Gardner fights for his second chance playing for O'Neill
Sunderland midfielder is blossoming under the manager who allowed him to leave Villa Park
There is a theme to Craig Gardner, albeit one delivered with a smile and a quick anecdote. It is about fighting for a career, for a new club, to win over a manager at the second attempt and to emerge from a raucous family where he grew up with five brothers.
It is why Gardner, the 25-year-old Sunderland midfielder, helps fund a boxing club back in the Midlands. He likes fighting; watching it in the ring, embracing it when six Gardners go mad in his parents' garden and finding the courage to turn around a difficult start as a big-money signing at the Stadium of Light, when much was made of missing his family.
"I went to see Steve Bruce and we had a chat but I never came out and said I was homesick,"said Gardner. "Did he [Bruce] say it? I dunno. It wasn't homesickness, it was more a case of me finding it hard to settle. Yeah, I did miss home but I was not moaning about it. I was moaning about needing to play football here to settle me. What was the point in coming up here, training five days a week and then sitting on the bench? I came up here to play games. Yes, I did have a price tag on my head but I wanted to play games.
"I played for Birmingham last year and scored 10 goals. I am an attacking midfielder and I have come here because I want to do the same thing and it was hard. "
The fact that Martin O'Neill has now replaced Bruce as manager at Sunderland has been a key factor in Gardner's emergence as a midfielder who justifies his £5m price-tag.
Gardner started his career at Aston Villa but O'Neill allowed him to leave in 2010 to find first-team football. However, Gardner is not holding that against him. He is a better player having gained that experience, at Birmingham, and O'Neill is back in the type of job he does well – getting the best out of underdogs. "If you ever need any support, all you have to do is look to the touchline and he's there jumping up and down, kicking every ball, fighting your corner and that's exactly what you want," Gardner adds.
"You need a manager like that if you are finding it tough on the pitch. On Sunday [against Newcastle] we got Stéphane Sessègnon sent off with more than half an hour to go. You look at the touchline and you see the gaffer jumping up and down, buzzing about and that is what spurs you on. I'm a winner and I'm not a quitter. Newcastle fans are booing you and chucking stuff at you in the derby and all you need to do is look on the gaffer.
"He sold me because I needed first-team football. I was in a position where I thought to myself I was good enough to play regularly in the Premier League. Not being big-headed, I was too good to play in the reserves and I did not want to be stuck there because what happens after that?
"I wanted to be a Premier League footballer and I got that opportunity with Birmingham which was a great move for me. I did well there and then the opportunity to move to Sunderland came up and I could not turn that down. Look at the players who were in front of me [at Villa]: Downing, Milner, Ashley Young, Barry, all England internationals."
Then there is the fighting. First, in the shape of Eastside Boxing club in Birmingham. "I help fund them. There are some quality lads there and a staff that have built the gym up. It's unbelievable what they've done.
"I'd go to Eastside and speak to them. It's nice to know that sort of people, nice to see young kids who want to get off the street and not get into trouble, drugs or drink: kids that want to do something with their lives."
Then with his brothers, among them another emerging midfielder at Aston Villa, brother Gary.
"I'm one of six brothers. While two were playing football, two were probably fighting in the kitchen. It used to be a madhouse. It still is, actually, because they come from everywhere now, the kids, the grandkids. We still play a bit in the garden, but it's too competitive: they try to kill us!"
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