SUNDERLAND boss Martin O’Neill admits Craig Gardner’s impressive form at right-back is causing him a “dilemma” over when the Brummie can resume duties in his favoured midfield role.
Gardner’s stand-out performances this season have come in defence, prompting many to question whether the 26-year-old’s long-term future lies as a full-back.
O’Neill first experimented with Gardner at right-back when the pair were together at Aston Villa and he has again used him there for Sunderland, usually when Phil Bardsley has been sidelined.
The Black Catsd manager, along with Gardner himself, have both persistently said so far this season that the former Birmingham City man is best-served as a goal-scoring midfielder.
But although O’Neill says Gardner still has much to learn as a defender, he is beginning to consider whether Sunderland can afford to move the ex-England Under-21 international from the full-back slot.
O’Neill told the Echo: “Craig has gone in there and actually looked pretty comfortable in that position. He’s done brilliantly.
“He played some games there for me before when we were at Aston Villa together and I think he can see the game from that position.
“Eventually, I’m sure, he would feel if he played X number of games for us in midfield, he could get double figures in goals.
“But it’s a bit of a dilemma.
“He knows himself that as a midfield player playing at full-back, there are one or two times where you switch off when you can’t afford to.
“He says himself that he didn’t go with the runner for the second goal at Everton.
“He kept him (Nikica Jelavic) onside and didn’t go in with him and those are moments when you think.
“It’s only a split-second, but if he was a natural full-back, he would probably cover that position.
“But he’s done splendid for us there.”
Bardsley, who is likely to take the place of the ineligible Danny Rose against Spurs today, would have been Sunderland’s first-choice right-back this season if he hadn’t been hampered by injury.
The former Manchester United defender damaged his ankle on only the second day of pre-season training and was sidelined until October.
Bardsley has continued to be hampered by minor niggles since returning to the first-team set-up and remains short of match sharpness.
“I know myself that coming in mid-season and trying to gain that match fitness is so difficult, particularly when it’s stop-start as it has been with Phil,” added O’Neill.
“We lost Phil a couple of days into pre-season, he missed all that and it’s been very difficult for him to squeeze in some proper fitness work during the course of the season.
“That’s always hanging over you, but Craig has filled in their admirably. He’s taken to it very well indeed and has looked accomplished.”