up and I could not turn that down. Look at the players in front of me – Downing, Milner, Ashley Young, Barry, all England internationals.
“I was only 22 so I could not exactly knock the door down and say, ‘You had better drop Gareth Barry or someone’ because that would have made me look like an idiot. I was patient and I learnt a lot but I have moved on and now I am playing well.”
Well enough to win over the sceptics on the Stadium of Light terraces. He added: “That is because I am a winner, not a loser, and I am not a quitte.
“I like to work hard for the team, like to put my body on the line, like to score goals.
“The way the supporters have been with me has been brilliant – with the team, especially on Sunday.
“How many of our fans? Two, three thousand?
“There were 50,000 Newcastle fans and the whole game all you could hear were the Sunderland fans.
“When Newcastle fans are booing you and chucking stuff at you, all you need to do is look on the touchline and see the gaffer or look up and see the Sunderland fans and that is why you dig deep for them.
“Occasions like that make you realise what North East football is all about.
“I was warned how passionate it was and that is really what sold it to me.
“I don’t mean ‘warned’ in a bad way, more ‘you had better be ready for this’.
“If you are playing badly, they will tell you but they will also tell you if you are playing well.”
Gardner is philosophical about his slow start, continuing to insist it was more about a lack of games than homesickness.
He sad: “I could not expect, after the start I had, to come straight into the team.
““I believe you need to work hard to get in the team and I worked my socks off in training day in, day out. Now I am reaping the rewards.
“I went to see Steve Bruce but I never came out and said I was homesick. I
“It was more a case of finding it hard to settle.
“I did miss home but I was not moaning about it. I was moaning about needing to play football to settle me.
“What was the point in training five days a week and then sitting on the bench? I could have gone somewhere else to do that.
“I think it got blown up a bit, to be honest.
“Now we are flying high and just need to keep going. We have a massive game tomorrow and a bigger game after that at Everton.”
As if to prove how happy he is, Gardner is already talking about next season.
He added: “If the gaffer brings in quality players again, the fans deserve it.
“They are mad about their football and if I have to work even harder to get into the team I am willing to do it.
“We need to give the fans something to cheer about.”