With Cleverley expected to sign for Everton this summer, the academy product should have a prime opportunity to establish himself in the Villa first-team.
While Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood has made no secret of his desire to secure Tom Cleverley’s services to a permanent deal following the soon-to-be free agent's season-long loan, his efforts look set to come up short.
Having scored three goals in 38 appearances with the claret and blues, the Manchester United-owned midfielder is now reported to be in advanced talks with Everton and expected to finalise an agreement to join the Toffees on a free transfer this summer within the next 72 hours [h/t Daily Mail].
Make no mistake, such a development would be a clear blow to Sherwood’s planned rebuilding project, given how Cleverley flourished in the team’s new look setup during the run-in, but there is also a strong argument that the Villa boss already has a promising replacement at his disposal.
Gary Gardner, 22, has long-been considered one of the club’s most exciting prospects, coming up the ranks to earn his first-team debut in December 2011, but the effects of two serious knee ligament injuries have since prevented him from adding to the 18 appearances he made for his hometown club between 2011 and 2013.
However, after regaining his sharpness at Brighton & Hove Albion over the first half of this term, the former England Under-21 international would go on to earn rave reviews during a further loan stint with Nottingham Forest, netting four times in 18 games and offering glimpses of the potential which once even garnered him comparisons to Steven Gerrard.
Forest fans have since been clamouring for him to return to the City Ground but, having showcased his Premier League credentials, a Villa comeback instead looks to be on the cards.
Speaking ahead of Gardner’s return to Bodymoor Heath for the final weeks of the season following his Championship spell, Sherwood told the Birmingham Mail: “I’ve seen Gary Gardner. I remember seeing him years ago, when he scored twice in an under-18s game I watched against Arsenal.
“He’s a box-to-box player and I’ve watched him a couple times this season playing as more of a holding midfield player.
“He’s just like his brother - he likes to shoot anywhere on the field, can play with both feet, and is a good ball striker.
“I need to assess him at close hands so I will know within ten days to two weeks whether he’s for me or not. I’m hoping he is.”
|Team||Goals||Assists||Total Key Passes||Passing Accuracy||Total Tackles GAME||Interceptions GAME||Ball Recoveries GAME||Dispossessed GAME||Appearances||Mins Played|
|Gary Gardner||Brighton / Forest||6||2||26||77%||2.74||2.03||7.29||0.77||35||2,743|
With Cleverley now likely Goodison Park-bound, Gardner’s first-team chances certainly look much-improved and, while Sherwood could well dip into the transfer market to strengthen his midfield, the Solihull-native should still be in the mix alongside Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sanchez if his Forest displays are anything to go by.
Furthermore, given his well-documented passion for his childhood club, the claret and blue faithful would surely love nothing more than to see another homegrown product starring in their line-up.
"It would be great to get in there, become a regular and stay here for the rest of my playing days,” Gardner told the club’s official website last month. "I have been here since I was six-years-old and made it through the development phases and into the first team.
"I'm not naïve though. It's never an easy ride doing that. It rarely happens in football but I would absolutely love it to happen with me.
"I have had injuries so far. That's been tough but I feel like I'm over them now. And now I want to stay here after a few loan spells. This is the place I want to be.”