When Craig Gardner joined Sunderland in 2011, I hailed it as one of the signings of the summer.
The midfielder’s previous campaign with Birmingham City had been outstanding, where he finished as the club’s top scorer with 10 goals and bagged a League Cup winner’s medal for good measure.
At just 24, Gardner had the potential to become as much of a goal-scoring threat from the middle as the likes of Tim Cahill in his pomp.
And yet his first season at the Stadium of Light proved something of a come-down; a campaign in which he wasn’t always first-choice and his goal-return was just three in 37 appearances.
Perhaps that outstanding season at St Andrew’s was a one-off and I was wrong about his potential to improve.
But last season he more than doubled his goal tally for the Black Cats, scoring eight times despite playing the vast majority of the campaign as an emergency right-back.
So with a fresh season about to begin, and Gardner approaching the peak of his career having finally found his feet at his new club, I expected him to kick on and influence games even more than he had back in 2010.
That was until this morning’s reports claiming a number of Premier League rivals were considering a move for the midfielder.
There is no suggestion Paolo Di Canio’s side are willing to sell; only that he has attracted interest. But with nine new signings in place and talk of more, how much can the 26-year-old expect to play…and how often in his preferred position?
In truth Di Canio’s signings to date are yet to add to his attacking midfield options. Two defensive midfielders and a right-winger are the closest Gardner has to competition for a starting birth.
But the talk has now begun. And even where the rumour mill is concerned, there is no smoke without fire; although in some cases that smoke is a single wisp quickly dispersed.
Sunderland fans will hope that is the case in this instance. Di Canio’s substantial spending may prompt the departure of those he criticised last season, but Gardner cannot join them.
A team of new faces will take time to gel. Gardner made that same transition long ago. It is now time to play him in his natural position and enjoy the results.
If they don’t, there will be a number of top flight rivals who will be happy to do just that.
How important is Gardner to Sunderland? And are you happy with the club's new signings?
image: © Ronnie Macdonald