One of the good guys: Craig Gardner cultivates game's better image
The Sunderland midfielder tells Martin Hardy how he is only too well aware that his privileged position gives him an opportunity to help others
"Right everyone, we're going to play the 'Let's be Beans' game!"
Sixteen children jump in the air with delight. A group of parents shake their heads in protestation, unconvincingly.
A Premier League footballer, stood at the back of the group in the Biddick Hall Junior School in South Shields, looks nervous.
"Okay," says Michael Colclough. "Do we all remember what each bean is?"
Craig Gardner casts a worried glance to his side. He clearly doesn't.
"This is the broad bean," says Colclough, a teacher with Sunderland's Foundation of Light, pushing his arms out, as far as they will go. "And this is the jumping bean." Immediately everyone starts bouncing. Then comes the runner bean. Gardner warms to his task, in jeans and a polo shirt, jogging on the spot.
And then the breaking point. The French bean.
"Right, could all the adult men put their left hand on their hip, and their right hand in the air, like a teapot."
A finger is pointed at a Sunderland employee. "I won't forget this."
A tentative hand goes to his side.
"And could you now please say, 'Ooh la la!'"
Gardner crumples, laughing. The Sunderland midfielder becomes inaudible. He seems to say it, but there is too much noise from people having a good time to be sure.
Still, he takes it all, brilliantly in fact, which, by the time you finish reading this, will not come as a surprise.
In June, in the restaurant of the Selfridges department store in Birmingham, Gardner, his wife Alexis, his 16-month old daughter Evie and his youngest daughter Luna, were having lunch.
A table nearby caught the eye of Evie, where Danyl Brough, who is two, was also having his dinner. Danyl has CHARGE syndrome. He is completely deaf, he has a weak heart, suffers mobility problems and cannot eat solid food. Danyl was eating through a tube but was not at the correct chair which would have helped him to sit up straight.
"We were sitting there and my Evie was being nosey, watching Danyl getting fed off a pipe," says Gardner. "We got chatting, my wife Alexis was talking to Sue, that's his nan, and Danyl's mum Leanne. To be fair they didn't know who I was, which was better for me. After they were talking I just said, 'Is there any way I can help?' She must have thought, 'what do you mean you weirdo?' I said, 'I'm lucky enough to in a position to help you.' She said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'I play football, I'd love to help you.'
"I thought I just had to go to the cashpoint and get the money out. I think I offered four times but they didn't want to take it at first. She said, 'No you can't, you have to order the chair.'
"We exchanged emails and numbers and I paid the company for the chair. When he got the chair, it was mad because they were all crying around me. It's about the kid because he struggles enough. Now he is a lot happier, I say a lot happier, but he is still having to go through operations. I asked if there would be a date when he would ever be fine, and she said he's as fine as he ever will be. It's horrible to hear that, do you know what I mean?
"It's horrible for them. I'm not an emotional person. I'm quite strong and hard-faced but I have a soft side to me as well. If I can help in any way, I will, but there's helping and where do you stop?
"For him to be able to sit up just because of a £500 chair that the NHS can't provide for him, I think that's shocking. I said to her, 'why don't you do fund-raising?' because they're on about a new cot because he's too big for his cot. They can't afford the cot. I'll get her a signed shirt, and signed balls and anything to help. Something should be done to help these kids."
Gardner grew up with five brothers in his family home in Solihull. All six would play football in the front room when their parents went out. "While two were playing football, two were probably fighting in the kitchen," he adds. "Mum and dad would clear out for the night and we'd just pile in, it used to be a madhouse."
Football, as he admits, was always where he saw his future. Part of his day back at school is to sit with parents - those who he later plays the beans game with – who are there to understand more what their children go through in their education. Sunderland's Foundation of Light works tirelessly in deprived areas to help educate adults as well as children.
"When I got here it was a bit of an eye-opener, they were all here, my age, and they still want to learn, it's great," he says. "It's good because they've got kids in the classroom next door. It's great because now they can have a bit of banter with them about school. To be honest when I was at school I only thought I was going to be a footballer. I have real belief that if you really want to do it you will do it. More kids should think that. If they want to be a footballer, a singer, a teacher or whatever, they can do it."
He plays the 'Guess Who?' game with parents and is stunned one person does not know who Pele is. He drops in another story about a boy he has helped, one that was again made public without his promptings.
"There's a little kid Charlie, he got diagnosed with a rare type of leukaemia and he was in remission. His mum Fiona sent me pictures because all his hair was growing back.
"We thought we were onto a winner, everyone was buzzing, but then she realised Charlie was sleeping a lot again so she thought something was up and took him to the doctors and the doc said, 'Don't worry it's a fever, you're getting paranoid'.
"She said, 'Listen, I know if my son's all right or not, I want him checked out.' Eventually she got them to check his blood and it had returned. If she had gone home and waited another week or two weeks she could have lost her son.
"Footballers do a lot of stuff all the time, but when they do something little that's bad it gets blown up and they're the bad men. It's a load of bollocks to be honest."
And so then to football. Gardner broke through at Aston Villa when he was just 19, switched to Birmingham City for £3.5m five years later and scored 10 goals from midfield in a side who were relegated.
The 25-year-old moved to the Stadium of Light last summer for £5m. His impact came slowly initially but he has proved immovable from Martin O'Neill's team, be it in his customary central role or as a right back.
"We want to finish in the top 10, even top eight and push on from there. I think we're capable of it, with the squad and the manager we've got.
"I don't mind if people call me a utility player or a makeshift right back, I think that's all cobblers to be honest, you're asked to do a job in a position and you do it. It's just like if you're working in an office and if you're asked to stack a shelf you do it. I'll offer to play anywhere."
Craig Gardner. A decent human bean.
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