During the summer transfer window, Garry Monk added five new players to his squad. Three became immediate talking points.
Kristian Pedersen was immediately placed in the spotlight, his signing a hindrance to Blues’ prospects in the transfer market thanks to the disobeying of EFL rules for Financial Fair Play. He was our one money signing, he had to be bloody good.
Lee Camp followed, the ex-Northern Ireland international immediately unfancied thanks to less than impressive reviews from former clubs and the ghosts of David Stockdale and Tomasz Kuszczak still haunting the Blues goalkeeping jersey.
Omar Bogle was the prodigal son returning, the striker that left St.Andrews as a boy, worked his way through the leagues and after disappointing spells at Wigan Athletic, Peterborough United and Cardiff City, was now just searching for somebody to give him a chance at Championship level. At least Connor Mahoney arrived with minimal fuss.
Yet when it came to controversy, nobody could hold a torch to Gary Gardner. The born and bred Aston Villa midfielder, the man who wore the captain’s armband for their youth team and celebrated a goal at St.Andrews by running half the length of the pitch. The man whose cheeky smile appeared to be aimed at brother Craig while celebrating a Barnsley goal last season.
Oh, the responses were fun when this one was announced. Naughty words and GIFs of confused faces were the obvious follow up while some chose to vent with words, one advising he would rather play Cheick N’Doye alone in the centre of midfield than have Gardner anywhere near the our side.
And if they weren’t p*ssed off about the signing, they were on the wind-up, welcoming the new boy to a “proper club” and advising him that he could now begin his career. That he would now be supported week in, week out rather than be left in the fickle world of Aston Villa Football Club.
Of course, a few were more level-headed about matters. During the last decade or so we have seen Kevin Phillips reach cult hero status while Curtis Davies, Liam Ridgewell and Craig Gardner have done the jersey proud. Well, the latter in his first spell at least. Why would Gary Gardner be any different? And after all, Blues were crying out for a midfielder who could pass a football.
We are now in November and the football has been allowed to speak for itself.
Pedersen has managed to become a statistical phenomenon despite his awkward, gangly displays leaving fans a little nervous. Camp’s ability to organise, command his area and kick has been matched by an inability to look comfortable saving shots. Bogle has had his attitude questioned and has lost his place in the squad to youngster Bez Lubala. Mahoney has now become the man to watch as he bids to prove he can be a mainstay on the left-hand side.
Three months into the Championship season and Gary Gardner is barely mentioned. Yet he has become an indispensable member of the Blues starting XI in the opinion of both fans and management.
It’s not that the 26-year-old has set the world alight, it’s that he has not put a foot wrong. We aren’t looking at a player capable of the sublime but somebody who has performed with integrity and determination week in, week out, becoming a pillar of consistency. He has started every game since making his full debut.
What fans are seeing with their eyes is being backed up statistically too. Of the central midfielders to have started at least 8 Championship matches, Gardner sits in the top 10 for shots at goal, successful tackles, interceptions and headers. Oh, and fouls.
No Blues player makes more passes per game and according to Whoscored, he is dispossessed just 0.1 times per game which goes to show the kind of composure and class that he has brought to the side.
Gardner’s influence has been critical to his new side’s performances. He offers an aerial threat in midfield but unlike Cheick N’Doye, he is mobile enough to get about the pitch and be destructive. And when he can’t win the ball, he is unafraid to play cynically.
It’s notable that Maikel Kieftenbeld is starting to show the kind of form that made him an immediate cult hero too. With his latest midfield partner often sitting in midfield and keeping things simple, Kieftenbeld has been allowed to press a little higher up the field and drive or play forward. He’s not always clinical but he has been given that license thanks to the protection alongside him.
Yet for all the statistics and performances, the biggest compliment that can be paid to the Blues number 20 is that he is no longer talked about.
His yellow card against Derby County last weekend was his fifth of the season and therefore rules him out of the Hull City game, perhaps a blessing in disguise with him also set to miss the Second City derby on November 25th. Craig Gardner or Charlie Lakin will get the nod on Saturday and whichever is selected will have big boots to fill.
Conversations will continue about many Blues players throughout the course of this season, the newbies in particular as they bid to prove themselves worthy of the cause.
For Gary Gardner, he will be able to rest up for the next three weeks comfortable in the knowledge that he has endeared himself to the St.Andrews faithful.