CRAIG Gardner says he is fully aware of the importance of Sunday’s Sunderland-Newcastle derby and if he hadn’t been, best mate Kevin Phillips would be the first to remind him.
SuperKev wrote his name into Tyne-Wear history by scoring the winner in the famous 2-1 “Singing in the Rain” derby game at St James’s Park in 1999 and was in the side that repeated the 2-1 triumph the following season.
It was also Phillips who helped sell Gardner on the move to the North East last summer by singing the praises of SAFC.
The two were team-mates at both Aston Villa and Birmingham, and the Brummie consulted Sunderland’s post-war record goalscorer before his £5million move to the North East.
Not only did Phillips big up his old club, he also gave a warning about the intensity of the derby and described the hero status given to anyone who excelled in them.
So far, Gardner has a draw and defeat against Newcastle in derby games, but he believes this weekend’s Wear-Tyne clash is his chance to join Phillips on Sunderland’s derby-winning roll of honour.
The Sunderland midfielder said: “Kev’s not only a top-class player, he is a top-class bloke and, everywhere he goes, he’s a legend.
“When I was at Blues and there was talk of me coming here, I spoke to him about Sunderland.
“He said it’s an unbelievable club and the fans would always back you.
“He said that I was a player who always gives 100 per cent and that’s exactly what the Sunderland fans want – in every game, never mind in a derby.
“The fact I’m not from Sunderland or Newcastle makes no difference.
“As players, we know what the fans want and we know what they need – it’s all about the bragging rights.
“We will get into that mindset and give absolutely everything on the day for our fans.”
Having experienced the sour of the derby, Gardner wants the sweet.
In this fixture last year he came on as a substitute as Sunderland played well enough but lost the derby to a Ryan Taylor free-kick – a result which proved catastrophic to morale on Wearside.
At Newcastle in March, he played his part in a superb Sunderland performance which saw them go within a whisker of victory – having been reduced to 10 men with Stephane Sessegnon’s sending off – only for it to be snatched from their grasp by Shola Ameobi’s injury-time equaliser.
Gardner recalled: “Kev Phillips had already told me what it would be like even before I came here and I’m not stupid – I know that Sunderland-Newcastle is a massive, massive derby, just like Aston Villa-Birmingham, Celtic-Rangers.
“The Wear-Tyne derby was the first home game when I arrived here last summer.
“Newcastle won and their season went one way and ours went the other.
“But then we should have beaten them at their place in February.
“We know we’re capable of beating anyone at home – we showed that last season by beating Man City – and Martin O’Neill has got a great record in derbies, particularly in Villa-Blues games.
“The lads can’t wait for the game.
“We’re raring to go. We’re all fit and sharp and we want to win for the fans.
“They will be right behind us and it’s going to be an awesome game.
“Hopefully we can come away with all three points.”