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Gardner expecting big things to come from O'Neill's Sunderland
HE HAS already witnessed Martin O'Neill's ability to turn around a football club – now Craig Gardner believes his manager can do the same at Sunderland.
Gardner was a young midfielder at Aston Villa when O'Neill took over from David O'Leary in 2006, and within two seasons had secured European football bringing the likes of Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner to Villa Park.
O'Neill has overlooked a summer of improvement at Sunderland, nine months after taking charge at the Stadium of Light, and Gardner – who O'Neill sold to Birmingham City shortly before his 2010 resignation from Villa – believes the signings of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher can be a catalyst to great things on Wearside .
“It reminds me of being at Villa. You sit there and you see Ashley Young, James Milner, John Carew and you think flippin' hell, good players these are,” said 25-year-old Gardner, who will line up for Sunderland on Saturday against Liverpool.
“You think “I'm involved in this.” That's what we want to do, we want to finish high in the league. The fans deserve it. Sunderland have had a yo-yo period but the gaffer is not a yo-yo manager. He wants to finish in the top six, the top eight every season and we can do that here.
“The club is moving forward. It's all about timing - Fletch has come in along with Louis (Saha), Johnno and Carlos (Cuellar). In the changing room they feel settled, they do their normal routines and it feels like they've been here a while.”
Gardner stressed the importance of feeling settled – which is in stark contrast to his own Sunderland career which left him wondering why he had made the move in the first place just over a year ago.
But the midfielder, who has been playing at right-back in place of the injured Phil Bardsley , vowed to stay on Wearside and make a fist of it at Sunderland.
He said: “I spoke to my family, I spoke to my wife and they all said “get a grip”. One day I woke up and I thought “you know what, I'm here. I've got to live with it.” It was like a light switched on and from then on in I've never looked back. I've just kept going forward and forward, and now I'm playing I'm happy.
“I don't know what it was. I was in a bubble and feeling sorry for myself. I decided that this wasn't me. I'm a lad who is always bubbly but I wasn't bubbly, I needed to get myself back. I came in and I was back on form again. I thought that this is where I want to be, got myself fit and I haven't looked back since.
“I'm a born and bred Brummie, I've never been away from Birmingham throughout my career before now and then one day I woke up and I was at Sunderland. It's a long way away. Looking back now, I wish I'd got my head down sooner because I've wasted four or five months just sitting on the bench. It's over now, I'm playing, it's a brilliant club – the facilities, the staff, the players, the fans – everybody here is friendly and have made me feel welcome.
“The fans have been brilliant with me and I want to thank them all for sticking by me. They're top class fans who are passionate about the game.
“It's a big contrast. Being at Birmingham was brilliant, I had a brilliant season there and Sunderland came in for me and I ended up here. I was buzzing for the move but I wasn't playing, I was missing home and it was tough, I'm not going to lie. It was tough.
“But I had to man up. Martin O'Neill came in and I'm happy - it's been worth the journey because I'm playing at a top club with top players and this is a big season because we really want to push on.
To be honest, when I first came in - and I know it sounds bad - but I just wanted to finish training and get home. But that's me missing home really.
“I knew I had to man up and I did a total 180. When Martin came in, I have known him a long time - I think seven or eight years - and that helps. I know what he wants in the dressing room and the pitch and hopefully I can give that to him.”