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As he sat in a room surrounded by trophies at the home of Tvååkers IF which England are using as their training base in Sweden, Craig Gardner could be forgiven for thinking he has a realistic chance of getting hold of some silverware of his own when the UEFA European Under-21 Championship concludes in a little over two weeks' time.
England arrived at the finals on the back of a run of only two defeats since November 2005, and having beaten Azerbaijan 7-0 in their last run-out before Monday's Group B opener against Finland. Gardner, who scored the third in that romp with a crisply taken half-volley, said "team spirit in the camp is massive" and believes England's unity as well as their undoubted talent could drive them on to glory in Sweden.
"It's a massive tournament and the whole of England will be watching us," said the 22-year-old. "Of course we're excited but everybody is relaxed as well. The mood in the camp is excellent, confidence and spirits are high and all the lads are buzzing. Obviously we're not taking the game lightly, we know what [Finland] have got and what they can do so we're going to go out there and as soon as that whistle goes we'll be going for it."
Gardner faces a nervous wait to see whether he will feature in Stuart Pearce's starting XI. He admitted himself that the tempo in training has been "unbelievably high" and that the manager "will have headaches picking the team", but is used to such concerns as a member of a talented Aston Villa FC squad which recently finished sixth in the Premier League and progressed to the UEFA Cup knockout rounds.
A central midfielder by trade, he was used in various positions, including right-back, by Villa last season (appearing in 27 games) but started last Monday's friendly against Azerbaijan as the right-sided attacker in the three-pronged forward line favoured by Pearce. A lively presence going forward and solid defensively that night, he knows Finland in Halmstad represents a far sterner challenge: "As a group we know Finland really well as we've been watching videos of them. They finished top of their [qualifying] group and are a strong, hard-working team so we know it's going to be a tough game."
'Great, great team'
Club-mates James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor – the latter, like Gardner, Birmingham-born and a Villa supporter – are among the star names in the England squad and Gardner says "it's been a massive encouragement" having them involved along with Theo Walcott, another with experience of the senior squad. "We're going to go out there and players like them are going to be on fire. The gaffer has a great, great team here ... so hopefully we can do well," he added. How well remains to be seen, but the fact England have been practising penalties daily shows they are readying themselves for challenges beyond the group stage.
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