MARTIN O’NEILL is determined to keep Craig Gardner at the Stadium of Light and believes Sunderland supporters are helping him to achieve that objective.
Gardner initially endured a tough time on Wearside after his £5million summer switch from hometown club Birmingham City – struggling with homesickness and losing his place in the side.
West Brom and Wolves have both been linked with a January move for Gardner, with the latter understood to have maintained their interest in the midfielder after missing out on him in the summer.
Wolves matched Sunderland’s offer to relegated Birmingham City back in June, only for the 25-year-old to agree personal terms with the Black Cats.
But the arrival of Martin O’Neill has signalled an upturn in fortunes for Gardner, who has begun to show the form which saw him hit 10 goals at Birmingham last season.
After missing O’Neill’s opening game with a hamstring strain, Gardner has featured in every encounter under his former Aston Villa boss and started the last three.
Sunderland supporters have shown their appreciation for Gardner by chanting his name when substituted in the last two outings and O’Neill says that will help him begin to settle at the club.
O’Neill said: “I want Craig to stay at this football club.
“I don’t think he is unhappy, but I do think he has felt a little homesick.
“But the crowd have given him a great reception in the last two games and that was great for him - it will have given him a big boost.
“And like most players, if you are playing games then it helps enormously.
“Perhaps it didn’t happen for him here straight away and maybe homesickness had something to do with it, but he is starting to play well now.”
Gardner was switched to a more familiar attacking midfield role for last weekend’s FA Cup third round win at Peterborough after filling in as an emergency right-back for the previous two games.
The ex-England U21 international went close several times at London Road after grabbing his second Sunderland goal five days earlier with a scorching free-kick at Wigan.
O’Neill is well aware of the goal-threat Gardner can pose after bringing him through the ranks at Aston Villa and believes he can still improve as a midfielder.
“I’ve seen Craig hit the ball in training for years when he played under me at Aston Villa,” he said.
“He is as good a striker of the ball as there is in this league.
Read more Sunderland news, including Martin O’Neill’s thoughts on comeback kid Matt Kilgallon, in today’s Sportmail.