SUNDERLAND manager Martin O’Neill has heaped warm praise on utility man Craig Gardner for his performances this season as an emergency right-back.
But the Irishman still sees the player as a goalscoring midfielder.
Gardner has been drafted in to what for him is a less familiar position in place of the injured Phil Bardsley.
The latter has yet to feature this season following ankle surgery in early August.
And the 25-year-old Gardner has been one of Sunderland’s most consistent performers this season, although his passing play has been noticeably missed in the midfield area.
The former Aston Villa man has played right-back before for O’Neill, when the two men worked together in the Midlands, and always when injuries have struck.
And Gardner’s ability to fill in so effortlessly and without complaint when required has put him in his manager’s good books.
O’Neill said: “Craig has done very, very well indeed as he is essentially a midfield player.
“I probably didn’t expect Phil to be out for the length of time that he has been.
“He injured himself in the first three days of pre-season training. Craig has filled in there and he has done brilliantly for us, really brilliantly, and I couldn’t really ask for any more.
“Craig has learned that position. He did fill in on occasions at Aston Villa there, but he is a stronger player now and I think he is a better player now.
“He is less daunted by it, too. He always felt that wingers were coming at him left, right and centre. Now he is capable of coping with it.”
Gardner has turned around his career on Wearside, which at one point looked to be heading for a premature end as he found it difficult to settle in the North East, away from his Birmingham roots.
He was a £6million Steve Bruce signing in the summer of 2011, when he moved from Birmingham City, but it was the arrival of O’Neill that seemed to settle him down and he has spoken recently about his affection for life at Sunderland.
Bardsley has featured in a close doors game and managed 75 minutes in an under-21 match at Stoke on Monday night, something that will please O’Neill who would be tempted to take a risk with the Scotland international in the derby match next Sunday.
That would push the in-form Gardner into a more advanced role, where his manager believes he can do far more damage.
O’Neill said: “Craig is a midfield player and he is capable of scoring goals from midfield, that’s one of his big strengths.
“He is one of the players capable of scoring double figures for us in the Premier League.
“He has got a fantastic shot with no back-lift. He hits the ball as hard as anybody in the Premier League and obviously, the closer he is to goal, the better chance he has of doing that, outside free-kicks and things like that.
“But the very fact that he can play in a number of positions is good news for us.”