NOTHING has ever come easy for Ryan Gardner in the AFL. First, he was delisted by Geelong without a game to his name after three years at Kardinia Park. Then he was told the news every footballer fears ahead of last year’s Grand Final in Perth.
Now four years into his time at the Whitten Oval, Gardner has dusted himself off and recovered from being dropped for the biggest game of 2021 by becoming a permanent fixture in the Western Bulldogs’ back six this season.
After playing 21 games across his first six seasons, the 25-year-old has featured in all 17 games in his best year to date in 2022, playing a crucial role for Luke Beveridge in a makeshift defence alongside Alex Keath.
Gardner produced one of his best performances yet last Friday night, restricting the influence of St Kilda star Max King at Marvel Stadium to help the Western Bulldogs keep their season alive with a strong win.
"When Bevo told me he wasn't going to go with me for the Grand Final it was devastating. It was one of the hardest moments of my life. To be so close to that dream of playing in a Grand Final and then not getting an opportunity was devastating," Gardner told AFL.com.au after the 28-point win.
"At the same time, I just had to reflect on the year that I had. I had two shoulder surgeries. To come back from one of those and play footy, let alone two of them and get to play some finals, I just had to try and hold my head high.
"I knew if I could string some games together, things would turn for me. I needed to improve on the things that were the reason why I wasn’t picked for the Grand Final. It definitely burned; it was a real driver for me through the summer. It was something I definitely didn't want to ever happen to me again. It was definitely a big motivation for me across the summer."
Gardner found himself at a different crossroad at the end of 2018 when he wasn't offered another deal by the Cats. He was pouring beers at the Railway Hotel in Yarraville and studying a university degree, while trying to keep his AFL dream alive in the VFL.
The Burnie Dockers product chose to sign with Footscray over Casey ahead of 2019 after being pursued by then-development coaches Daniel Giansiracusa and Stewart Edge. Months later he was back on an AFL list after the Western Bulldogs used pick No.6 in the NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft on the 197cm defender.
"I definitely had my doubts. When I got delisted, I thought, 'What's next?' I thought if I got another opportunity on a list, was I going to be able to get a game? It was definitely a dark time back when I got delisted," Gardner said.
"I was just super grateful to be wanted by Footscray to play there. Lucky to be playing some good footy at the time. I had a conversation with Bevo three or four weeks before the mid-season draft that they were going to pick me up. To look back now and see that all those choices have helped me get to the position I am in now. I'm just super grateful that the Dogs gave me the opportunity, allowed me to get my feet and can see now that I can play at the level."
After limiting the impact of Lance Franklin in round three, only days after the Sydney superstar became only the sixth player to kick 1000 goals in VFL/AFL history, Gardner produced another standout effort on Friday night against King to highlight his emergence as a dependable option down back this year.
"I had the job to go to Max. My game this year has been based around trying to minimise the key forwards' opportunities at goals and things like that. I was really happy with that. I was able to limit him and help my teammates as well," he said.
"It helps when we play the way we did. It is so much easier to play as a backman when we're winning it out of the middle, there is much less pressure on the ball coming in. It gives them less opportunities to have looks at marks and different things."
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With a fresh wave of COVID-19 sweeping through the playing group and football department in the 48 hours leading into the game – Aaron Naughton, Josh Schache, Lachie Hunter and Zaine Cordy all entered health and safety protocols, along with Travis Varcoe, Matt Spangher and Brent Prismall – Gardner said it was a nervous build-up to Friday night.
"Every time you tested in the morning you thought you might wake up with it," he said.
"The last couple of years has shown how quickly it can spread, especially when you've got a few guys internally get it and being around them. I think we were all a bit nervous on gameday thinking there might be another three or four blokes out. Luckily it was just those blokes in the end. It could have been even worse."
The Western Bulldogs are back in the September hunt after Friday night's win, but if they are going to play finals football in 2022, they will need to overcome a run home that includes three premiership contenders in the next three rounds – Melbourne, Geelong and Fremantle – followed by Greater Western Sydney and Hawthorn.
It will mean more key roles for the maligned Bulldog who has silenced plenty of doubters this winter.