Ricardo Gardner ... from pup to leader of the pack.
Audley Boyd, Assistant Sport Editor
IN JUST over 10 years, Ricardo Gardner has shot to the head of the pack.
No longer a shielded pup feeding off the group's strength, the man nicknamed 'Bibi' by older brother Roger Bancroft because he was the youngest in the family, now finds himself calling upon the vast excesses of his own instincts, natural abilities and more than a decade of international experience, to lead the Reggae Boyz into battle.
The transition, reflected in the time, has neither been fast nor expected. It is one, though, which has been easily accepted on the unblemished advances of a career that has taken him from the World Cup Finals to another lofty level of the game in one of the world's top leagues: the English Premiership.
Today, though, Gardner's focus has shifted from the terraces in England to the Reggae Boyz's 'Office' in Kingston, where he will lead hungry forces into battle against Mexico, a battle the team must win to keep alive hopes dangling from a thread.
"We have to go into the game with a positive attitude," he says in his trademark humble manner as he stands in the McDonald Tunnel hallway from which the teams will descend on to the Stadium pitch tonight.
"We have the squad here to do the job. We have to go out there and work hard for each other. It's a do-or-die."
It's not the first time Gardner has faced uncertainty in an all-or-nothing position with the Boyz. During the final round of the historic France '98 campaign, the team was bottom of the barrel after completing nearly half its fixtures. Only this time, his role and experience on the team are not the same.
"We have to give all respect to the '98 team that qualified. At that time, we had no experience and it was very difficult. I was saying now that it would be easier, because we have more experience, players who are professionals in top leagues. It was much more difficult in '98 than now."
Kept on learning
He added: "When I just started, I was a youngster and had to learn from a lot of people in the game. I kept on learning. You're never too old to learn, so I'm still learning, even from the youngest in the group," he quipped.
"Now, it's more like a leadership role. Before I became the captain, I wasn't fully involved in the team. Now I'm the captain, the leader of the team, and I have to play a major role in keeping the vibes in the team, to keep the team going, and to represent the team in different aspects on and off the field."
Such aspects include addressing the media, a group which became hugely familiar with Gardner because of his talents as a schoolboy at Wolmer's, when he was called up by then technical director, René Simoes.
"When I saw him play the first time, I saw the technical qualities, but I never thought he could've been the captain 10 years after," the Brazilian said. "People called me crazy, but I could see the guy had a lot of quality and understanding of the game.
"At that time, we had Gregory Messam, but we could see he had a lot of potential to be what he is today," Simoes remarked. "He listens too; he's a listener. If you want to become a listener, you have to know how to be with somebody in charge.
"You never see Bibi say anything negative about another, he's always positive; he's a very positive mind," said Simoes, echoing sentiments that testify to the great admiration bestowed upon Gardner not only in his homeland, but in England, where he has even captained Bolton Wanderers.
He was destined for such a career path.
Gardner actually passed the Common Entrance Exams to attend Excelsior High, went there for a week, then transferred to Wolmer's because of his abilities as a track athlete, which had made him Champion Boy at Harbour View Primary.
At Boys' Champs, he also won a bronze medal, as part of the Stephen Francis-coached Wolmer's Class Three sprint relay quartet, until destiny took its toll.
"I did it for about one to two years, but the training was too hard. Track-and-field training was hard. Then there was this period where they see me five days this week, then four the next week, then three the next week, then two; and then they saw me on the football field next," Gardner reminisced on his move to football.
He won Pepsi (Under-13) and Manning Cup titles, but then lost another Manning final, against Charlie Smith, an occasion that presented his best friend a first glimpse of his talent.
"Before him get call, Manning Cup final did a play and a little youth who me know say 'Come we go watch the Manning Cup final, Wolmer's have a youth name Bibi'," recalls Ian 'Pepe' Goodison, with whom he has formed a solid combination in Jamaica's defence.
"Dem time there I didn't know him," Goodison pointed out. "So, we went to the Stadium and watch him play against Charlie Smith, but it was like a one-man thing. He was outstanding. But dem time there, you had Pele (Kevin Wilson) and Chin-Sue (Cornel) and Bunsie (Everton). Dem a take it to them.
"A couple weeks him come in a camp and me see him a look around and me say "Join that room yah,' and from there so, me and him a spar."
Goodison added: "As a youngster coming in the team, just like when I did just come into the team, you had a bigger man who used to take care of me. Dem time there him did still a go school and him never have any vehicle. I had access to my brother dem vehicle, so I used to bring him go a school and pick him up afterwards. So, from there, the relationship just got stronger and stronger."
Joining the ranks of the Reggae Boyz was not as easy as it appeared.
"It was a big decision that I had to make," Gardner pointed out. "I remember when Simoes said to me that I had to choose school or deal with football. It was a big decision in my family. But I still had to do my schoolwork as well. After I left training, I went to camp so it helped me in both ways.
"I got a whole heap of respect from the people at school and I appreciate the support that I've got," added Gardner, who honed his skills at Harbour View Football Club, where he also won KSAFA Under-14, Under-16, Minor League and Jackie Bell KO titles.
Forever grateful, as reflected in his frequent references of thankfulness, Gardner picked out his mother, Hyacinth Archibald, friend, Simone Reynolds, brothers, Roger Bancroft, Christopher Muir, Michael Muir and Andrew Rowe, along with coach Ludlow Bernard, and of course, Simoes.
Gardner has another special talent - music - and is still the official team deejay.
"From I was young, I used to do that as fun," said Gardner. "From I was a youth, I used to do it in the community. There is always something between music and football. There's a strong feeling between the two and that always brings a vibes in the camp. It's just a love for it really."
With Goodison and Robert Scarlett (Little Bibi), Gardner owns a record label - Heart of Love Production - that forged the hit Gal a Run Them Head, which was sung by Erupt.
Long-term career move
Earning contracts for Jamaican footballers in England is another long-term career move Gardner is looking at. But his devotion now is to football, which has been quite testing for him, with four surgeries. Asked if any had ever brought on the retirement thought, he replied in a fashion akin to his nippy moves on the pitch. "No, not at all. Having my family played a great part, my girlfriend and brothers and even the people at my club. Whenever I did an operation, they just helped me to get stronger and stronger. I never wanted to quit, I just got stronger and stronger.
"The worst thing as a footballer is just to sit down and watch training. It's difficult. It's something that you love and enjoy; you always want to be out there and working, even though it can be stressful at times. Also, with the help of Father God, He has played a major part in my life; you can't leave Him out of the picture."
A Rastafarian who sports dreadlocks, Gardner has great faith, self-belief and commands huge respect. And like most Jamaicans, he loves eating chicken and says he has never encountered any negatives due to his religious beliefs.
"I haven't faced anything negative and hopefully, I won't face anything negative. Is just love we show everybody. Nobody made any suggestion (to cut hair); maybe they realised that it's just life."
He added: "I eat chicken, but I don't eat it from everywhere. There's always fish around everywhere. It's just the life and what you promote."
Asked what his recipe is for avoiding controversies, as he has never been involved in any, the national captain said: "My thing is to just continue to remain humble. It's just work and who's in charge. We have to follow the instructions and work with it, try to be positive. If there's something negative, I just use the positive to get around it. That's what's kept me out of the conflict."
There's another conflict brewing in the field, one he and his charges will face head on at The Office.
"We have to go out there and give 110 per cent individually and collectively, work for each other all over the field.
"I think playing at home will bring a lot more energy ... We know what it's like playing at home. When the crowd gets behind us we have a more positive vibe. It always adds some more energy to the home team."
Given his decade-long experience, the leader of the pack knows just how much they are going to need to feed off that energy.