In the second part of this two-part exclusive, former Sheffield Wednesday defender Anthony Gardner talks to The72 about his fight against retirement, opportunities to play in the MLS, Tony Pulis’ Wednesday saga and Sven-Goran Eriksson at Hillsborough.
The former Port Vale, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Hull City and Crystal Palace man would end his career with Sheffield Wednesday. He joined ahead of the 2012/13 season and in the first part of our interview, he spoke to us about his exit from Palace, Dave Jones and the injury that would eventually end his career.
Of all the significant injury setbacks Gardner had in his career, the Achilles blow at Sheffield Wednesday would top them all. Having been such a mainstay in Jones’ side in his first year at the club, Gardner would be ruled out the season just six games into the 2013/14 campaign. Released under new manager Stuart Gray at the end of that season, Gardner would continue on the road to recovery
“I spoke to Stuart Gray and he said the club is changing direction and the kind of players they’re going to keep hold of,” Gardner said of his Wednesday release. “They’d obviously decided they were going to go another direction and rebuild.
“They looked after me while I was under contract and then it was down to me to go and get my rehab. When I was under contract I was going to an athlete’s rehab centre called Athlete’s Performance. I’d been back and forth from there so after the season when I was out of contact, I went back and did the rest of my rehab there, came back and I went to Bolton (Wanderers) for a few days because my ex-manager was there – Dougie Freedman from Palace.
“He was at Bolton so I went to Bolton and it wasn’t good – I knew then. This was probably around Christmas time, after the year I left Sheffield Wednesday. I didn’t feel like I could play at any kind of professional level, so I had in my head then that I could be struggling.
“In the next six months I went into Port Vale which was my first club which was local to where I grew up, and then I ended up having to go to St George’s Park for a about two weeks to get more rehab, basically as one more stint to see if I could get it (his Achilles) in the right state.
“I gave it my all. My vision was that I would hopefully play until my body or my mind was just like, ‘it’s time to pack in and move on to something else’. I didn’t envision it would happen after that last season and the season I had before. My body was in good shape, my mind was in shape, and I felt I could play for another couple of years whether it was here or abroad. But things happen in football. Injuries happen. I had a bad impact injury and that was it for me. I made a decision mentally then that it was time to move on.”
It brought an end to what was a 15 year career as a professional footballer. Throughout the interview, Gardner spoke of the ‘roller coaster’ journey that was his footballing career – he’d played at the highest level, being capped by England in 2004 and playing in Europe with Tottenham, the club he made 144 appearances for.
“There were a lot of highs and lows,” he said. “The time I played for my country was the highest of the high and then the lows of having to stop your career because you had a serious injury. It was a roller coaster ride through my career but all-in-all, I was happy to play some games towards the back end of the career.”
But one thing Gardner said he’d missed out on was a move abroad. “I had a couple of opportunities throughout my career,” he revealed. “One when I was at Spurs and one before I went to Palace. But it didn’t fit timing wise for family and circumstances weren’t great. I didn’t want to go overseas when I had a daughter in the UK, it was, ‘okay, maybe I’ll look at it more seriously towards the end’, but it just so happened that it got taken away from me.”
Coming up to seven years since Gardner’s departure, and things have changed a lot at Sheffield Wednesday. In terms of league position, Wednesday have gone back five places from the 16th-place Championship finish they achieved in the 2013/14 season. But behind the scenes has been a different story.
Dejphon Chansiri would take over from Milan Mandaric soon after Gardner’s departure. In the years since, Wednesday have come as close as they have all century to clinching promotion when they reached the 2017 play-off final under Carlos Carvalhal.
Having since been through all of Jos Luhukay, Steve Bruce, Garry Monk and Tony Pulis, Wednesday are currently managerless – stuck in 21st-place of the table, but optimistic in the wake of a darkened tenure under Pulis. The Welshman led a widely publicised and widely contested reign. But Gardner believes that, at the time of his November appointment, Pulis was the right man to stabilise the ship at Hillsborough.
“Personally for me, he was a good appointment,” he said. “He’d already done well in the Championship. The year I went to Hull he got Stoke promoted from the Championship and he’s been at other clubs in the Championship.
“But it seems it wasn’t the right fit for them. I don’t know if there was stuff going on behind the scenes that pushed the decision for him to leave the club or the club to sack him. But I was under the impression that he’d be a good appointment but obviously this is a results game and the first 10 results weren’t good so the club decided to relieve him of his duties which was a surprise to me.
“I thought they would’ve given him at least until maybe, after this January window to get some players in and then a couple of months to try and get some results and see if he can get them up the league.”
Before and after Pulis, in the two times that Sheffield Wednesday have been managerless, two of Gardner’s former managers came into contention – Nigel Pearson and Sven-Goran Eriksson. Pearson famed for his work at Leicester City was widely rumoured first time round and again after Pulis’ sacking, with Sven’s name cropping up post-Monk.
The Swede handed Gardner his sole England cap in a match against Sweden back in 2004. Looking for a way back into management after a spell in charge of the Philippines national team, Sven applied for the Wednesday job back in November.
“My experiences of Sven were brief,” Gardner joked. “But he’s known as a good manager. Obviously he’s very experienced, but I’m going to say I’m not sure if he’s a good fit for Sheffield Wednesday right now.”
Pearson was another manager that Gardner had worked under, but never played under – he became Hull City manager after Iain Dowie was removed in the summer of 2010, but Gardner would leave for Crystal Palace before playing a compeitive match under Pearson.
“I definitely feel that Nigel Pearson would be a good fit for Sheffield Wednesday,” Gardner told us. “I think the club needs a manager that’s going to install stability, fresh ideas, and have that passion and drive to move the club forward. Whether he’d want to take it, I don’t know.”
Leaving Wednesday in 2014, Gardner wouldn’t surmount a return to football and today, he’s working in football recruitment. When asked if he’d ever considered a return to football in a coaching capacity though, Gardner told us of his tendency towards mentoring, rather than coaching the practical side of the game.
“I considered (coaching) it in the past,” he said. “I think if I was going to go down the route of being a coach I would’ve really got my badges when I was playing. I did my first badge and then I was doing my B license for a bit and I stopped. I always had an interest in the mentoring side, that’s the kind of player I was. Especially when I started getting a bit older, I preferred to voice my opinion and try and help players around me by being more vocal on and off the pitch.”
That capped a fascinating insight into Gardner’s time at Sheffield Wednesday. A player who, despite being so beset with injuries, would still enjoy a prolonged and successful career which took him to the highest of highs, and to some of England’s biggest footballing names.
A fine player and a humble human being, the former Sheffield Wednesday captain will be remember for the leader that he was and still is today.