Ryan Gardner’s road to AFL level hasn’t been as linear as your typical AFL footballer.
Drafted by Geelong straight out of school, Gardner was delisted after three seasons without a senior game and found himself working three different jobs in 2019 as he pondered his next move.
Signing with Footscray VFL ahead of the inaugural Mid-Season Draft, he never gave up on his dream to return to the highest level.
Now fresh off signing a three-year contract extension, he couldn’t be more grateful for how things played out.
“I was pouring pints at the Railway Hotel in Yarraville, working as a steam-cleaner for a little bit and also doing pick-packing at X Blades factory – all while I studied as well,” Gardner told SEN 1116 on Thursday afternoon.
“I definitely got a good perspective on what it was like not to be at an AFL club.
“I was similar to a lot of guys who had come out of school and gone straight to an AFL program, so it was a real eye-opener for me.
“I never gave up on the dream though – when I got delisted I think I had the thoughts of ‘what is next?’ and whether it was going to happen for me – but I was always confident I could do it as long as I stuck to what I knew and worked hard.
“I was very lucky that Mid-Season Draft came in the year I got delisted, and decided I’d go to a VFL club that was aligned with an AFL club because I thought that’d be my best opportunity to get picked back up again.
“It’s just been a rollercoaster of a journey for me, so it’s amazing to get a three-year deal.”
Gardner credited head coach Luke Beveridge and backline coach Rohan Smith for the impact they’ve had on his development, particularly early in his career.
“I think for me personally it’s been Bevo and Rohan Smit - those two, even early on when things weren’t going my way in my career, they just stuck by me and kept giving me opportunities,” he said.
“I owe a lot to Rohan Smith. He’s definitely someone who’s taken me under his wing and taught me everything he knows about the game. He’s had a massive role to play in where I am.
“Definitely early on I probably struggled a little bit, especially in my first few games. I think more towards when I did my shoulders (in 2021), it was probably around then I started to realise that it was more through continuity at the level that I started to believe in myself a bit more each game.
“Last year – playing 22 games – there was a lot of confidence taken out of that year. I think I really started to believe throughout the year that I could play at the level.”
Gardner’s new deal will see him remain in the red, white and blue until at least the end of 2026.