CRAIG Gardner believes Martin O’Neill is replicating at Sunderland the job he did at Aston Villa when the Midlands club were breathing down the necks of the Champions League sides.
The midfielder was at Villa Park throughout the duration of O’Neill’s time at the club, from 2006-10, when the manager revived a fallen giant.
In his first season, he steered Villa to a respectable 11th, five places higher than their previous finish, and in the following three seasons they finished in sixth place, qualifying for Europe and breaking several club records, including most goals scored in a Premier League campaign.
Gardner remembers those exciting times and says: “Sunderland now reminds me of being at Villa when we were strengthening.
“You sit there and you see Ashley Young, James Milner, John Carew and you think ‘flippin’ hell these are good players. 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.”
Gardner says he is happy just to be part of it and, while attacking central midfield is his preferred position, he is content to be filling in from the start of this season for injured right-back Phil Bardsley.
“Full-backs get a lot of the ball now, so, playing right-back, I’m going to see a lot of it.
“If you’re comfortable on the ball, I think right-back is a comfortable position – unless you come up against wingers who are willing to run at you all the time.
“I’ve had that in the last two games and, without being big-headed, I think that I’ve been comfortable with that.
“I don’t mind where I play.
“That’s the attitude I’ve got and that’s the attitude that most players should have, really.
“As long as you’re in the starting XI, you should be happy with that. That’s the squad we’ve got now.
“We want to win, we want to win for the fans because they turn out for us every week and why should we moan about playing in a different position when they pay money to watch us play?”
Gardner is expected to start at right-back this Saturday against a Liverpool side beset by problems on and off the pitch.
Manager Brendan Rodgers’ early days at Anfield have been dogged by controversy in his transfer dealings, while the team has attracted criticism for their performances and results.
Gardner hopes the Reds are again off-colour this weekend, but he says Sunderland players have to focus on their own performances rather than get distracted by Liverpool’s.
“I don’t know whether it’s a good time to play them or not,” he shrugged.
“I don’t think there’s a good time to play anyone – you’ve got to turn up yourself.
“We certainly turned up against Arsenal and Swansea, but, if Liverpool do the same to us, it’s going to be a tough game. “I think, with home advantage, we’ve got a chance because the supporters will turn up in numbers and that will be an advantage.”