MARTIN O’Neill says Craig Gardner is “chomping at the bit” to kick-start his Sunderland career after being reunited with his former manager.
Summer signing Gardner is in contention to make his first start since October in this weekend’s clash against Blackburn Rovers, with fellow central midfielder Lee Cattermole ruled out through suspension.
Garder’s Sunderland career has failed to ignite since his £5million switch from Birmingham City, starting just five games amid reports of home sickness.
But the 26-year-old knows new Sunderland boss O’Neill well, as one of only two players within the Black Cats ranks who has worked with the ex-Celtic boss previously (the other was Phil Bardsley during a loan spell at Villa).
Gardner made more than 70 appearances under O’Neill before the then Aston Villa manager reluctantly offloaded the former England U21 international to rivals Birmingham for £3m.
O’Neill told the Echo: “I know Craig from Villa and he’s chomping at the bit to go and play.
“In an ideal world, I would have liked to have kept him at Villa, but he wanted to go and play regular first-team football.
“And, in fairness at Villa, the players who were keeping him out of the team were Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing.”
Skipper Cattermole misses Sunday’s Stadium of Light clash with third bottom Blackburn after earning a one-match ban for a fifth yellow card of the season in front of the watching O’Neill at Wolves last weekend.
“Lee misses the game, which will be a blow to us,” said O’Neill.
“His first challenge got him booked because the referees are starting to look for that sort of thing.
“I didn’t see him committing too many fouls before that in the game and he suddenly gets booked. When you get a bit of a reputation like that, it means you have to tread very carefully.
“But I don’t remember him making a nasty challenge before that.”
Cattermole’s absence will also force O’Neill to temporarily change the captaincy, with John O’Shea likely to take the armband against Steve Kean’s side.
But O’Neill insists it is far too premature to be making any decisions on who will be his long-term skipper, with Cattermole appointed as Black Cats captain 18 months ago by ex-boss Steve Bruce.
O’Neill added: “I haven’t given that (the captaincy) any great consideration at this minute. It’s maybe too early for me to make that big assessment. Not only is being the captain of the team a great honour, it’s important because he will be the leader on the field.”