CRAIG Gardner says he is happy to step in as emergency right-back, with first-choice Phil Bardsley now ruled out of Saturday’s season opener against Arsenal and probably for weeks to come.
The manager has options in the absence of the Scotland international, who injured his ankle in the first week of pre-season training and has now undergone surgery
John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar and Ahmed Elmohamady have all played in that position in pre-season with varying degrees of success.
But Gardner says if he is called upon to plug the gap, he is ready and willing, having played there a couple of times last season – most notably in an eye-catching display in the last-gasp New Year’s Day win over Manchester City.
“The gaffer has to make the decision but he knows that as long as I’m in the starting eleven, I don’t care where I play,” Gardner told the Echo.
“Midfield is my favourite position and I did say when I returned to pre-season my target is to become a first-team regular and to up my goals-to-games ratio in that position.
“But, ultimately, I’m a team player and will do whatever I can to help out.”
Sunderland have other injury worries ahead of Saturday’s game at the Emirates with Wes Brown, David Vaughan and Connor Wickham all sidelined and Stephane Sessegnon a doubt, despite returning to training yesterday after shaking off an ankle strain.
And Gardner, a £5.5m signing from Birmingham City last summer, says that with the squad a few bodies short, everyone has to be prepared to pitch in and play wherever the manager might ask them to.
“Here at Sunderland everyone fights for each other, so if I’m asked to play right-back then I will,” shrugged the 25-year-old midfielder.
“I know that if I said I didn’t want to play there, then the lads would be asking questions of me, and rightly so.
“That’s what you need in football – everyone to do what’s best for the team.
“I didn’t play there much at Villa, but it was Martin O’Neill who put me there.
“As long as I’m running around at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon then I’m happy!
“Even if I was asked to play in goal then I would give it my all – that’s the kind of person I am and that’s what I do for Sunderland.”
Despite Sunderland being stretched, Gardner pointed out that the squad itself is not short of quality generally.
“If you start with the goalkeepers, we’ve got Simon Mignolet and Keiren Westwood to call on – both top-quality international goalkeepers – and if you go through the squad, there’s generally at least a couple of players for every position,” said the one-time Aston Villa player
“We might be a little light on strikers right now, but the squad is well served in most areas, and that’s what you want.
“We’re the kind of lads who will get behind whoever is playing and we know that results are the most important thing.
“You need a set group of players that you can rely on, and the manager certainly has that here now. It has become like a family.
“He knows that we’ll put our bodies on the line, do extra training if we have to – we won’t cheat because if we do we’ll just be cheating ourselves.
“The manager knows all that and it’s good to have a group of players where no one can hide - players who are honest and ready to give everything.”