Aston Villa`s Hot Prospect - Craig Gardner
With all the speculation surrounding Gareth Barry at the moment, I have decided to write about someone else who is on the path to becoming a Villa great. Someone who is an Aston Villa fan, someone who has come through the youth system, someone who has become a regular and to a certain extent a fan favourite. No not Gabby Agbonlahor, but Craig Gardner.
I first became aware of Craig like many fans, when he made his first team debut on Boxing Day, 2005. It was against Everton at Villa Park and he came on from off the bench to replace another young midfielder, Steven Davis. But it was the goal he scored against Bolton on the last day of that season that really caught my imagination. I couldn`t believe we had a player who had cost us nothing scoring a goal like that. After years of having young strikers come through the ranks, we finally we had an exciting midfielder, and someone I thought at the time looked even better than Davis.
Following the sale of Aaron Hughes and with Mark Delaney`s retirement, it soon became apparent that Martin O`Neill was not going to bring in a right back, he turned to our former captain Olof Mellberg to fill the gap until someone could be brought in, unlike most it was something that didn`t really bother me too much as Mellberg had covered Hughes a lot the previous season and to be fair was twice the player Hughes was, even out of position. But Olly would need cover and up stepped Craig Gardner. Unlike many players who have complained about being out of position over the years he followed Gabby`s example (Gabby had played out of position on the right wing) and got his head down and gave 110% every game he played, sure Gardner made mistakes, like any 20 year old would, out of position or not. But Gardner proved he would do anything for his club, even if it meant playing in this alien position.
After the season ended we all hoped that a right back would be brought in. Arsenal`s Justin Hoyte among others were strongly linked, and with Olof Mellberg moving to Juventus to fulfil his dream of playing Champions League football (sound familiar) it was obvious the problem needed to be addressed. So far, it hasn`t been. And as the season fast approaches it looks like Gardner may continue to take on the role.
Now what disappoints me is that Gabby gets lots of praise for improving, his touch is better, he has scored and assisted more last year than the previous season blah blah blah, and yet no-one seems to remember that Craig Gardner is improving too, he may not be the best right back in the league, he may well be being played out of position but he is still improving with every game that passes.
I do often wonder how long it will take of him playing there before people will recognise him as a right back; Gareth Barry went through a similar transitional period himself when he moved to midfield from defence. But there must have been a point when people started to say, Barry is a midfielder. At what point does Gardner become a right back? He has spent a season there already, okay not the best right back, but I would argue Gabby is not the best striker we could have at the squad either.
Whatever happens is down to Martin O`Neill, he may decide that Gardner, who is actually the first choice right back for England Under 21`s, keeping out all the "real" right backs in his age group or he may sign someone else.
I think this is going to be a big year for our Craig; will he have the opportunity to play Central Midfield and wow us all with more superb strikes? Or will he continue to develop as a right back? Whatever happens I am sure he will go on to become a great Villa player. One thing is for sure 2008/09 season is the biggest season of this lad`s career so far!!
Oh and his free kicks are sweet too!!