CRAIG GARDNER holds no regrets over his decision to spend three years at Sunderland, despite admitting he is glad to be back in his native West Midlands.
Gardner faces an instant reunion with his former employers in tomorrow’s Premier League curtain raiser after joining West Brom on a three-year deal at the end of last season.
The 27-year-old’s Bosman switch to the Hawthorns was one of the least surprising moves of the summer after he had been repeatedly linked with the Baggies since the first few months of his Sunderland career.
After Steve Bruce splashed out £6million to sign Gardner from relegated Birmingham in the summer of 2011, rumours swiftly began circulating about the midfielder being home-sick and it took the arrival of his ex-Aston Villa boss Martin O’Neill to help him finally settle on Wearside.
But with his Sunderland contract expiring in June, Gardner admits there was an inevitably about his move to West Brom.
“It was always up in the air from when I signed,” said Gardner, who scored 14 goals in 98 appearances for Sunderland.
“There were a lot of rumours from the start about me wanting to get back to the Midlands and now I’m back here I just can’t wait to enjoy my football.
“I wanted to come back and play here – it wasn’t a big secret.
“But then Martin O’Neill came into Sunderland and said I was going nowhere.
“But I’m back where I want to be now in the Midlands, around my friends and family at a club I want to play for.
“It (Sunderland) was an experience for me. After being around Birmingham all my life, packing up and going to Sunderland for three years was a big change and a reality check.
“I never regretted going. It was my decision and if I didn’t want to go I wouldn’t have gone.
“That’s the past now and I’m back in the Midlands and looking forward to a new chapter in my life at West Brom and I want to do well here.”
Gardner was primarily used in a substitute’s role under Gus Poyet, with his last Premier League start in a Sunderland shirt coming on December 4.
There was never any prospect of Poyet handing the Brummie a new contract to remain at the Stadium of Light, yet there is no hint of resentment from Gardner towards his former club.
He added: “There are no hard feelings. I had a decent time there and the fans were good to me and the club was good to me.
“It was just a case of not getting as much game-time as I wanted in the last season.
“I played quite a bit of football in the first two years but in the last year I’d really made up my mind that I wanted to be back around the Midlands.
“A lot of things went on so now I just can’t wait to get started here.
“They’ve got a few players that I know so it’s going to be a good game.
“Gus did a great job there (at the end of last season) but it was the lads out on the pitch who were running their socks off.
“They didn’t get results at the start but they did at the end.”