Don Gardner – His Place In History
Modesty At Momentous Breakthrough
Joe Gardiner played in an FA Cup final for Wolverhampton Wanderers and served them royally for four decades in off-field roles.
Immediately below him in the alphabetical list of men who have made first-team appearances for the club is the similarly spelled but lesser-achieving Don Gardner – recorded as a ‘one plus two’. He started once in gold and black and went on as substitute a further twice.
But the latter still has a highly significant place in Molineux history, even if he is hesitant about recognising it. He was the first black man ever to play senior football for Wolves.
For years, we despaired of ever catching up with him, resigned as we were to the fact he had not stayed in touch with any team-mates and had left town long ago. There was little or no trace but the Internet is a wonderful tool and brought one of his friends to our aid earlier this summer as he offered himself as a go-between in the connection process.
And so, across several phone conversations, we have learned something about the utility man Bill McGarry blooded in the spring of 1975 but who disappeared from public view in these parts almost as soon as he was welcomed to the big stage.
He lives in Birmingham, he flourished in business after also playing in America and the cheerful personality he has been blessed with is now coming in useful as he recovers from illness and surgery. He laughs easily and often. So now, at last, we are delighted to share some of his story….
Gardner’s parents were part of the Windrush generation and gave him an unusual start in life. Although resident in Edgbaston, they decided it was too cold here for a child to spend their early months, so he was taken back to Jamaica in the womb and his initial sight of the outside world came in Falmouth on the island’s north coast.
The young Donald spent his first year and a half in the Caribbean and, back in the West Midlands, played football from a young age, although we will return briefly later to the West Indian national sport of cricket.
“I didn’t really support any one of the local clubs….I sort of liked them all,” he said. “As time went on, I represented Birmingham Boys and played for them at St Andrew’s.
“The PE teacher at Portland Road Secondary School in Edgbaston was a Mr Mellor, who was very good to me, taking me to trials as well as encouraging me.
“I attracted plenty of scouts….including from Everton, Blues, Villa, Coventry and Manchester United, but didn’t think that much of it. The better players at that level all had people watching them.
“Coventry were doing well at the time, so I had trials there and also went for training with England Boys at Manchester United. I remember being in this facility that had an indoor pitch and seeing Bobby Charlton and George Best among the United first-team players having a session nearby. It wasn’t unusual for a ball to be kicked over towards them, so we could wander over and say: ‘Mr Best, can we have our ball back, please?'” Cue more laughter.
“I spoke to him once or twice – he was still playing then – and was also noticed by Wolves. I can’t remember who spotted me from there but I know Coventry weren’t too pleased when I said I preferred to go elsewhere. Although I had signed schoolboy forms, it was hard for a club to keep you at the age of 15.”
There was huge pride at how many talented youngsters had been produced down the years on this side of the patch – and would be throughout the 1970s and into the following decade.
Gardner was seen as another in the making, his upbringing at Molineux and Castlecroft nevertheless reflecting the ways of the time and the character of the manager.
“Bill McGarry was a very stern man,” he added. “As I developed, I had quite a lot of reserve games but also plenty in the Works League. My memory tells me you tended to be in that side if you had done something wrong or had fallen short of the coaching staff’s standards.
“It was a tough environment and I am sure that is where I found some of my pace. You needed it to keep out of trouble. There was a lot of one-touch stuff from me in the Works League because you risked a whack if you held on to the ball too long!
“I also remember playing in a game at Ipswich and the chairman coming on the coach with us. It was virtually all A roads then, with hardly any fast sections, so it took an age to get there and back. The fish and chips were essential to keep us going on the return journey.
“I scored some hat-tricks in the lesser sides and bet Bill McGarry once that I would score three in a particular game. I did just that and knocked on his door afterwards asking for my money. It’s probably just as well I don’t remember his reply…..”
We must bear in mind that it’s more than 45 years since Gardner was seeking a way into First Division football. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he hasn’t had the benefit of dinners and other reunions to refresh – and even embellish – the memories.
He has been off the radar and out of the loop but the day he made his first-team debut, in a 5-2 home victory over Luton, remains a highlight.
“I could play on the wing, inside or off the front man and was seen as an impact player as I had speed. I loved playing with Peter Withe because I could get on the end of his flicks and be in the area with one or two touches.
“I was a good get-out ball because the other lads knew they could knock it long and there was a chance I might get on the end of it and win us a throw-in or something.
“I nearly scored after going on for Steve Kindon against Luton. I think it was a header at the near post which the keeper just got to on the line. That would have been a big moment for me.
“There’s also a photo of me staring down at Phil Parkes – the QPR one – in the game I played there the week after. Bill used to like us to get into opposing keepers like that. I know the crowd got into me that day….the fans were very close to the pitch and one of them grabbed my hair when I retrieved the ball for a throw-in.”
Four nights after this solitary senior start came what proved to be his swansong at that level; another outing as sub, this time for Steve Daley, in a 1-0 defeat away to the Derby side who were about to secure the League title. Don has memories of nutmegging Dave Mackay at the Baseball Ground and being given a bit of health advice by way of a riposte but the great Scot was the Rams’ manager then, so maybe the threat he issued to the younger man if he repeated the trick was in a Central League game?
His stock was high enough to be picked up to play that summer for Portland Timbers. A West Midlands migration also took four of his Molineux colleagues, Withe, Barry Powell, Jimmy Kelly and Chris Dangerfield, to America’s west coast, where Tipton-born former Villa youngster Mick Hoban was another linking up under the leadership of Vic Crowe.
Did it prove to be the dream move? “No. In America, most of the pitches were Astroturf and that didn’t suit my game,” Gardner said. “I was all about speed and sharp turns and the surfaces were unforgiving, so I got a lot of strains and other problems with my ankles and knees.
“I am sure they are a lot better now but I remember thinking it was like playing on concrete with a few inches of softer material at the top.”
As the Molineux door started to close in the spring of 1975, it would have been good to report that the adopted Brummie found fulfilment faraway. Alas, it didn’t work out that way.
“I had a spell with Connecticut Bicentennials after Portland but I heard while I was over there that both of my parents were unwell, so I came home to help look after them. They picked up thankfully, although they have both passed away now.
“I played pretty well when I was fit but missed too many games with strains and I became a bit disillusioned with it there and after I returned. I had a short spell with Port Vale that didn’t come to anything and there was some talk of me going to Crewe or to Hong Kong or Australia.
“But I had no interest in travelling all that way and didn’t do anything more than play a bit of local football after that. I had played since I was eight and, with my fitness problems, had lost some of my enthusiasm for the game.
“Being the first black player to represent Wolves really didn’t mean much. Yes, there was some abuse and we were made aware that we were viewed very differently. I became friendly with Laurie Cunningham even before he joined Albion and later got to know Cyrille Regis and we were used to bananas being thrown on the pitch.
“But I just saw myself as another footballer who was trying to get into the first team and stay there. That was enough of a challenge and the other things didn’t affect me. I was so determined to progress. Besides, the way to beat any resistance that there was because of my colour was just to play better.”
Gardner later played a part in getting Bob Hazell to Molineux, informing him what a good club Wolves when they met at a cricket match in a park in Birmingham and when he suspected the defender was hesitating over whether to attend the trial he had been offered.
“I stay in touch with Chris Dangerfield and had hoped to meet up with him a few weeks ago when he was over from America,” Don added. “But I think Bob was the last Wolves first-team player I saw – we bumped into each other in Birmingham.
“I was delighted to see him have such a good career – and George Berry, too, who got his chance a bit earlier.”
We had no idea what life post-football had brought for the subject of this prolonged interview, although the first chat had ended with the message that he needed to tile a neighbour’s kitchen floor and then prepare for a barbecue the following day.
Thoughts of him being at the head of a big family disappeared, though, when he told us he was single – ‘done the engagements and long relationships’ – with one offspring, a grown-up daughter, Ava, who teaches in Edinburgh.
Don spent several years in the art business, selling works by David Shepherd among others, and a few more retailing china. At 66 and still working enthusiastically, he now installs bespoke kitchens and bathrooms but has an interesting tale to tell from almost a decade in between those career choices.
“I ran three shops that were anything and everything to do with health and fitness – music, aromatherapy, training. One was in Kings Heath, one in Moseley and the other in Brindley Place in the city centre. Actually, there was a fourth in Corporation Street.
“I stuck with them for about eight years and did well at it, although some of the money went to partners who saw the pound signs! I live in Kings Heath now and have enjoyed the jobs I have had.
“I am hoping to be back at it very soon but I had a prostate cancer operation early this month and I am recuperating from that now. I’m told it went well and I have got rid of the bag, so I want to get back to work and keep paying the bills.”
Like everything else in our conversations, which have been concluded just before the end of the Black History Month, this unwelcome news is delivered in a cheerful, positive way. Anything else, apparently, wouldn’t be Don Gardner.
*We hope to add a recent photo of the man himself in the very near future…..over to you, Don!