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Is O'Neill Sticking To His Favourites Rather Than Form Players?

With Martin O'Neill telling reporters late last week that Phil Bardsley will return to the side at the expense of Craig Gardner once he's fit, questions have to be asked about whether O'Neill is beginning to pick his favourites rather than those who are on top form...

Gareth Copley - Getty Images

Martin O'Neill came out with a statement late last week which kind of annoyed me to be honest. The first real time that I've disagreed or had a vastly differing view point to him. It concerned the right back position.

Right-back is Phil's position, while Craig Gardner is essentially a midfielder.

He has done very well from there, but we have missed his attacking threat further up the field and when Phil is back, he's obviously still going to be our first-choice right-back.

Obviously Bardsley is a specialist full back and Gardner isn't, but shouldn't we stick with the "hot-hand" as the term goes? There can be arguments made on both sides.

For years upon years we were screaming out for a "proper" full back for the left hand side of the defence, and with Danny Rose only on loan, some of us still believe this is the case. However, there's still a lot to be said about that when you look back.

It's arguable we've never had a proper left back, or good enough left back since Martin Scott way back when. Mickey Gray was next to fill the role, himself a converted midfielder, and he went on to win England caps at the position. A string of players who were not good enough such as Danny Collins and Ian Harte came and failed to fill the position, and perhaps the player best in with a shout for it has actually been Phil Bardsley who enjoyed a decent if unspectacular stint there.

This was until Kieran Richardson came in. Richardson was very much a nomad of the Sunderland first eleven, undoubtedly talented, but without a true position. He was very much on his way to making the left full back position his own before being sold to Fulham this summer.

Now Danny Rose fills the position, and we're unlikely to have to worry about it until the end of the season.

The right back position could well be headed the same way if we return to Bardsley and remove Gardner from the equation. It hasn't been a position where we've had any particular joy in recent years. Bardsley does ok, as you'd expect from a specialist in the position, but barring some fist-pumping and shouting is he all that better than Gardner?

Bardsley can be strong in the tackle, but Gardner seems to be coping just fine barring Aleksander Kolarov having the game of his life there. He has coped admirably this season with Gervinho, Theo Walcott, Fabio Borini, Raheem Sterling and Matt Jarvis.

Having previously plied his trade in midfield, Gardner offers more going forward too, boasting an assist and a goal already less than ten games into the season.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm actually not one of the one's on these pages who 'hates' Bardsley, I just don't think he's all that great. We've plenty other players who aren't all that - Fraizer Campbell, David Vaughan and so forth. It's not a handicap, just something we have to deal with as a mid-table side.

But it all comes down to the fact that Gardner is enjoying his best football since he arrived at the club at the moment, and so what if it's at right back? He even had his best spell last season at right back, especially against Manchester City at home and Wigan Athletic away.

In midfield he's been anonymous on nearly every occasion on which he's played it. I'd actually challenge readers to point out a list of great games by Gardner in midfield. It won't be a long list. For me he's been our new Tommy Miller, an invisible man in the centre of the park.

Where he fits in to the midfield is equally questionable. It's a case of Lee Cattermole plus one in there, and Jack Colback, Seb Larsson and even to a degree David Meyler can all make a better case for inclusion than Gardner can based on previous games there.

"Craig Gardner is essentially a midfielder" says O'Neill. I think this perception needs to change. It would be much more beneficial to see him now as a right back who can play midfield as opposed to a midfielder who can play right back.

I'm sure Craig see's himself as a midfielder, but he really isn't.

Perhaps it's we expect less from him in defence, but there's no hiding the fact he's done very, very well so far and should keep the shirt until his own form suffers or Phil Bardsley proves he has more to offer than playing the position for longer.

It could also be part of a larger situation, one I seriously hope isn't true.

It's something I never thought I'd ever say on these pages but I'd actually have stuck with Titus Bramble against Manchester City last weekend as opposed to bringing back Carlos Cuellar. Cuellar was clearly off pace, and off form, Bramble seemed like he was neither of those in the last two games.

Options are limited, but James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon are way off form, but both continue to play. As said, this is a situation where we aren't blessed with options, but it's evident that we should be doing something, even if it does require a slight change in formation to ensure those who are at the top of their game are on the pitch.

As we sit little over a month from O'Neill's anniversary of taking over, we hope that he hasn't begun to pick his favourites already. Something we were warned about by fans of his previous clubs. I hope I'm reading too much into this.

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