The moment you have been waiting for all summer is finally here. That's right, we are finally ready to reveal our first Roker Report Player of the Month of the season!
It has been an odd few games for Sunderland both in terms of results and performances. Not won any, not lost any, not bossed anything, not been overwhelmed by anything.
That said, there have been some notable performers, and the fact that our winner has managed to pip 3-goal Steven Fletcher to the award is testament to just how good he has been - Craig Gardner.
Gardner has been an incredibly steady influence for the club during the opening weeks of the season in what is an unfavoured position. It is clear that he wants to be further forward and right in the thick of the action but he has shown a tremendous level of responsibility and professionalism to perform as well as he has done at full back.
In every league game he has come up against wide players of quality that can be tough to contain. First it was Gervinho who has started the season brilliantly for Arsenal, then Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge proved tricky customers at Swansea. Last week it was a combination of Glen Johnson, Raheem Sterling, and Luis Suarez.
But Gardner has stood up to them all well, and ensured he has still been able to retain some attacking threat of his own.
It is fair to say that it was a slow start for Craig Gardner at Sunderland. It has taken him a while to settle and really make a conenction with the supporters. I can honestly say that he is quickly becoming one of my favourites now though, and not just because of what he does on the pitch.
Here is what some of the other Roker Report lads thought:
David Boyle: Despite all the high-profile, big-money signings which have whet the appetite of many a Sunderland fan since the transfer window, as is customary, slammed shut a couple of weeks ago it has been the perfomances of an exisiting member of the fold who have caught the eye as Craig Gardner has excelled in the right back position in the early days of this season. After a turbulent season just gone, many may have doubted whether Craig's immediate future involved both Sunderland and the North-East as the player struggled to settle on Wearside and pined for a return to his native midlands. However, as I'm sure you will have read in a cracking recent interview, Gardner recently had an epiphany of sorts and this has been refelcted in his fantastic performances on the pitch - even more eye-catching given the fact he is still adapting to the fullback role somewhat.
Gardner's hardwork was perhaps perfectly rewarded on Saturday afternoon with the plaudits for his involvement in the opening goal of the contest. Following some fantastic work on the flank, beating a couple of liverpool players with ease the Brummie lad placed a teasing ball across the area straight into the path of Steven Fletcher who was left to simply, yet deftly, prod the ball home. Fletcher's reaction said it all as he immediately directed the applause and adulation to his team-mate rather than himself. We are all aware of Craig's attacking abilities given the number of thunderous strikes the fella made from the centre of the park last year, however I am sure we have all been pleasantly surprised with his defensive capabilities and he has certainly made Phil Bardsley's job of returning to the side upon his return a little less cut and dry than it may well have previously been.
Chris Weatherspoon: Much criticised last season - especially by myself - Craig Gardner never quite looked at home in the Sunderland midfield. His best performances, despite his reputation as a goalscoring midfielder, came at right full-back; with Phil Bardsley out through injury, Gardner was given a chance to continue his defensive form.
Though not great against tricky wingers at Swansea, he has excelled for the most part so far. Gardner has improved positionally and his distribution from the back is an added bonus - it was telling that Liverpool saw fit to move Raheem Sterling to the opposite wing on Saturday. Steven Fletcher has of course made a roaring start to his Wearside career, but Gardner is probably worthy of the award this month.
Karl Jones: During the summer many had suggested that Gardner's role in the team - should he have one - would need to be at full-back. His early performances for Sunderland depicted a midfield player that had enjoyed an almost free role at Birmingham City, and a natural ability to work hard without the ball. Yet, somehow, the two could not combine to produce a player comfortable in a two-man central midfield.
However when played at right-back he has been assured - games against Manchester City and away to Wigan Athletic were arguably his best games in a Sunderland shirt last season, and the fact he leads the way when it comes to headed clearances suggests he defends his far post far better than Sunderland fans are used to. It is peculiar, though, because his greatest flaw as a central midfielder is that he is not aware enough of the people around him, yet as a full-back he has sensed danger and acted accordingly, although it is more peripherally demanding in the middle.
It will be interesting to see how Gardner is perceived should he continue in this role; Kieran Richardson put in several accomplished performances as a left-back but could never shed the opinion that he wasn't a 'natural' in the position. The irony is that neither is Gardner, yet this season, albeit still in its infancy, is suggesting otherwise.
Simon Walsh: I think this one is fully justified. You'd have said that Carlos Cuellar perhaps had an outside chance of claiming the prize, and it's good to see him up there. However, the month belongs to Gardner who has looked every inch a 'proper' right-back despite it not being his so called 'proper' position. In this sort of form, I'd be thrilled if he was to keep at the position for the rest of the season.
For those keeping a count at home, here's the full table. As you can see, we've made an addition to it from last year in which we're also keeping a track of their total cumulative score. It's not that interesting this month, but it will be over time as we can see who's place on the team looks in jeopardy and so forth...
|Player||Average Score||Total Score||Games Played|
Craig Gardner walks away with the win. Elsewhere there is good news for new boys Steven Fletcher and Carlos Cuellar, however it's some of the players we thought we could rely upon like James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon who are yet to hit the high notes.
Overall there's been some credible draws so far this season, but performances across the board really need to be upped if we're to turn a point into all three.