Well all the games for February are out the way, so it's time to crown another Player Of The Month here at Roker Report.
It seems that we're seeing a pattern in that Martin O'Neill definitely has a set of players he likes the most, and those are the one's who are going to player every week, with only 18 players stepping over the white line this month. Injuries and that have been a problem, but we've certainly got a core of a team and everyone else just has to bide their time and wait accordingly.
But anyway, we've been scoring the players every week in our match reports whether they play 90 minutes or 9 minutes, and averaging out those scores over the month to try and work out who was the best as opposed to just picking someone at random.
So with that in mind, lets introduce the man of the moment for February, Craig Gardner!...
I don't want to blow our own trumpet too much, but I think once again that Gardner has been the most consistent performer of the month.
February started well for Gardner, who among several others had a fine game against Norwich City. This continued against Stoke City away, where he had another good game as he was pushed further up the pitch to help support Stephane Sessegnon in the icy conditions.
Consistency stuck through the FA Cup replay against Middlesboro, and the back-to-back games against Arsenal, with the only blot on the copybook a relatively turgid performance against West Bromwich Albion. That said though, nobody really came through that game with any credit, but on the day Gardner was by far not the worst player on show.
Quite a turn around for a player that pre-Christmas we all expected to leave the club following murmurs of homesickness, and many fans thinking it was time to kick the tyres on the man brought in for close to £5m by Steve Bruce.
Now let's have some comment from the rest of the Roker Report team on this month's findings, and of course how they feel Craig did...
Michael Graham: Do you have ANY idea how exhausting it is to always be right but never be listened to? Of course you don't. Around a month ago I mentioned on the podcast to great derision that I felt it was imperative that a central midfield spot was found for Craig Gardner, even if it meant leaving out David Vaughan, as he could offer something no one else in the midfield could. Hey presto, here we are a month or so later and Gardner is picking up his Roker Report Player of the Month award for his contributions from central midfield. It is a good thing for my Roker Report colleagues that I am so modest as otherwise this could go on a while...
Anyway, Gardner has certainly enjoyed his spell in his favoured position this month, producing a string of all-action displays. He will never have the poise of David Vaughan or Jack Colback, or the steel of a Lee Cattermole, but everything he does is so positive and his movement incredibly clever. The fact that his interview this month in which he dismissed reports of homesickness and reaffirmed his commitment to the club was so ubiquitously well-received tells you all you need to know about his contribution of late.
Dan Williams: If this is how players react to missing their mum, maybe we should encourage a few more of the lads to feel homesick more often.
All jokes aside, Craig Gardner being named player of the month is not only testament to him, but to Martin O'Neill. So often during Steve Bruce's ill-fated start to this season, Gardner looked very much like a square peg in a round hole. He wasn't getting goals, he wasn't getting all that involved, and he just looked like a luxury that we were ill-equipped to deal with in the team. However, fitting into the manager's system he has looked like a man transformed, and has been vital in what has been a strange month. Our performances have been a little up and down (which is an understatement when you consider Saturday in that), but our Brummie sharp-shooter has deservedly been top of the pile throughout.
Karl Jones: Having been brought in to get goals from midfield - an area where Sunderland has struggled since Don Hutchison's departure in 2001 - Craig Gardner's form for Birmingham City the season previous suggested that he would become a main stay in Steve Bruce's new look side. But, due to a somewhat rampant case of homesickness, Gardner was mollycoddled as Sunderland got off to a sluggish start in the league.
In a way, Gardner came to personify Bruce's biggest problem at Sunderland; undoubtedly having eye for talent but being unable - or in some cases unwilling - to implement them into a team. Martin O'Neill seems to have found a cure for Gardner's issue by simply playing him - the homesick situation clearly intensified by the midfielder becoming frustrated at not being allowed to do what he does best. He certainly wasn't the first to suffer this fate under Bruce, but Gardner, and runner up James McClean are arguably the most critical that were ignored - this past month highlighting just how important they are in the new setup.
Arriving with a goalscoring pedigree was one thing, but all of his goals in red and white so far have been something of the sublime. His free-kick at a blustery DW Stadium has been one of my seasonal highlights.
Chris Weatherspoon: Perhaps Craig Gardner got wind that he was Roker Report's player of the month this time around. In the Hawthorns horror show of Saturday, the hotshot midfielder was certainly the only one to leave the field with any reason to hold his head high. It is a sign of his progression on Wearside. Under Steve Bruce, Gardner seemed to fit the warning he came with when he signed - if he doesn't score, he doesn't really do anything. Now, just as with so many since Martin O'Neill took charge, Gardner has started to show his true qualities. His spectacular knack of finding the net from ludicrous distances has seemingly returned, while he looks increasingly confident as a consistent first-team midfielder. Rumours of homesickness have done little to quell his commitment (a welcome attribute in today's footballing world), and the past month has seen him strong both in defence and attack. Not shy of digging in when needed - the games against Arsenal spring most willingly to mind - Gardner has often been the leading man in seeking to support lone striker Stephane Sessegnon in recent games. A worthy winner this month even amongst strong competition - James McClean has probably just clicked off the site in disgust that he himself didn't win - a derby-day screamer this weekend would do little to damage Craig's stock among Sunderland fans.
David Boyle: Good things come to those who wait, or so the marketing team at Guinness would have us believe, but that has certainly been the case with Craig Gardner. The midfielder was originally brought in by Bruce based on his goalscoring exploits for Birmingham, a characteristic that was sorely missing from Sunderland at the time. It would be fair to say that Gardner took a little time to get going with talk of homesickness well documented however he has establishd himself as an important member of the squad as of late, even deputising in a right back berth at times. With SAFC often employing a lone-striker system as of late it is imperative that the midfield support the isolated striker as often as possible, a role which Gardner has thrived in. Plaudits have to go to our runner up James McClean who has also been in fantastic form this month. Keep it up lads.
So that's Gardner sorted, and now for the full table on how everyone did, including the differential from the previous months...
01/02/12 to 26/02/12
Some of the scores seem particularly low, but as you reach the tale it's really just those who've come on sparingly and not contributed very much in that time. The likes of Nicklas Bendtner for example, who only had one appearance, and a pretty rubbish one at that against WBA. Similarly Fraizer Campbell who had great games against Norwich and 'Boro but has been limited in action since then.
Indeed everyone has had a small downturn over the course of February barring Gardner, so let's hope Martin O'Neill can do something to nip this in the bud before it becomes something serious. There's nothing to really get in a flap about yet though.