“Trainer” hardly does him justice. With Gardiner as Stan Cullis’s lieutenant, Wolves won the FA Cup in 1949 and 1960 and were champions of England in 1954, 1958 and 1959.
They also revived the England’s sagging soccer pride with famous floodlit wins over the likes of Honved and Spartak.
Gardiner was born in the mining village of Bearpark, County Durham, on August 23, 1916, and his football talent soon blossomed. He collected 11 medals as a youngster at school and playing for Durham county and then with Bearpark Juniors.
He was playing as an inside forward for Bearpark Juniors and had started work in a blacksmith’s forge when he was signed as an amateur by Wolves in 1932. Derby County and Huddersfield Town were also after his signature.
When first at Molineux, Joe worked in a garage owned by one of the club’s directors until old enough to sign professional forms.
For Wolves’ reserves and A team he was used as a right winger and then at inside forward before finding his best position as a left-half.
Gardiner made his Wolves debut at West Bromwich Albion on February 23, 1935, and it was a chastening experience, Wolves, two down after four minutes, losing 5-2. They also conceded two goals in the first five minutes of the second half. Most attention was on inside-forward Bob Iverson, signed from Lincoln two days before, who at least marked his debut with a goal.
Also in the side, at right-half, was Cullis who had made his debut against Huddersfield Town a week earlier. He and Gardiner would in time bring to Wolves the greatest success the club have known yet as players they just missed out in an exciting side managed by the charismatic Frank Buckley.
In 1938-9 Wolves would have been champions but, needing to win the final game of the season to pip Arsenal to the title, they lost 1-0 at Sunderland. The following season they were runners-up to Everton and, despite being hot favourites, were beaten 4-1 by Portsmouth in the FA Cup final.
By then Joe was part of a memorable half-back line with Tom Galley and Cullis. When the Football League met the Scottish League at Molineux in November, 1938, Joe was brought into the team when Bolton’s George Taylor had to withdraw through injury. Skipper Eddie Hapgood, of Arsenal, also withdrew which meant an honour for Joe’s team-mate Cullis who was named captain of the Football League side.
After the match, which the Football League won 3-1, the England selectors named the side to meet Norway at Newcastle the following week but despite a steady display at Molineux Joe was not chosen, Newcastle’s Doug Wright being given what proved to be his only cap.
That was the closest Joe got to full international honours with two legends, Arsenal’s Wilf Copping and Everton’s Joe Mercer, ahead of him in the pecking order as England left-half.
Evidence of Joe’s progress came later that season before Wolves met Liverpool in the FA Cup in February, 1939, the Liverpool Echo describing him as a “tireless, tenacious grafter and a ball artist”.
Gardiner made 139 league and Cup appearances for Wolves, scoring two goals, in a side who looked destined for honours had the war not brought an end to regular football.
In the 1939-40 season Wolves won the wartime Midland Regional League and Joe played in 19 of the 28 games in the eight-club league. Joe showed his versatility that season, playing full-back, centre-half, half-back and inside-forward.
He still played for Wolves in subsequent wartime seasons though not as regularly. During the war he worked for a long time in a munitions factory before joining the Royal Navy in March 1944. He was a guest player in eight games for Plymouth Argyle in the 1945-6 season.
On retirement as a player, Gardiner joined the Molineux training staff under trainer Jack Nelson who had replaced Jack Smith in August 1948, Smith moving to West Brom as manager. Nelson, a Wolves centre-half in the early 1930s, had returned to Wolves the previous season but soon moved on to Walsall.
When Cullis became manager of the club in 1948 he made Gardiner his right-hand man and he was much more than just a trainer, as many players would confirm.
Dennis Wilshaw summed him up well: “I think that Joe Gardiner was responsible for a lot of the success that we had. He was the guy you could go up to when you’d just had a rollicking off Stan and he’d comfort you and he would say something good and he’d lift you.”
Goalkeeper Malcolm Finlayson recalled how Joe would help him in the gym area below the Waterloo Road stand. “He’d be throwing ball as at you off the wall to make angles and he must have got browned off but he’d keep doing that.”
“Joe was a great foil for Stan,” said Roy Swinbourne, the two-goal hero of the famous floodlit win over Hungarian maestros Honved. “If Stan had a go at someone, Joe would take them on one side and smooth things out. He knew his football. We would sneak off to the car par for a game and there would be one or two injuries through playing there. Joe would come along and drag us off but he’d laugh about it. He was a lovely chap.”
“Joe WAS the Wolves in many ways,” said Norman Deeley, goalscoring hero of the 1960 FA Cup final. “He was there from morning ’til night. He was there if you wanted to go back to do some extra training in the afternoon or work on your faults with you. He was a quiet man who just got on with the job. Joe was placid and the ideal man to put up with someone as intense as Stan.”
Bill Slater, skipper of the 1960 Cup-winning side, summed Gardiner up: “I never heard him put a player down. He was always encouraging. He was a lovely man, who never swore and one of those who made the club special. It was always a very happy club.”
Another testimony to Joe’s status is that he was twice asked to act as trainer to the England team.
After Cullis’s sacking in September, 1964, Gardiner and the rest of the training staff briefly chose the team until Andy Beattie arrived as caretaker manager. With the appointment of Ronnie Allen as first-team coach, Gardiner was upgraded to assistant team manager in March 1965.
When Allen was named manager in July 1966, Gardiner became chief scout, taking over from long-serving George Noakes who was stepping down through ill health.
It was Gardiner who spotted a young Kenny Hibbitt playing for Bradford Park Avenue.
Another Wolves legend, John Richards, arrived at Molineux while Gardiner was chief scout, having first been spotted by Wolverhampton schoolteacher Tony Penman, playing for Lancashire in the English grammar schools championships.
JR always recalls the impression Joe made upon him and says it was a big factor in his decision to join Wolves.
Gardiner eventually took a backseat role at Molineux until his retirement. He died in 1997.
One of the club’s longest-serving employees, Gardiner’s name will always be linked with that of Cullis in bringing gold and black glory years to Molineux.