John Gardiner: A teacher on and off the field.
(This article appeared in my Blast from the Past column in Goal Weekly, 25 November 2011, p. 19.)
John Gardiner was born in Dundee in 1947 and came to Australia in 1968 after playing with Peterborough and East Fife. He joined George Cross signing a contract that in those days was a yellow form which bound the player to the club for life. It was to be the source of much controversy nearly a decade later. Gardiner was one of a number of uncompromising but skillful Scottish and English midfielders and defenders who flourished in the game in this country. Always learning and teaching he was an on-field coach long before he gave up playing to coach full-time.
In 1971, Gardiner won the inaugural Rothmans Gold Medal, which succeeded the Argus Medal as the premier individual honour for a Victorian player. The following year he won it again and also took out the Bill Fleming Medal which continued as the media award. In 1974 he helped George Cross to win the Ampol Cup and to reach the Dockerty Cup final in 1972, where they went down to Juventus as the Italian powerhouse completed a hat-trick of victories. Gardiner represented Victoria in the 1970 and 1980s but never received the cap he deserved for Australia. By 1976 however, Gardiner and George Cross had fallen out and he threatened to take the club to court to challenge the legality of the contract which bound him to it. In the end he was released to join Essendon Lions, later Croatia, for $6,000, the highest fee to date paid by a Metropolitan club. Les Shorrock reported that Gardiner’s divorce from George Cross had come through and despite the long lay off he was Lions’ best player in a win over Green Gully in May. All three clubs were to figure largely in Gardiner’s subsequent career.
Gardiner spent a year at Lions’ then joined South Melbourne for $13,000 for the first season of the National Soccer League in 1977. Hellas struggled that year and the following season, Gardiner was back at Croatia leading the club to back-to-back State League titles in 1978 and 1979. Croatia also won the Dockerty Cup in 1979. Tommy Cumming won the Gold Medal in both these seasons.
In 1981, Bobby McLachlan, in his second year as coach at Green Gully, signed Gardiner and made him captain and assistant. Gully had never finished higher than third in the league, but the new squad swept through the season winning the league, the Dockerty Cup and the Ampol Cup. Two feisty Scots, McLachlan and Gardiner had some almighty spats but always made up quickly and both were thoroughly committed to the cause. Peter Desira’s Green Gully Soccer Club: 50 Years tells some great stories about their relationship and their effect on young players like David Hogben, who was just coming into the squad at that stage. The following year Gully won the league and the Dockerty Cup again but at the end of the season Croatia signed Gardiner as coach. Croatia finished as runner-up to Green Gully, and won the State League and Dockerty Cups, though by then Tommy Cumming had taken over as coach.
The circumstances of Gardiner’s sacking by Croatia tells much about the man. Though he did not feel up to playing at Croatia he agreed to turn out for Hamlyn Rangers in Geelong then playing in Metropolitan Division Four. He did not train with the club, changed in a separate room then took the field and led the club from there. So when the final match of the season was against Keysborough, Gardiner left Croatia at half-time to help Rangers win the league on goal difference from North Geelong.
In 1984 he coached Polonia to second place in the State league behind Morwell Falcons and by now he was ready to make his peace with Sunshine George Cross and took over as coach of the National League side in 1985. He was already a staff coach for the Australian Soccer Federation as well as turning out for Rangers as a player. As he said ‘I enjoy [coaching courses] because it brings me back to the grass roots, the fundamentals. When I’m there I’m putting something back into the game. I respect coaches who take on jobs with clubs, because every time they do they are putting their reputation on the line.’ Gardiner continued at George Cross until 1989, giving John Markovski his debut as a 15-year-old substitute in 1986 and Andrew Marth and helping to keep the club in the league. In 1988 George Cross missed the play-off on goal difference, but thereafter it struggled. Gardiner was succeeded by Ernie Merrick.
In the 1990s Gardiner coached a number of clubs including Thomastown and Springvale White Eagles and continued with his broader coaching role for state and national bodies. His contribution to the game as player and coach over thirty years is hard to match.
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