Gardner: Birmingham close to becoming second city's first team

Craig Gardner is the spy who came in from the claret and blue.

As a member of Aston Villa's squad he was a self-confessed "undercover Birmingham City fan". Now playing "the football of my life for the club of my dreams", he aims to halt Villa's run of six successive wins over their neighbours tomorrow – and give Gérard Houllier a torrid introduction to the Second City derby.

The instant effect of Alex McLeish's team breaking Villa's grip on local bragging rights, apart from piling pressure on Houllier, would be to lift them above their rivals in the Premier League. The bigger picture reveals that Birmingham have finished above Villa only once in 35 years, in 2003, but Gardner believes a shift in the balance of power may be imminent.

"We're the underdogs and Villa have been the top team for the past few years," says the 23-year-old attacking midfielder. "But last season we finished really high [ninth] and we're looking to improve on that. Villa are looking over their shoulders now – and so they should be. I'd like them to be the underdogs. It would be amazing to finish above them. Then we could give them back six or seven years of stick."

Gardner comes from a "Bluenose" family and is likely to be the only Brummie in the starting line-ups. Yet as a 19-year-old who progressed through Villa's youth system he helped them beat his boyhood favourites before defecting to St Andrew's in a £3m deal in January. Preparing to return to Villa Park, having appeared there for his new club in their contentious defeat in April, he offered a telling distinction between being thoroughly professional for Villa and a fanatic in the first team at Birmingham.

"When I was a Villa player, being an undercover Birmingham fan, it was my job. Whoever I'm playing for I'll give 110 per cent, but being a Blues fan and playing in this game, I'll give 150 per cent. It's a game I dreamed about playing in. It's massive. I'll be pinching myself in the tunnel before we go out. I'll be thinking: 'This is really happening. Come on, let's do it'.

"It's just another game for the players and the staff – we haven't changed our training regime – but for supporters it's the one they can't wait for. When the fixtures come out, they say, 'When have we got Villa?' It was the first thing I asked. Everywhere you go, you get Villa fans coming up saying, 'You're gonna get beat', and Blues fans telling you, 'Let's do it this time'."

Gardner, whose 18-year-old brother Gary is with Villa, struggled to break into Martin O'Neill's midfield but is thriving under McLeish's management, top-scoring this season with four goals despite a three-match suspension. Ironically, given the sale of James Milner, injuries to Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph plus the suspension of Marc Albrighton, he might have made Houllier's 11 tomorrow. But there are "no regrets" and he will go head to head with two other players who became peripheral under O'Neill, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell.

Villa, who have taken one point from three matches since launching the Houllier era with a derby success at Wolves, are also missing the injured Habib Beye and Gabriel Agbonlahor. However, Stephen Warnock, Luke Young and John Carew return, leaving Gardner under no illusions about the task ahead. "They're a top-class team. Just because they've got players missing we're not going to go there thinking we'll walk all over them. We're going to go out and play as if they have got a full-strength side. Whichever players come in will be good. We just have to get in their faces and make it hard for them."

In the last meeting, Birmingham dominated before succumbing to a fiercely disputed 83rd-minute penalty by Milner. "We've moved on," Gardner insists. "We were upset, but the decision got made. That's football."

McLeish has since recruited striker Nikola Zigic (who is "about nine feet tall" according to Gardner) and midfielder Alexander Hleb, both now showing signs of settling. Come the high noon kick-off, would the Serb and the Belarusian understand the importance of this parochial spat? "They'll know about it by 11 o'clock. They need to give everything but they're honest lads. They'll take a cut for the team and sweat for the team."

Asked whether a 100mph derby might prove a culture shock for Hleb after playing with the purists of Barcelona, Gardner laughs in mock indignation. "Why? Barcelona like to pass the ball and Blues want to pass it now," he says, fan to the fore and tongue tickling cheek. "I think we're as good as Barcelona to be honest."

How the west Midlands rivals match up

Aston Villa

Major trophies: 22 (including one European Cup, seven League titles and seven FA Cups)

Last trophy: Intertoto Cup, 2001

Last derby victory: 25 April, 2010 (1-0, Villa Park)

Have won the last six derby games and 52 of the 118 Second City match-ups overall. They have finished sixth in the Premier League in each of the past three seasons.

Birmingham City

Major trophies: 1 (one League Cup)

Last trophy: Auto Windscreens Shield, 1995

Last derby victory: 20 March 2005 (2-0, St. Andrews')

Last finished above Villa in 2003 and have not beaten them since 2005. Have been relegated from the Premier League twice in the last five seasons, although last season's 9th was their best in 51 years.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn