PAOLO DI CANIO says Craig Gardner has made giant strides in his development as a right-back during pre-season.
Gardner has completed every minute of Sunderland’s friendly programme, as the only right-back option available to Di Canio.
The 26-year-old spent more of last season as a makeshift full-back than in his favoured midfield role, due to Phil Bardsley’s problems with form and fitness.
Gardner suffered from the odd rush of blood in his new surroundings, conceding two penalties and earning a red card in the penultimate home game against Stoke City – the subsequent suspension ruling the Brummie out of the Premier League opener against Fulham on Saturday week.
But Di Canio has been heartened by Gardner’s progress since Sunderland returned to pre-season training last month.
Although Di Canio is eager to add a new right-back to his squad before the transfer window closes, having seen a move for Argentina international Gino Peruzzi fall through, the Sunderland head coach says Gardner is ironing out the flaws in his game.
Di Canio told the Echo: “Craig has adapted to playing there and, in pre-season, I have to say, he’s adapted well.
“He’s improved a lot.
“Last year, he had a lot of weaknesses as a right-back. But now, watching him, I’m more than happy.
“When you work every day, you deliver the philosophy and the mechanism that can work.
“He looks comfortable in the position, both in defensive and attacking moments.”
Gardner, now in the final year of his Sunderland contract, insists central midfield remains his preferred position after fostering his reputation there at Birmingham and Aston Villa.
But the former England Under-21 international admits he has become more familiar with plying his trade at right-back and insists he would rather feature there than be reduced to the substitutes’ bench.
“Obviously, I’d consider myself a midfielder by trade, but I played right-back quite a lot last season and I feel comfortable there,” said Gardner.
“If the manager wants me to play right-back, then I’ll do it. If I get the chance to play, then I want to play, I don’t want to be sitting on the bench.
“I played right-back most of last season, so it’s not an unfamiliar position for me.”