8:00am Wednesday 27th June 2012
By Scott Wilson
HE arrived with a reputation as a free-scoring midfielder, but scored just three goals as he was asked to play in a host of positions including right and left-back.
Little wonder, then, that as he looks ahead to his second season in Sunderland colours, Craig Gardner is hoping to turn back the clock.
"I came here as an attacking midfielder, and I don't know what I ended up as," said the 25-year-old, who cost £6m when he left Birmingham City last summer. "I played every position bar keeper.
"The first half of last season didn't do me any favours as I wasn't picked by Steve Bruce. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind playing anywhere as I just want to get into the team, but I feel like an attacking midfielder.
"I feel I am a goalscoring midfielder and for me next season, I want to get into double figures again, like I did the previous season at Birmingham."
Billed as one of Bruce's flagship signings last summer, Gardner struggled to live up to the reputation he established for himself during Birmingham's relegation campaign.
He barely featured under the manager that signed him, with stories emerging suggesting he was homesick and angling for a return to the Midlands.
There was an element of truth to the tales, although Gardner insists he never explicitly asked for a move, but the arrival of Martin O'Neill, who had previously worked with him at Aston Villa, helped smooth the situation.
O'Neill started with Gardner in 15 of his side's final 16 matches - the only absence was enforced as the midfielder was sent off in the closing stages of April's draw at Villa Park - and increased on-field involvement resulted in greater contentment away from the field of play.
As a result, there is no talk of Gardner leaving the Stadium of Light this summer, something that pleases the Solihull-born schemer.
"I like it up here," said Gardner. "I have never once come out and said I didn't like it. I did say I found it hard and I'll admit that. It was hard."At the start, when I first moved here, it was a bit of a reality check for me. I had moved away from Birmingham, where I have always been, but I like it here now.
"Martin O'Neill said it was the North-East not the Middle East, which was quite funny. I can take jokes like that on the chin, but I have wised up to the situation now and I really enjoy it now. The lads have really helped me along and I am loving it here."
Gardner is also enjoying his summer break, although he insists the days of players completely shutting down for a couple of months are long gone.
The fitness work continues, ensuring Sunderland's players should be in decent condition when they return for the start of pre-season training next month.
"It's nice to have a good break, but it's also great to come back because you start to get a bit bored and I'm dying to get the season started again," said Gardner.
"The summer months are not just about getting eight weeks rest. While it is important to recharge your batteries, it's also important to put in some hard work as well so that when you come back you hit the ground running and you are properly fit for the start of the new season.
"I've kept myself ticking over. I had two or three weeks of complete rest but I've started running now and I'll be peaking by the start of the season.
"It's a massive season for the club. There are a lot of new things happening and the players are very proud to wear the Sunderland shirt.
"There are loads of opportunities available to the players next season. Hopefully, we will also bring in two or three new faces and push on next year."
© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group