Sheffield Wednesday exclusive pt.1 – Anthony Gardner on rejecting Crystal Palace, Dave Jones, and the Achilles injury that ended it all
In the first part of this two part exclusive, former Sheffield Wednesday defender Anthony Gardner speaks to The72 about his Crystal Palace contract rejection and subsequent Hillsborough move, Dave Jones’ influence in the signing, and the Achilles injury that eventually ended his career.
Sheffield Wednesday signed the former Port Vale, Tottenham Hotspur, Hull City and Crystal Palace defender ahead of the 2012/13 season. Gardner came in as a senior player, backed up by more than 250 professional appearances with 144 of those coming at Tottenham Hotspur.
Having spent the last two seasons at Crystal Palace, Gardner had stabilised his career after some toughening battles with injury, racking up a commendable 62 appearances in two seasons at Selhurst Park. But he’d turn down the offer of a new contract at then Championship club Crystal Palace.
“I’d done quite well at Palace and I’d got games under my belt and my form was good,” he explained. “I had the contract offer from Palace but I felt that I warranted an extra year on my contract, because I proved I could play the games consistently and I played consistently well.”
In search of new opportunities as a free agent, Gardner would sign for what’d prove to be his last professional club, Sheffield Wednesday. A free agent coming into the latter years of his footballing career, he saw potential in Championship newcomers Sheffield Wednesday and penned a two year deal.
“My contract came to an end and I had an offer from Sheffield Wednesday and I’d spoken with Dave Jones,” said Gardner. “The club had just got promoted, they had huge potential with the club in the mindset that they wanted to push on. I spoke with Jones and I felt my time at Palace was going to end.”
Gardner had told us of how he struggled for fitness in the midsection of his career. He’d endured a contested end to his time at Spurs and would be shunned in a loan move to Everton, whilst running into further injury woes at Hull City.
In his first season at Wednesday though, Gardner made 38 appearances in all competitions in what was his most prominent campaign since the 2003/04 season with Spurs, when he made 40 across all competitions.
Despite Wednesday’s newfound Championship status and the excitement surrounding them on their return to second-tier duties, it was Jones who proved definitive in Gardner’s move to Hillsborough.
“I think part of it was reputation,” he said when asked about Jones’ influence in his move to Wednesday. “I knew his reputation and knew his man management skills were strong. He’d been at Cardiff before and Southampton, and especially at Cardiff he’d done well.
“I’ve always been a follower of the club (Sheffield Wednesday) as a kid, so I knew it was a stage where I could go and play my football for a big club in front of a good set of fans.”
Gardner headed for Hillsborough in hopes of being a senior figure at the club. Coming from the likes of Spurs and having the experience of playing for England too, the now 40-year-old showcased his Premier League upbringing in the Championship.
“That season at Sheffield Wednesday I was happy,” he said. “It was more, not relief because I knew I had it in me, but more of a case that I was more experienced and I had a lot more responsibility coming in being a senior player.
“A couple of games in, Jones said ‘look, you’re going to be captain on the pitch, I’m going to need that leadership quality from you’. I had a lot more responsibility and that was nice to have. I think that showed in my performances and my fitness levels were good, and the way I was managed.”
Being a player who’d suffered such injury trauma in his career, the apparent secret behind his first season success at Hillsborough was the keen man management of Jones that kept Gardner match fit, but not at risk of injury.
“The manager and the club realised that they needed me on the pitch so I was managed a bit different to what I was man managed before, training wise, regimes to get games out of me,” he explained.
“I played quite a few games and my form was really good – I was in the Championship Team of the Week once or twice. The season was up and down, but more of a stabilising season in a sense where we did quite well considering the team had just come up and we were rebuilding.”
On the whole, Sheffield Wednesday would’ve been proud of their 18th-place finish in their return to the Championship. The foundations were being laid to pave their way back to the Premier League and Gardner was at the heart of all things stable at the club. But unrest would soon unfold.
Round 16 of the 2013/14 Championship season saw Wednesday head to Bloomfield Park to face Blackpool, where a 2-0 defeat would prove to be Jones’ last in the dugout – he was sacked in December 2013. It capped a run of one win in their opening 16 games of the Championship season, with Wednesday sitting in 23rd-place of the table.
Jones’ no.2, Stuart Gray, would come in. Formerly of a two-and-a-half year spell in charge of Northampton Town, Gray would perform better than many expected as caretaker boss and would soon after land the permanent role.
“Gray was a very good coach,” said Gardner. “Obviously he was Jones’ assistant and Stu was a very good coach, and the club looked at it and said, ‘we got Stuart Gray here who can take the reins and he’ll be able to stabilise and get the club moving in the right direction’. And he did.”
By this point though, Gardner had already – unknowingly – played his last game for Sheffield Wednesday. He continued his form from the prior 2012/13 season into the next, featuring six times in the Championship before going under the knife in September. News broke a week before his 33rd birthday that Gardner would require surgery on an injured Achilles, and that he’d likely miss the remainder of the season.
Gardner had played not only his last match for Wednesday, but his last match as a professional footballer some 15 years after signing his first professional contract at Port Vale. Jones spoke of his devastation after what’d been another bright start to the season Gardner.
“It was pretty much a forced retirement,” he said. “I‘d been carrying the injury for a couple of games at the start of the season and we played Leeds in a local derby the week before I did it. The whole game I was agony. I never trained the whole of next week and did a fitness test on Friday, and travelled to Middlesbrough – I was struggling with it in the warm up, but I played.
“I jumped up to head a ball at half-time, and it went. I was literally coming off at half-time because I was really struggling. I did all the rehab for the rest of the year, released at the end of the season and it was just a case of, I was going to carry on playing, I felt I had more to give as long as my Achilles was okay.
“My mental state was okay. Yeah, I’d just had my worst injury and I had later in my career, but I was confident I could get back playing. It took me two years to feel good again and by that time I’d already made a decision after about a year of rehab, and then another year of trying to get it right, that I was going to knock it on the head.
“By the time I started feeling I could do any kind of recreational sports without any pain it was like three years down the line from when I actually did it. It was time to call it a day.”
Part Two of The72’s exclusive interview with ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Anthony Gardner to follow.