MARTIN O’Neill is considering handing Craig Gardner his first start in almost three months in a bid to boost Sunderland’s goal threat at QPR tonight.
Gardner has been restricted to a bit-part role since his £5million summer move from Birmingham City, starting just five times in the Premier League and grabbing a solitary goal.
But O’Neill worked with the 25-year-old during his formative years at Aston Villa and believes he has matured into a goalscoring midfielder capable of timing his runs into the penalty area.
Gardner was under consideration to start against Blackburn in O’Neill’s first game in charge before succumbing to a hamstring injury, but could be included at Loftus Road tonight as Sunderland look to add to their meagre six-goal tally on the road.
O’Neill told the Echo: “I’ve known Craig now for quite some time.
“He has a great shot, can hit the ball with both feet, but what you don’t want is him getting ahead of the game and arriving too early.
“But I think with his experience now of playing at Villa and Birmingham and being able to score those goals, which we all know he is capable of doing, that will help.
“My own view is that each season as an attacking midfield player, Craig Gardner should be thinking of double figures in terms of goals.
“Craig will say his chances have been limited, but he was on for the last 20 minutes at Tottenham and I hope, during the course of the next few weeks. he will get more.
“He has as good a chance of producing for us as anyone else.
“I’ve said before that we can’t just give chances to players for the sake of it. The league is too unforgiving for that.
“But I hope players work themselves in and take the opportunities coming.”
O’Neill has been stressing to his squad the importance of pushing more players into the penalty area.
But the new Black Cats boss wants those at his disposal to think about their runs into opposition territory to find the goals to fire Sunderland away from the bottom three.
“There will be a general encouragement from myself for players to get into the box,” he added.
“But I don’t want players running into the box for the sake of it, just because I’ve said it.
“They need to be intelligent with it and eventually all goalscorers will find a way, either by making a bit of room for themselves, getting to the front post or making a run across players.
“If you want to score badly enough, eventually you will do.”