HE was the boy from St Andrew who gave the Reebok a reggae heartbeat for 14 years, but Ricardo Gardner is now getting his head round life after Bolton Wanderers.
Few players in the club’s modern day history have grown up in the public spotlight quite like “Bibi”, who was plucked from Jamaica as a teenager by Colin Todd after his performances at the 1998 World Cup and planted into a cultural environment just about as far removed from his homeland as it gets.
No wonder, then, that the whippet-like winger was quickly adopted as an honorary Boltonian, and that he has remained universally popular on the terraces through all his trials and tribulations in a distinguished Wanderers career.
By his own admission, Gardner has found it tough to come to terms with the fact he will no longer be turning out for the Whites, with his contract not being renewed at the end of last season as the team dropped into the Championship.
And it still rankles with him that the last his club’s fans saw of him in action was being sent off at Swansea City almost a year ago, after which injury once again deprived him of a chance to pitch in with the relegation battle.
But it is a measure of how highly he is still regarded that Owen Coyle allowed him the freedom of Euxton to first gain, and then prove his fitness. And Gardner has even pitched in for the reserves as he aims to attract an offer to extend his playing career in England.
The Jamaican is in a good place right now, and speaking to The Bolton News, said he was now able to think about his next move.
“I have had some great memories at this club in the last 14 years,” he said after attending a meeting of the Bolton Wanderers Supporters Association on Thursday night. “They will always stick with me.
“Since the day I got here and right up until now, I have been made welcome in the town.
“It is far, far away from home. But it wasn’t as hard as I think it could have been because of the people I had around me.
“Now it is time to move on with my career, and wait to see what is in store for me now.”
Gardner admits he considered retiring completely from the game after being cut free in the summer but after working with a knee specialist in Holland, found the encouragement he needed to carry on with his playing career.
“I met some good people over there and decided I wanted to carry on,” he said. “I love football and now I just need to be patient and see what comes up.
“I’ve had the opportunity to train with the team. It’s something that the gaffer did not have to do, so I thank him for that.
“It is important for me to train day in, day out, to stay fit and be ready for the chance when it comes. For that I’m thankful.”
In all, Gardner managed 417 appearances for Wanderers, putting him 29th in the all-time list.
It all began in the rather unglamorous surroundings of Victoria Park, Hartlepool, where Gardner - newly recruited by Colin Todd from Harbour View - replaced Dean Holdsworth in the second half of a 3-0 win in the League Cup.
A week later he had scored on his league debut at West Brom, although that season would end in disappointment at Wembley as Todd’s exciting young side were beaten by Watford in the play-off final.
Injury cut short his second season but he returned with gusto to help the team now governed by Sam Allardyce to a memorable win over Preston North End at the Millennium Stadium, which kicked off a golden Premier League era.
More fond memories followed, with two European campaigns, that goal at Bayern Munich and a run that put him second only to Jussi Jaaskelainen in the top flight’s all-time longest serving foreign player list.
Injuries have too-often punctuated those happy times but it speaks volumes of the Jamaican’s fighting spirit that he has battled back from knee problems that have accounted for some players’ livelihoods.
Gardner barely pauses for thought when asked what the zenith of his Whites career was.
“If it wasn’t for the play-off final we wouldn’t be able to talk about the Bayern Munich game, or anything else” he said. “I came here and the goal was to be in the Premier League. That day against Preston we made it happen.
“They were great times to be a player here. I’m sure it was a great time to be a fan too.”
Those heady Premier League days seem a distant memory for many around the Reebok right now, and Gardner understands the frustration currently aimed at Coyle and Co.
“You expect it because the results have not been going for us,” he said.
“But with the knowledge he has of the game and the players around him, it is not impossible to turn it around.
“We have a squad that can climb the table. I hope the football we have been playing can turn into results because so far I don’t think they tell how we have been playing.
“The only thing the lads can do is graft. That is the only way you can get results.
“It is tough to get three points in this league but you have to do whatever you can to make it happen.”
Even when he successfully finds a new club, Gardner won’t be a stranger to his adopted home.
He intends to stay in the town with his family and is working towards organising a testimonial game against a Jamaica XI, which has been given the green light by the club.
“I haven’t got a time in mind,” he said. “The club have agreed and it is about waiting for the right opportunity now.”