ALBION'S preparations for a fifth successive season of Barclays Premier League football continue to gather pace - with the signing of Craig Gardner.
The 27-year-old midfielder will officially join the Baggies on a Bosman transfer on July 1, after passing a Hawthorns medical and penning a three-year contract, plus a further year’s option in the club’s favour.
Albion have beaten off competition from a string of clubs to agree the deal, which will come into effect when his Sunderland contract expires at the end of June.
Gardner will meet his new team-mates for the first time when he reports for pre-season training in early July and Director of Football Administration Richard Garlick is delighted to have strengthened the club’s midfield options.
“Craig is someone we have followed for a long time and we are delighted to finally get him,” said Garlick.
“We tried to bring him here in the January transfer window but it did not work out.
“We have continued to track him and he has expressed a real desire to be at this club following interest from elsewhere.
“He has the flexibility to play in a few positions across the midfield, scores goals, and can slot in at right-back if required.
“I think he will bring a freshness to our midfield area and his character will suit our dressing room.
“We know we have a big summer ahead of us and it is great to get our first signing done so early.”
Solihull-born Gardner emerged through the youth ranks at Villa and made his professional debut for the club on Boxing Day 2005.
It proved to be the first of 80 appearances, scoring six goals, before he completed a cross-Second City switch to Blues in January 2010 for a fee in the region of £3million.
Gardner, who has a keen eye for goal, went on to enjoy 18 months at St Andrew’s and played an integral part in the club’s 2011 League Cup triumph.
His extra-time winner proved the difference against West Ham to seal a dramatic 4-3 semi-final success before he started the Wembley final versus Arsenal, only to be forced off due to injury shortly after half-time.
Gardner, who had racked up 52 appearances and scored 11 goals, completed a switch to Sunderland for around £6million in summer 2011.
He made a total of 100 outings for the Black Cats during his three years on Wearside, finding the net on 14 occasions including a consolation for Sunderland in Albion’s 4-2 victory at the Stadium of Light in November 2012.
One of those appearances came off the bench in the Capital One Cup final defeat against Manchester City in March of this year.
Gardner, older brother to Villa midfielder Gary, was also capped 14 times for England Under-21s and was part of the squad which finished runners-up at the UEFA European U21 Championship in 2009.
In total, he has made 232 club appearances, including 66 as a substitute, scoring 31 times.