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Irish League Lives: Loughgall hero Jim Gardiner on defying the injury odds time and time again

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Jim Gardiner

Jim Gardiner

William Cherry/PRESS EYE

Jim Gardiner

He may have been written off at an early age, but Jim Gardiner achieved more than most in an Irish League journey that spanned four decades.

It all began in 1974 at Portadown and ended with their Mid-Ulster rivals Glenavon in 2000 but, in between, Jim bravely battled back from a series of serious injuries. They included a broken kneecap, a broken ankle and torn ligaments, all after he was informed by a surgeon his playing days were over having suffered a chronic pelvic problem that kept him out of football for 18 months in his time at Shamrock Park.

He really could be dubbed the Bionic Man of Irish League football. Not only did Jim make a full recovery but, as a vital member of the famous Seaview God Squad, he duly helped Crusaders lift the Irish League title in 1993 before writing his name into the history of Loughgall Football Club, both as a player and manager.

Yes, it was quite a rollercoaster experience for Jim, who was born and raised just a few hundred yards from Mourneview Park.

"Glenavon was my boyhood club, I can still remember watching Errol McNally, Billy Cush, Denis Guy, Eric and Sammy Magee and big Hugh Dowd, who got a move to Sheffield Wednesday," laughs Jim.

Surprisingly, his football odyssey took off down the road with rivals Portadown, managed by Gibby Mackenzie.

Jim explains: "My dad was offered the chance to take over the third team at Shamrock Park, so I went along with him.

"Gibby was a real passionate Scot who just lived for football. I progressed to the reserves, where I played for a season or so. Then, after training one Thursday night, the gaffer told me to bring my boots to The Oval on Saturday, adding I'll not be involved.

"When I arrived, Gibby told me to get stripped, I'd be starting up front. It was his way of protecting me as I was only 17. Suddenly I was facing Rab McCreery and Alex Robson. I managed to survive.

"Gibby assembled a good side. Terry Nicholson was in goals and in front of him was Sammy Lunn, another tough boy. Jim Smyth, Jimmy Cleary, Gary Blackledge and Billy Murray were talented players. Provincial clubs tended to lose their better players when the likes of Linfield and Glentoran came sniffing.

"Blackie (Blackledge) travelled with Gibby to training. He said he never stopped talking. They were late one night, it was horrible weather with the rain belting down.

"They eventually appeared over half an hour late. Blackie said Gibby was talking so much and drawing football diagrams on the steamy windows, they missed the turn-off to Portadown and finished up in Dungannon."

Jim and Portadown team-mate Stevie McAdam then got a move to Burnley, but he was home again within 18 months, admitting he couldn't "adjust to life in full-time football".

"I had too much time on my hands," recalls Jim. "There was only a certain amount of squash or snooker you could play. We finished training most days at lunch time. I can understand why so many guys fall into the gambling trap or the drinking culture.

"But I played against some big names in the reserves because we were coming up against Man U, Liverpool, Leeds in the Central League. I remember facing Emlyn Hughes, Brian Hall, Kevin Moran, Archie Gemmill. I also played against Big Sam Allardyce, now in charge at West Brom. He was a man mountain.

"Although it didn't work out for me, I've no regrets."

Jackie Hutton offered Jim the chance to return to the Ports, which he accepted even though he harboured dreams of joining his boyhood club Glenavon. However, his football career appeared doomed when, having sustained a pelvic injury, his surgeon told him he may never play again.

It kept him out for a year and a half. To make matters worse, when Hutton was jettisoned and replaced by John Flanagan, Jim didn't feature in the new manager's plans, which prompted him to move to Ards.

"Lawrence Walker, my former coach at Portadown, had taken over at Castlereagh Park so I had no hesitation," adds Jim.

"It was a relationship that lasted merely six months, mostly because travelling from Bleary three or four times a week became a chore."

Having battled back to full fitness, Jim then got the move he craved when Glenavon boss Terry Nicholson splashed the cash.

"It was a dream come true," he goes on.

"We had a great side - Duncan Lowry, the Dennison brothers, Davy and Robbie, Alex Denver, Blackie and the one and only Tony Scappaticci. We won the League Cup and finished runners-up in the League.

"We had some laughs. Back then, the ultrasound system was introduced for treating injuries. Regardless of the problem, this would cure it. They gelled you up and treated the injury with an electronic device.

"Blackie was on the table one night and our physio, the late Kenny Bell, was working away with the ultrasound. What he didn't realise was Davy Dennison, on his way out of the treatment room, switched off the machine.

"Kenny was rubbing and massaging, taking longer than usual, and Blackie was becoming fed up, he was effing and jeffing. It was only when Kenny noticed the plug had been switched off, he went berserk. Wee Davy was standing around the corner laughing his head off."

Having recovered from a broken kneecap in his early years at Glenavon, Jim's career again came under threat when he broke an ankle and shattered ligaments in a game at Carrick Rangers.

"I was replaced by a young Stephen McBride, who scored two goals that night," says Jim.

"I was probably around 31 years of age and, to be honest, I thought it was time to pack it in. I didn't want to end up using a walking stick.

"That was until my telephone rang when I was on the golf course. It was Crusaders boss Roy Walker.

"The Crues were struggling and, if I remember, they had to apply for re-election.

"It meant travelling to Belfast which I didn't fancy, but Roy was very persuasive. The urge to play was always there. I did join the Crues, only for the injury to flare up again. I was honest with Roy, so my stay was brief."

Jim moved back to Glenavon to manage the reserve team on the request of Alan Fraser, but both departed when the axe fell on the former Linfield man in 1994.

"The break from the playing side helped the injury, so I moved back to the Crues," adds Jim.

"It transpired to be my best time in football.

"It was just a lovely family club, there was a warmth about the place.

"Harry Corry was club president, he was a character, and we had good club men like Jim Semple and Harry Davidson, while wee Madge made sure everyone had a cup of tea.

"Roy built a super side, with Kevin McKeown in goals and big Barry Hunter in the centre of defence, he was mad. Glenn Dunlop was a Rolls Royce type of a defender, with Kirk Hunter and Sid Burrows in the middle of the park and Glenn Hunter firing in the goals.

"We had the influx of boys from Dublin, brought up each week by Tony O'Connell - Roddy Collins, Derek Carroll, Robbie Lawlor, Marty Murray and Liam Dunne.

"It was a great squad to be part of, half of them Christians and half of them rascals. There was some celebration when we landed the League title in 1993.

"Roy McDonald's late dad, Bob, was also part of the backroom staff. I'll never forget the day big Roy was lying naked, face down, on the treatment table getting a massage. Bob came in, looked at all the boys and then quipped, 'To think I used to put a nappy on that'. It was hilarious."

Having moved to Loughgall in 1995, Jim reckoned that his playing days were over at the top level, but he did return to Glenavon five years later, reappointed reserve team boss after Walker had taken over at Mourneview.

In an injury crisis, he came to Walker's rescue by pulling on a first-team shirt yet again.

"I was 40 for goodness sake," says Jim.

"Roy had problems with so many lads injured, so he asked me to help him out.

"My last Irish League game was against Linfield at Mourneview Park.

"I scored that night, but we were beaten. It meant I managed to play at the top level in four decades, which is something I'm proud of."

÷ In his teenage days at Portadown, Jim had offers from Middlesbrough and Arsenal after completing successful trials, but instead opted to join Burnley in 1977.

÷ When Jim left Crusaders in 1995, he was persuaded by manager Alfie Wylie to join Loughgall. Over the following five years, he helped the County Armagh side win the B Division title on three occasions, the Bob Radcliffe Cup twice and the Intermediate Cup.

÷ Although he admits he has had no aspirations to become a manager, Jim was coaxed back to the game in 2001 when appointed boss at First Division side Loughgall, who he guided to the Premiership three years later.

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