By Bill Thomas
If ever a football team dares to lose a game or two, you can pretty much guarantee that they will be accused of a lack of passion, that catch all term that means little but signifies that footballers are all just a bunch of mercenaries who flit from one place to another and that they don’t really care about it as much as we supporters.
Craig Gardner does not fit that description, now putting on disciplined performances in the middle of the park at West Brom. A couple of months into his Albion career, it is clear that after his brief exile on Wearside, Gardner is revelling in being back home in the midlands.
“It’s no secret, I do like being at home, there’s nothing better than being settled and going out to play your football, it is a big help. I’ve been so fortunate through my career to play for Villa, to play for Blues and now to play for the Albion, that’s been great.
“When I was up at Sunderland, I found that difficult and maybe it had an affect on my football as well, I don’t know, but I do know I feel a lot happier with everything now that I’m back in the midlands. It feels good to be back around my family and friends and to be playing for a local team that knows all about me. Albion have been looking to sign me for a while now, so they know all about my game, my passion as a player and my will to win. They know that I’ll give everything that I’ve got for the cause.”
That has been readily apparent from Craig’s displays to date, but it has always been the case in a career that started a little late by modern day standards, Craig not joining up with a club until he was into his teens, another indication of just how highly he values friends and family.
“From around about the age of 12 through until I was 15, there were a lot of academies that wanted me to go and play for them, to go on trial, have six weeks with them and that kind of thing. All through that time, my mom and dad were taking me all over the country playing football and through all that time, my dad said that it was all down to me, that it was my choice as to what I was going to do in future. Did I want to just carry on playing with my mates on a Sunday or did I want to go and take it more seriously and sign up with an academy?
“For a long while, I just enjoyed playing with my mates to be honest, so it wasn’t until I was 15 that I finally decided to join an academy. That was the point where I really had to make the decision because you signed up for a three year scholarship and the point where you have to get serious about it if you want to be a professional. At that stage, there were three clubs that were really in for me to sign, Villa, Blues and Derby as well.
“Derby actually offered me a lengthy contract but in the end, I was most impressed by Villa and I decided to join them. Their academy was brilliant, they had a record of bringing young players through, there were a lot of good young players there then, the likes of Luke Moore, Liam Ridgewell, Gary Cahill, Boaz, Steven Davis, and I could see there was a potential to come through the ranks and to get in the first team. That was what finally made my mind up, plus the fact it meant I could stay at home while I was there, which would have been harder somewhere like Derby.
“My brother Gaz went there for the same reasons. He is doing well at Villa, he’s gone off to Brighton on loan and that’ll be good for him, because he’s had a tough couple of years with injuries. I know I’m his biggest fan, but you just need to keep an eye on him because once he comes back and starts playing, he is a hell of a player.
“I had a good time at the Villa, they gave me my chance as a professional, I got into the team and played quite a few games but then I got an injury and when I was fit again, it was hard to get back into the team and that was when Birmingham came in to sign me in 2010.”
Making the move across Birmingham, from Villa Park to St Andrew’s, is one that is fraught with danger and one that has cost a few players dear down the years. Bit it doesn’t seem to have hindered Gardner’s career, only strengthened it, and he looks to be one of the few where there is still respect for him at both the Second City clubs.
“Birmingham had been following me as a young kid, they wanted me to join their academy right the way back, so I knew they knew all about me before I joined and so I felt confident that I would get games there.
“It is a big thing to go from Aston Villa to Birmingham, but it will only be a bad move if you let it be a bad move and I wasn’t going to let that happen. It can get out of hand if you are disrespectful to the other club, then it can get in the media and it can get nasty. But since I left Villa, I’ve never said a bad word about the club and nor would I because I’ve only got positive things to say about them.
“They were my first club, they gave me my chance in the professional game. That’s where my roots are I suppose, they gave me my education in football, I know what they did to help me become a professional. They had great people working in the youth system there like Gordon Cowans, Kevin McDonald, Tony McAndrew, Bryan Jones, Steve Burns, they were all brilliant with me, so I’ve only got the greatest respect for them.
“David O’Leary gave me my debut, which I’ll always be grateful for, then Martin O’Neill arrived and I had to prove myself all over again to him, but he was great to me there and throughout my career so far, so I’ve only got good things to say about my time at Villa. I think it’s important to be respectful towards people that help you as you go through your career.”
Having a second chance to go and join Birmingham City fulfilled a lifelong ambition for Craig and he thoroughly enjoyed his time at the club, despite a mixed bag of results and emotions from the highest of highs to real lows.
“Moving to Birmingham was great. There’s no secret that that’s the team that I supported as a kid, and so that makes it a very special time in my career and I had a brilliant 18 months there, although it ended with a bit of a bad taste when we got relegated. But we won the League Cup while I was there and that was something I’ll never forget, nor any of the Birmingham supporters either, it was just a fantastic day.
“That League Cup run was the highlight of my career. I scored the winner in the semi-final against West Ham which was a very special moment, and to then go to Wembley with the team that I supported, to finally win something, to beat a great team like Arsenal, that was an incredible day.
“It was fantastic to be able to go to the final again last season with Sunderland, even though we lost, but no disrespect to Sunderland, on a personal level, it was massively different to be able to go there with Birmingham. All my family, all my friends are from the area, lots are Blues supporters, so it meant so much more because of that.
“I think I ended up getting asked for about 500 tickets for that game! Everybody was there so there were kicking every ball with me, it was an unbelievable experience. And it was a great achievement for the club, to finally get a big trophy. And then a few weeks later, we ended up getting relegated.
“I know a lot of fans said at the time that they didn’t mind getting relegated so much because at last we’d won a cup, but to be honest, I would have given my medal back ten times over to stay in the Premier League. That’s where you want to play every week, the league games are the basis of what you do.
“But I think that winning the cup took a lot out of us because it was such a massive thing for the club. I thought everybody got so emotional and so excited about it that when we came to get back to the league, we couldn’t get focused on it again and it cost us a lot of points in the weeks after the final. I remember the week after, we played West Brom at home and we got battered!”
Dropping down into the Championship had massive implications for Birmingham, as we have seen in recent years. For Craig too, it proved to be a turning point in his career.
“Because of the relegation, there was a lot going on at Birmingham at the time and because of the financial situation that came about, they had to sell some players and I was one of the ones that had to leave the club and I ended up going to Sunderland which was a real wrench – I wish it had been a move to Albion then! – because I was very happy at Blues, even though we were going into the Championship. I wanted to try to get us back in the Premier League.”
That was to prove impossible and he was quickly on his way to Sunderland, a move that brought mixed fortunes. Although Craig has too much respect for his former employers to be negative about his time there, it’s clear from speaking to him that being a couple of hundred miles away from home had a real impact on him.
“It was difficult to be away from home and I think people knew that. Every single transfer window after I signed for Sunderland in 2011, I got linked with the Baggies and finally, it came off. Again, I have a lot of respect for Sunderland, it is a great club, great support, the fans are very passionate. I went to watch the derby game with Newcastle from the crowd with a few of the lads one time and that was an experience! The atmosphere was incredible.
“To be honest, they should be having a lot more success than what they get, they should be a top half club when you look at that support and their resources. I think they find it hard to attract players from abroad because they’re in the north-east maybe, but the whole set up there is brilliant and they should be a really top club. I just found it hard to settle in another part of the country.
“I’m back where I feel comfortable, I’m at a club where I think we have potential. It reminds me a little bit of Birmingham in respect of there being a really close changing room, a good atmosphere, great spirit at the training ground. There are no egos, everyone wants to work hard and do well for each other, and I think that’s where it all starts if you want to do well.
“What’s good for me personally is that I’ve started the season in the first team. Every player wants to get regular games and that was why I came here. When we started pre-season, I knew this was the place for me, this is where I wanted to be, I felt I could do well here and so far, I think I’ve settled in really well, I feel as if I’ve been here for years to be honest. But it isn’t about me, it’s about the team, the club, and as a group, we have got to start winning games and put the slow start behind us.
“Alan Irvine has been great to work with. I think before people judge him you need to watch his training sessions, you need to be in the changing room, you need to really know him; he’s come here and been brilliant. His training sessions are different class, he talks really, really well in the changing room. He knows what he’s on about, he doesn’t talk for the sake of it. He’s a top-class coach and he’s a top-class person. On the training pitch we get well-set drills and it’s proper training sessions that relate to proper games. It’s not just ‘go out there and play football’.”
When Craig talks about the quality of that coaching, he knows his stuff because not only has he played under top class coaches at club level, he has represented his country at a high level too, reaching the European Championship final in 2009 when England were beaten 4-0 by Germany. No disgrace in that when you look at the German side: Neuer, Beck, Howedes, Boateng, Boenisch, Hummels, Johnson, Castro, Khedira, Ozil, Wagner. There’s now a World Cup winner or two in there isn’t there?
But look at England’s team: Loach, Cranie, Richards, Onuoha, Gibbs, Muamba, Cattermole, Noble, Milner, Johnson, Walcott, with Gardner, Rodwell and Mancienne coming off the bench. Some handy English youngsters in there five years ago but, Milner and Walcott aside, nothing like the same element of natural progression to the seniors. Why is that?
“Playing for England Under 21s was a big honour, but the team that we had, that did well, it didn’t really go on from there, there was no progression. I’m not saying that I should be in the England squad at all, but up until the last few months under Roy Hodgson, when he has brought in young players like Fabian Delph or Jack Colback, who fully deserve their chance, it was pretty much that if you didn’t play for a team that was in the top six, you didn’t get a sniff of the England team and I think that’s a bit sad really.
“If you look at that team that played Germany in the Under 21s final, the year after that when Germany beat England in the World Cup, I remember counting eight players from that team who were involved for them. That was a real eye opener when I was watching that game.
“England, they will tend to stick with the same players for three and four campaigns and it just becomes very difficult to break into the squad for any younger players. It looks as if Roy Hodgson is going a different way now and he is trying to bring the young lads through and that’s good because I think we’ve missed out on doing that as a country for a long time. I think it’s very positive for England”.