IT is nearly 15 years since Ricardo Gardner stepped nervously off the plane as a slight teenager to meet his new manager Colin Todd and begin a footballing career on foreign soil.

But as he closed a chapter on his life to head back to Jamaica yesterday, the Wanderers legend sent a special message of thanks to the club’s fans, and the town he will forever see as a home away from home.

Gardner – referred to as “Bibi” by most who knew him – left the club last summer after playing 409 times for the Whites.

Only 18 other players have achieved that milestone but despite his pedigree, attempts to stay in the game in England have proved fruitless and the 34-year-old took the decision to move his family back to the island he left after the 1998 World Cup to plan his next step.

It is not a move he has taken lightly and there was clearly a tinge of disappointment in his voice as he spoke to The Bolton News at his home of several years in Lostock.

But the dreadlocked warrior – whose flamboyant hairstyles, boots and dress made him a fans’ favourite during the reign of five different managers – does not regret a single second of his time at the Reebok.

“I have learned you cannot take anything for granted,” he said. “You have to thank God for this journey because it has been a great one.

“From the first time I stepped inside the Reebok and heard the fans they made me feel welcome. I was home. They made me feel wanted.

“I would love to have given it another go and kept playing over here but this seems like the perfect time for me – I wouldn’t say to move on, because maybe I’ll be back here some day – but to go, breathe some fresh air and take it from there.”

Gardner is seeking out a move to the MLS after spending a year training hard at Wanderers, West Ham and Barnsley to keep up his fitness.

And judging by the way he battled back from a string of serious injuries during his time with Bolton, you would not bet on his playing career being over just yet.

Gardner overcame two cruciate ligament tears in two years but adapted his game to continue a career in the Premier League.

Recent announcements about future improvements in sports science and rehabilitation at Euxton have been met with two thumbs up from the Jamaican.

“What Sam Allardyce did at that time was great,” he said. “And it would be good to see that come back because it was a great era. Just going to the training ground and seeing how people worked was very special. Everyone was so happy and that played a big part in our success at the time.

“I had injuries that were serious but I just have to thank God for the people I had around me in those situations.

“The staff at the football club, my other half Simone, my mum and everyone who has supported me. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”

The man who broadened the horizons for Gardner and a generation of Jamaican footballers was Rene Simoes, the Brazilian who took the Reggae Boyz to their first-ever World Cup at France 98.

And the former Wanderer has similar aspirations for the future, with plans to help young Caribbean talent get into European football.

“Growing up in Jamaica we couldn’t see ourselves playing outside the country,” he said.

“(Rene) Simoes came and changed the whole attitude, so for me to be spotted by Bolton Wanderers, get a chance to come and play against the best players in the world, I haven’t got the words to express how thankful I am for that.

“There’s so much talent in Jamaica that goes to waste. In the future it is definitely something I want to do because when I came over here, I wanted to open the door for other people.

“When I am finished and settled, I want to bring players to England – but also other places in Europe because it isn’t always easy with a work permit here.”

Among Gardner’s memorable moments in a Wanderers shirt were a goal on debut against West Brom, one against Preston North End in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium and another against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.

Talk of a testimonial continues; the club have given their blessing but it seems likely to remain on hold until Gardner has seen out the rest of his playing days.

So, as he jets off into the sunset, Bibi had one final message for the fans who had made him one of their own.

“All the years I have put in over here, I think I have worked hard, I had my ups and downs but I have always tried to turn those negatives into positives,” he said.

“I will miss Bolton and the people who have made me so welcome but maybe this won’t be the end? You never know what the man has planned for you.

“It has been a wonderful journey, and I want to thank everyone for every moment of it.”