In football, there are few greater honours than captaining one’s country. Doing so on home soil adds another layer of significance and, while many players have savoured the experience over the decades, Robert Gardner was the first.
The converted goalkeeper was Scotland’s skipper in the first-ever international match, played out against England in November 1872. Gardner kept a clean sheet, too, and sketches of the historic 0-0 draw in Glasgow show him - bearded, wild-eyed and sporting a pointed hat - above the Latin caption 'Nemo me impune'. The translation, ‘No-one attacks me with impunity’, gives an indication of the kind of fearsome competitor the English faced.
Yet Gardner’s influence extended far beyond his role on the field, and his importance dwarfed that of a modern-day captain, as Richard McBrearty explained.
“He was far more important than an international captain would be today,” said McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. “Captains these days are players of influence who lead by example, but that’s really the extent of it.
“Gardner was like a manager, administrator and captain rolled into one, having helped organise that first international, picked the Scotland team and organised the players into positions. With no manager on the sidelines, he was also the man deciding during games on changes of positions and tactics, and often - including in that first international - that meant him coming out of goal to play outfield.”
D.D. Bone, an esteemed sports writer of the era, described Gardner - far left in the above sketch of a later Scotland-England clash - as “the most extraordinary player of his day”. "He was so versatile,” wrote Bone, “that I have seen him at work in all the different positions of the field - goalkeeper, back, half-back, and even forward - but it was as a goalkeeper that he excelled. When I remember the brilliant men who have since stood between the posts... none ever used their hands and weight to greater advantage than Gardner.”
A pipe-smoking pioneer
As well as being regarded as the greatest keeper of his generation, the Scotland and Queen’s Park skipper was a player emblematic of that formative era. So dominant were his club side, for example, that a Daily Record profile described him “relieving the boredom of long periods of inactivity by smoking his pipe on the pitch”.
One of his three sons, also named Robert, described his father as viewing football purely as “a means to give expression to sportsmanship”. Gardner Jnr added: “He told me that, while he was keenly desirous of Scotland winning, there must be no loss of sleep over the thought of defeat. It was to be a meeting between two teams of sportsmen with a love of football, with no thought of rancour, whatever the result.”
Nor did Gardner espouse such views purely in his role as player. He went on from captaining his country to become a founding committee member of the Scottish Football Association in 1873 and later served as its president. Indeed, it is in these administrative roles that his hidden legacy is to be found.
As McBrearty explained: “The high-profile side of Gardner is the player and captain. But I think the big thing at that period is that the game is being shaped in committee rooms – in terms of its playing rules, development and structure – and he had a massive influence there too.
“You have to remember that those early international games were proposed because football, at that time, was an obscure game. Rugby was far more popular and widespread throughout England and Scotland, whereas football was concentrated in London and was quite elitist, with the early clubs full of future prime ministers, lords and the like. There was no guarantee whatsoever that football would become the pre-eminent game in Britain, never mind assume the position that it holds throughout the world today.
“The people driving the game during that period were hugely important and those internationals were massive in terms of creating an interest. Gardner was at the very heart of that effort, not only playing in that first match against England – and a few others afterwards - but in making arrangements for it to take place.”
Tragedy and legacy
Sadly, Scotland’s first captain would be dead from tuberculosis less than a decade-and-a-half after making football history. He was just 39. Gardner’s legend, however, lives on in the annals of history and through exhibits in the Scottish Football Museum, such as a 1868 letter – the first sent between Scottish clubs, and one of the earliest in existence pertaining to association football – arranging a challenge match against another Glasgow side.
“Those letters at that stage were essential just to get a game organised,” explained McBrearty. “And with football in such a state of flux, they would also decide on issues like whether the game would be 15-a-side, 20-a-side, 11-a-side, and even whether outfield players could handle the ball, which was still common initially.
“Gardner was an amateur – all his playing and committee work he did in his spare time – so everything was done for the love of the game. And it’s clear to me that not only was he a very strong and influential character, but someone with real vision about where his teams and the game should be going.”
For all the progress since, football and those who love the game owe an immense debt of gratitude to men like Gardner who, in more ways than one, led the way.