CRAIG GARDNER is ready to make way for fit-again right-back Phil Bardsley and return to his midfield roots this weekend.
Gardner has started every game for Sunderland this season as a makeshift full-back after Bardsley was forced to undergo surgery on an ankle problem sustained on only the second day of pre-season training.
But Bardsley was back on the bench for last weekend’s Wear-Tyne derby after two outings for Sunderland’s Under-21s since returning to full fitness.
Black Cats boss Martin O’Neill ultimately decided against using the Scotland international against Newcastle, although with a week’s extra training, the 27-year-old could be handed his return in Saturday’s trip to Stoke City.
And although central midfielder Gardner has shone in Bardsley’s absence, the 25-year-old is keen to revert to his preferred role in the middle of the park.
Gardner told the Echo: “I’m a central midfielder. I like to get forward and score goals – that’s what I enjoy the most.
“But the manager has asked me to play at right-back until Bardo is fit and that’s what I’ve done.
“I’m a central midfielder, but I will play anywhere for the good of the team.”
Gardner was pressed into a brief return to midfield last weekend after O’Neill switched the former Birmingham man with Seb Larsson during the second half as Sunderland chased an equaliser against the 10-man Magpies.
And O’Neill has confirmed he wants Gardner back in the middle of the park to boost Sunderland’s goal threat.
O’Neill said: “Craig has done a very good job at right-back and we’ve needed him to do so while Phil has been out.
“But one thing we have missed while he has been playing at right-back is the goal threat he gives us from midfield.
“I know he wants to play in midfield and as soon as I’m able, I will move him forward again.”
If Bardsley does return at the Britannia Stadium, then Gardner is not the only player vying for a spot in midfield.
Skipper Lee Cattermole is eligible again after a three-match ban and is likely to go straight back into the side, with the 24-year-old a notable absentee during his suspension.
Larsson and Jack Colback – who started the derby together in central midfield – will also hope to keep their spots, while David Vaughan impressed after coming off the bench on Sunday.
It leaves O’Neill with genuine choices over the composition of his midfield, although, with Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Adam Johnson all struggling for form, the Sunderland boss could opt to leave one of his creative trio out at the Britannia.