CRAIG Gardner is not too distraught at missing out on reaching double figures for a second successive season – insisting he has become a more rounded midfielder since moving to Wearside.
Sunderland splashed out £5million on Gardner last summer in a bid to improve the return from their goal-shy midfield after the 25-year-old had netted 10 times for relegated Birmingham.
But Gardner’s fellow arrival from St Andrew’s, Seb Larsson, was the one to boost Sunderland’s goal tally, with the Swede notching on eight occasions compared to the former England U21 international’s haul of three.
Gardner believes he has been thrust into a different role with the Black Cats though and is adding different facets to his game.
He told the Echo: “It’s a great tally from Seb, eight goals in the Premier League for a midfielder is always an impressive total.
“I set myself a target last year of 10 and I got 10. I did the same this year and I haven’t got anywhere near it. But I’m not really that disappointed with my own total, because I’ve come here and played a bit of a different role.
“I’ve had to work on my overall game, whereas last year it was more attacking. I had (Barry) Ferguson and (Lee) Bowyer tucking in from the left and I had the licence to go forward.
“Here I’ve had to play a more measured game and been unlucky with a few chances. I’m trying to be a more rounded player. Before I used to bomb on a lot, now I find myself breaking play up and keeping the ball, passing it and getting more involved in the game.”
The campaign was one of two halves for Gardner, who found himself on the fringes under former boss Steve Bruce and consumed by talk of a return to his native West Midlands.
But since being reunited with his former Aston Villa boss Martin O’Neill, Gardner has become a regular in the starting XI – absent from the side for just one of the final 21 games of the campaign.
“The season started off really disappointingly for me and I didn’t get much football,” he added.
“But I managed to play 18 games on the bounce and I think I’ve done really well.
“It’s kicked off for me under Martin O’Neill. I know what he expects and he knows that every time I set foot on the pitch I’ll give 150 per cent.”