Special feature: The towering centre back with dreams of World Cup glory

He has already captained his country and made his Northern League debut last year, a week after his 16th birthday.

He hopes to be in the New Zealand squad for the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

He’s Dylan Gardiner who led New Zealand to victory at January’s OFC U-17 Championship.

In recent years, the national U-17 team has produced a string of All Whites, including Joe Bell, Sarpreet Singh, Callum McCowatt, Elijah Just, Michael Woud, Libby Cacace, Matthew Garbett, Ben Old and Marko Stamenic.

So who is the towering centre back from Taupo who hopes to follow these players whose teenage promise turned into professional careers?

Gardiner plays for Hamilton Wanderers and his St Paul’s Collegiate school side. Already, he’s learning to coach, helping with holiday programmes at the Ricki Herbert Football Academy and taking one-on-one sessions with players aged 9-13.

His focus is on making the World Cup squad later this year, though the venue of the tournament is uncertain after Peru’s withdrawal as host country.

READ MORE: FIFA strips Peru of hosting rights for U-17 World Cup >>>>

Main photo: Dylan Gardiner tackles New Caledonia’s David Cahm in the OFC U-17 Championship final. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Dylan Gardiner lifts the OFC U-17 Championship trophy in January. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Meeting Dylan Gardiner

Friends of Football writer Rachel Lilburn sat down with Gardiner in his home town of Taupo to find out more …

Tell me about the OFC U-17 tournament. What was the selection process?

NZ football have regional and national selection camps. They run around three regional camps throughout the year in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and I think two or three national ones.

My club coach recommended that the selectors look at me. The U-17 head coach, who’s the NZ Football talent pathway manager, came and watched club games quite regularly throughout the season, and I got selected from there.

I initially went to a regional camp in Auckland. From there, I didn’t actually make the first national camp and I was pretty disappointed. Then three days before, I got a late call-up. I went and I tried to prove to them why I deserved to be there.

I got called back for a one-off intersquad game where they had a group of around 30 of us. From there, they selected 23 players and I got into the team.

Was there anyone that you hadn’t met or played with before?

Yeah, there were two players from England. One from Stoke City (Adam Watson) and another from Manchester City (Marley Leuluai). They came over and the first time we met and trained with them was in an Auckland camp for four days before going to Fiji. There was one player from Australia who joined us in Fiji. The Christchurch boys I’d only trained with once, so there were a few players I didn’t know well.

Different from club or school where you know your teammates well …

Initially, it was quite difficult because you’re trying to work out each other’s playing styles. Obviously, every club environment has a different shape and does things slightly differently, but now we’re all listening to one guy and we’re all trying to implement the New Zealand football playing style.

For example, I’d never played with two centre backs either side of me. It definitely helped that everyone had a lot of talent, so we all picked up on it quite quickly.

Going into the camp, we knew what the coach wanted. We all talked to him before we went about our roles and expectations. We had to assess ourselves going into the tournament, looking at our own strengths and weaknesses.

Midway through the tournament, the coach reviewed that and gave us feedback on what we were doing well and what we could improve on. We got a lot of information.

How does it feel going into that sort of environment when you’ve got all of that talent around you?

The first time in the National Camp was a bit intimidating. Especially not being on the squad list and being a late call-up. I was the one that wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt I had to prove a lot, which I felt like I’ve achieved now. It was a good group of players who are all talented, and everyone shared the same goal and passion. So it was great. I loved it.

Dylan Gardiner and Fiji’s Aron Naicker exchange pre-match pleasantries before their semi-final at the OFC U-17 Championship. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Tell me about being named captain.

On the field, I was playing as a middle centre back of a back three, so I could see everything. In one of the Auckland training camps I had the U-20s coach, Darren Bazeley (now the interim All Whites coach) pull me aside and tell me I needed to be more vocal, that I needed to communicate and demand more from everyone because I was the one who could see it all. I really tried to take that advice.

At the start of the tournament, I don’t think I was prepared to be captain. It did take me a while to come out of my shell and talk more. I became more and more of a leader as the tournament went on. Towards the end, I definitely felt I was quite vocal and I was able to lead the boys on and off the field.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t named captain for the quarter-final. But I took over at half-time; that boosted my confidence, and I felt I deserved it at that point. I was captain for the semi-final and final.

READ MORE: 10-man New Zealand hang on to win OFC U-17 Championship in tense final >>>>

Have you always played centre back?

Actually, this time last year, I was a defensive midfielder, a #6, and I was set that was the position I was going to play for the rest of my life. I absolutely hated centre back. I remember crying after one of my younger Federation games because I was so disappointed that my coach put me in centre back.

And then last year, the New Zealand U-17 coach told me I was a good player, but there was a lot of competition for the #6 position and asked if he could look at me as a centre back. From that day, I’ve been playing centre back and I couldn’t imagine going back to holding midfielder. I absolutely love it now.

Fiji’s Sailimone Ravonokula is tackled by New Zealand’s Dylan Gardiner at the OFC U-17 Championship. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Tell us how you got started with football.

I’m not from a footballing family, though Mum and Dad are passionate about supporting me and supporting football in general now. Mum and Dad initially took me to rugby when I was four. It just wasn’t for me, so then they took me to First Kicks at Taupo AFC. I haven’t stopped since.

I started taking it more seriously in U-12 and U-13 when I played in WaiBOP Federation Leagues on Sundays. That was the start of the journey into competitive games.

That first competitive year, G12, was pretty tough, with big losses all season.

Can you remember back then how you felt?

I remember feeling quite gutted, disappointed and hard on myself, feeling “Why couldn’t I have done any more?” But you can’t blame that on yourself as an individual because there were nine players on the field, not one, so you need to look somewhat selfishly at it and focus on your own development.

If you can’t win that game individually, you need to make sure you’re doing the best you can as a player.

I don’t mean to be a selfish player. You still need to help the team, but if you’re not going to win the game, make sure you have a good game. Look back on it, and ask yourself did I personally do 100% of what I could have done? And if I couldn’t have done any more, then think of it as a learning experience, and move on.

It sounds like it probably gave you an opportunity to do a lot of defending.

Which I think definitely helped my development. I enjoy playing the opposition where you’re kind of underdogs because you know there’s going to be a lot of work to be done, and you can prove that you’re worthy to be there.

Dylan Gardiner … proud to wear the captain’s armband. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

As a junior player, you trained with the Ricki Herbert Football Academy in Taupo, and you went on several overseas tours. What can you tell me about your development from those experiences?

Kale Herbert was the first team coach with Taupo AFC and ran the junior programme. I did trainings after school, twice a week, run by him and other coaches.

I think the first tour I was involved in, I was maybe 10. We went to Melbourne and played in a tournament there. It was a higher level of competition than we had domestically.

It was quite eye-opening to see the talent overseas, and compare yourself with others of the same age. I really enjoyed the tours and getting to bond with players from around the country. I also went to Sydney, and then the other tour was to Malaysia.

I think going on tour there were a few boys that were, not arrogant, but maybe thought they were the best in New Zealand for their age.

Going into Australia, you had to rethink that because they were really good. Australia is way bigger; they have professional clubs everywhere. We don’t have as many professional academies in New Zealand. In Australia, the players were in academies and training almost every day, and we were training once or twice a week.

It was quite good to see that. I think it helped us build resilience because we looked at that and wanted to be at their level.

You have to keep working at it. You need to be doing extra. Even if you’re just going outside in the garden for an hour every day. You need to be trying to keep up.

You moved from Taupo to Hamilton, was that football related?

Dylan Gardiner … played for Cambridge’s Federation Youth League sides. Photo credit: Cambridge FC.

I moved to Hamilton in 2020, for year nine at boarding school. Kale (Herbert) moved up to Hamilton in 2019 and took on the head coach role at St Paul’s Collegiate. He definitely encouraged me and my parents to send me to school there for the football opportunities.

I initially played for Cambridge FC U-14s. The next year, I played for Cambridge in the U-15s, then moved to Hamilton Wanderers U-23 in the space of a year. From there, I was training quite regularly with the first team. My transition to senior football happened very fast.

You’re hoping for selection for the U-17 World Cup later this year. What do you know about the selection process for that?

NZ Football are holding regional training camps at the moment. There was a regional camp in March in Auckland. From there, they’re going to select 25 or so players to go into national training camps, I think in May and July. Hopefully, (I will) be called up to go to those, and perform well.

Obviously, during my club season, I need to be doing my best, and I need to be getting as many minutes with the first team as I can, and performing well. And as long as I’m doing that and I’m working hard, then it’s out of my control.

How much training do you do at the moment?

Currently, I’m training with the Hamilton Wanderers reserve team on a Monday and Wednesday and the first team on a Tuesday and Thursday. I’m trying to get as much quality as I can.

I don’t want to overdo it, but if I can, I train an hour and a half ball work every day, and also fit in some strength work at the gym. In the off-season, I run for fitness, but not at the moment.

Friday, I usually take as a day off and that’s when I do an analysis of the game I want to play the Saturday. I look at what I want to do and what I want to achieve in the game. School football is starting back up soon, so things will change then.

Tell us about your goals beyond this year.

A senior player with Hamilton Wanderers, Dylan Gardiner made his Northern League debut a week after his 16th birthday in July 2022.

I definitely want to play overseas at some point. I’d like to play in Europe, but it’s the hardest market to try and get into.

I think I definitely need more experience at the senior level in New Zealand. I need to be regularly playing and pulling my weight in a senior competition, and if that all goes to plan, then ideally, next year, I might look overseas somewhere. If I do go to the World Cup, there’ll be a lot of exposure from that.

Tell us about your mentors and influences.

Ricki Herbert has probably been my biggest mentor; from day one took me under his wing.

His son Kale was my junior coach, then my school coach and he was also the Cambridge U-15’s coach when I played there. I’ve learned a lot from them, and they’ve both given me lots of advice over the years.

Now that I’m becoming a senior player, the New Zealand coach, Martin Bullock, has been awesome for me. He played professionally in England for 15 years, and he’s the U-17’s coach at the moment and he is the coach who will take the U-17 team to the World Cup.

Obviously, it’s a privilege to be there. He’s not going to take me under his wing unless I’m performing. It’s been good to have his feedback because he’s very knowledgeable, and it’s good to have another source of feedback from someone who is not someone you’re really close with.

Who was your Idol growing up?

I know it’s not probably what you expect from a centre back, but it was Ronaldo. I watched him play, and I love his mindset, his work rate, his drive and his discipline, and how often he trains. And how he keeps up with his fitness.

When did you start coaching? And how did you get into that?

Around a year ago, when Ricki Herbert asked if I’d like to be an assistant coach at the holiday programme in Taupo. I enjoyed seeing other players develop and have fun, and it’s become a second passion of mine now.

I had a lot of my own training gear, so I thought I might as well put it to use. I’ve been doing one-on-one trainings, which I really enjoy because I get to see the player develop. Working one-on-one helps me analyse what individual players need to develop and plan sessions for them. Each player gets a modified session to suit their ability and what they want to work on.

Dylan Gardiner runs a one-on-one coaching session in Taupo. Photo: Rachel Lilburn.

Does being a coach help you as a player?

Yeah, definitely. I have to take a step back, and break the basics down. That’s the only way you improve is if you’re good at the basics.

Coaching makes me appreciate the smaller stuff more, like the details of my passes and my touches.

As a coach, it can be frustrating when your player is having a lazy touch, isn’t working hard, and you think they are not going to develop if they don’t work hard. It makes me take more care in my own training, to always be focusing and training hard as that’s the only way I’m going to get better.

Rachel Lilburn

Rachel Lilburn is Taupo-based and a keen follower of her son’s progress as a junior player. This is her first story for Friends of Football.

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