Date: 18th March 2008 at 2:35pm
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Craig Gardner is back in training and is set to replace the suspended Olof Mellberg in Saturday’s ‘must win’ match against Sunderland.

The versatile England U-21 player suffered a minor back injury in our one all draw against Boro and was a spectator for our 2-0 loss against Pompey.

With Mellberg out for the Sunderland match, Craig’s return to fitness couldn’t have come at a better time for O’Neill.

Speaking on the official site, O’Neill said:

‘Craig is OK. With a bit of luck he might train today. Freddie Bouma got kicked at Portsmouth but will be fine and Gabby Agbonlahor, who has a sore foot, should also train.

‘Craig was really sore on Friday. And it would be unlike Craig, as he does not want to miss many games. His back had seized up at half-time against Boro.

‘You can always adjust anyway, so we will see, but Craig has done a decent job. I have been really pleased with him.’

O’Neill has indicated more than once that he believes Gardner could make the right back position his own if he was prepared to put extra training in on the defensive aspects, and despite some errors which are to be expected he hasn’t really changed his mind.

O’Neill doesn’t believe learning the defensive aspects for right back would be much different to him learning how to play defensive midfield:

‘He is obviously a midfield player but there is nothing to prevent him from starting to think about playing that position.

‘He has played there for the under-21s and it is a position that going forwards he is pretty comfortable with.

‘It is the defending aspect that he would have to learn, just as he would if he was playing defensive midfield anyway.

‘He plays a great ball and his second half performance against Newcastle was really excellent. He had a couple of exceptional shots.

‘He is learning all the time and this will be a good experience for him. Defensively he can improve; it is about shaping up to tricky, fast wingers. But as a midfielder one of your tasks has to be to go backwards.’

With Gardner only 22 years young he has plenty left to learn anyway. O’Neill is right in a way, learning to play more defensively is the same regardless of the position you play in – I would just say there’s a slight difference between learning to track back from midfield and then learning to not trip yourself up when facing pacey and skillful wingers.


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