Ricardo Gardner made over 400 appearances for Bolton Wanderers during a lengthy tenure that lasted an impressive 14 years. The left-sided former Jamaica international spoke about representing his country as a teenager at the World Cup in France and getting a move to Bolton as a result of some impressive performances at the tournament.
Now in his early 40s, Gardner spoke on the Here We Go Again podcast about the challenges of settling in a country he’d never been to before with plenty of differences to his environment back home in the Caribbean, and how he was given plenty of help to feel comfortable in new surroundings.
‘Playing at the World Cup in 1998 for Jamaica is one of the greatest experiences from throughout my career. Being at the best tournament in the world that you love so much, playing against the best players in the world is amazing.
‘A lot of great players have passed and not had the opportunity to play at a World Cup. It was a great experience that I really enjoyed, and it gave me my opportunity to play club football outside of Jamaica.
‘As a young player in that Jamaica team, I looked up to the entire squad. Everybody really played a part, but there were a few I was close with; like Ian Goodison who went onto play for Hull City and Tranmere Rovers, he’s a good friend of mine and one of the players I looked up to.
‘We had Peter Cargill who was one of our stalwart midfielders. Then, we had the likes of Theodore Whitmore and Altimont Butler – I could go on and on, and of course we had some special players who came over from England that I admire for taking their opportunity to come and play for our country.
‘The likes of Michael Johnson, Robbie Earle, Marcus Gayle – as I said earlier, every one of them to be honest with you. How could I forget Jamie Lawrence and Micah Hyde – they both came into the team and did an excellent job. There was a lot of talent in that side.’
Jamaica would ultimately fail to qualify from the group stage at the World Cup in 1998 but a young Gardner would get the opportunity to come up against some of Europe and the World’s best when he faced Croatia and Argentina. As a childhood fan of the South American nation, it was another opportunity he relished.
‘It was great to play against some top players in the Croatia and Argentina team because the only time we’d seen players like that before was on the television. So, to be rubbing shoulders with these big names was amazing. In Jamaica growing up, a lot of kids support Argentina, England and Brazil and I supported Argentina because of Diego Maradona.
‘So, for me to be up against some of these players who I’d grown up watching on the television was an unbelievable feeling; sometimes when I think of these times I get an adrenaline rush running through me again.
‘To be fourth on the list of appearance makers for Jamaica is a great achievement. To be getting one game for your country, hearing that national anthem is great, but it is a great accomplishment to have played as many games for Jamaica as I have done. It’s is something that I appreciate and honour with everything that I have.
‘When Bolton paid a million pounds to Harbour View in 1998 it was massive. That much money hadn’t been paid for a player in the Jamaican leagues before at that time and there was so many talented players in Jamaica who never got the opportunity to play overseas. For a youngster like myself to get an opportunity to play in England, it was a massive deal here in Jamaica.
‘To be honest, I got the move because of what I did out there on the pitch for Jamaica at the World Cup. I’m sure if you don’t go out there and represent yourself there will be nobody interested in signing you. But, someone was representing me. I had my agent (Phil Graham) who was from England and he had mentioned to us that the tournament was a big opportunity for us to get a contract either in Europe or somewhere outside of Jamaica. It was always in the back of my head that this was my chance, my opportunity and I’m going to grab it with both hands.
‘People like myself didn’t get opportunities to play in England really until René Simões came to Jamaica. Before that, most of us in Jamaica were thinking about trying to play in the American leagues because there was no Jamaican before me getting the type of opportunity that I got. My opportunity to play in England was so far away until René Simões came to Jamaica to coach the national team.
‘He started letting us know how much football can change the life of us footballers in Jamaica because he came and he saw so much talent. After he told us what we could achieve, it was always our dream to try and get a contract overseas.’
Gardner of course did get the opportunity to play his football on foreign soil when he arrived in England to sign for Bolton Wanderers. He spoke about his feelings at the time as a young man ready to cut his teeth in a new league and a new environment.
‘Moving to Bolton was the first time I’d left my community in Jamaica and moved into a different community. The experience was unbelievable and I’ve met some great people during my time playing in England. I knew nothing about England other than London and knew nothing about Bolton Wanderers, so coming into that town I had a carer called Alan Whittle and he had a wonderful family who helped me to settle in. They made it feel like home away from home for me and made me feel like I have an extended family.
‘England is a totally different environment to Jamaica that you’re not used to. Just imagine leaving England at 18 and going to live in Spain for example, or somewhere that you haven’t been before. The players and people around the club at Bolton helped me to settle and that was great because one I’m settled that’s when you can get the best out of me. It felt like a family from day one.’