The Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner has insisted he is happy on Wearside after months of speculation that he could leave the club.
Former manager Steve Bruce revealed earlier in the season that his summer signing from Birmingham was struggling to settle in the North-east and successor Martin O'Neill has since spoken to the player about his situation.
However, Gardner, while admitting he found the going tough at the start of the campaign, is adamant he is now enjoying life at the Stadium of Light. The 25-year-old said: "You need a settled team, you have players knowing what they are doing and at the start of the season, to be honest, players did not know what they were doing – I certainly didn't.
"I was not the same player I am now and I was last season. Maybe that was me getting settled, but as I say I am settled now and we are ready. I don't know where the talk is coming from because I have never come out and said anything. It was hard at the start, but I'm enjoying it now. Playing every week has made a difference and I do feel happy now."
Gardner will be even happier on Sunday afternoon if the Black Cats can return from their derby trip to Newcastle with another three points banked. Sunderland suffered the disappointment of losing 1-0 to their arch-rivals on Wearside in August, and revenge will be very much on their minds at a stadium where they were routed 5-1 last season.
Gardner said: "August's derby was the second game of the season and, for some of the lads, it was only our second game properly together. We were unlucky not to win the game – it could have gone either way.
"There is a third of the season left and we are sky-high in confidence. Newcastle will be sky-high in confidence too, so let's have it!"
The Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, will keep his fingers crossed that his big-money January signing Papiss Cissé will recover in time to take his place in the team for the derby. Cissé has made three appearances for the club after returning from the African Cup of Nations, and has scored in each of his two home games, a 2-1 win over Aston Villa, in which his strike clinched the points, and Saturday's disappointing draw against Wolves.
Pardew is hopeful his partnership with fellow Senegal international Demba Ba, who has 16 goals this season, will help Newcastle maintain their challenge for a top-six finish.