MARTIN O’NEILL believes Craig Gardner has the ability to score 10 goals every season for Sunderland from midfield.
And the Black Cats’ boss admits he is looking for the 25-year-old to be part of the solution to Sunderland’s current goal-scoring woes in the weeks and months ahead.
Flair players Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Adam Johnson have all shown themselves capable of getting on the scoresheet regularly and O’Neill believes it is only a matter of time before their goal threat returns after a sorry start to the season.
But Gardner is a player that the manager is convinced should be a regular source of goals in any campaign.
“I feel that Craig should have ten league goals at the end of every season – regardless of the number of games that he plays,” he told the Echo.
“When I say ‘regardless of the number of games that he plays’, I mean of course assuming he plays upwards of 25 of course. It would be asking a bit much if he only played eight or nine times!
“But Craig’s eye for goal really could be a tremendous asset for us.
“He has got a great shot, he gets into dangerous positions and he hits the ball as strongly and as truly as anyone in the Premier League.
Former Birmingham city midfielder Gardner reached double figures in his final season at St Andrew’s and that earned him a £5m move to the Stadium of Light in 2011.
But he made a chequered start to his Sunderland career under Steven Bruce and has struggled to match those goalscoring exploits since moving to Wearside.
He netted only three times in 31 starts last season and only once so far this term in 11 starts, scoring with a fine free-kick in Sunderland’s Capital One Cup win at MK Dons.
To be fair to Gardner, he has played very little of his football in central midfield.
He began the campaign as stand-in right-back to cover for the injured Phil Bardsley and has started only one game – Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against another of his former clubs, Aston Villa, in his preferred midfield role.
But now with Bardsley back to full fitness and Gardner has moved further upfield, his manager has challenged him to start weighing in with the goals he insists the Brummie is more than capable of.
“Playing at full-back, he was unable to get into those forward advanced midfield positions,” conceded O’Neill
“But now he is back in midfield, I will be looking for him to contribute some goals.”
Sunderland’s failure to fire in front of goal this season has been what has dragged them down this season – the Wearsiders registering just six league goals this season, from 13 on-target efforts, in nine Premier League games. “
Top scorer Steven Fletcher with five goals remains the only Sunderland player to have found the net in the league – the Black Cats’ sixth strike was a Demba Ba own-goal – with Sessegnon, Johnson and McClean yet to break their Premier League ducks.
O’Neill said: “We need goals from other sources, we know that. Steven Fletcher has made a very good start since joining us in the summer but we can’t put all the goalscoring burden on one man. Other players have to share the load.
“At the moment we are just not creating enough chances and that needs to change. We know that, we recognise it and we are working hard to find ways of improving it.”