CRAIG Gardner has kept his close-season fitness work in the family by training back home with his brother, Aston Villa teenager Gary.
And the Sunderland midfielder says the regular workouts have helped him stay sharp ahead of what he hopes will be a defining season in his career.
The 25-year-old, back on Wearside yesterday to publicise the launch of Sunderland’s new away kit, told the Echo: “It’s a bonus for me that Gary’s a professional footballer too.
“We both like to stay fit, so we’ve been out on runs together which have just kept us ticking over and it’s good that we encourage each other that way.
“When the season’s over I think you need to wind down for a few weeks and let it get out of your system.
“But you always know what the club expects of you in terms of keeping yourself in good condition and before long you’re ready to get back into it again.
“Personally I’m feeling good and looking forward to next season.
“Although I’m still enjoying the close-season break, I can’t wait for it all to begin again.
“I’ve spent the summer back home in the West Midlands – I’ve just become a father for the second time and it’s great to be able to spend time with the family at a time like that.
“But having Gary around is handy and hopefully it means that I won’t have to catch myself up too much when pre-season begins.”
Last season was major for 19-year-old Gary, who finally broke into the Villa first team after having his whole career cast into doubt by serious ligament injuries.
But the coming season is a big one for the older Gardner, who made a £5.5m move from Birmingham City to Sunderland last summer and had a chequered time in his debut campaign for the Black Cats.
Brought in as a key Steve Bruce signing, Gardner had been the relegated Brummies’ leading goalscorer with goals in 37 appearances and was expected to do a similar job for the Wearsiders.
In the event, Gardner struggled to fit in initially on Wearside and though his season improved markedly after the arrival of Martin O’Neill in December, he ended the season with three goals from 22 appearances – a record he plans to improve on in 2012/13.
He said: “Last season was a strange one really, it didn’t start off at all as I’d expected and I was disappointed with that. But the new manager came in and things changed around for me.
“This season I really want to hit the ground running from the start.”
If Gardner is involved in Sunderland’s opening game of the new campaign, against Arsenal at the Emirates, he’ll be sporting the new Invest in Africa-sponsored away kit made by adidas and that will suit him just fine.
“I really like the new kit and I think the fans will too,” he said.
“It’s light and comfortable and it will be enjoyable to play in. I like the look of it.”