It is undeniable that injuries can have a frustrating and damaging impact on the career of an athlete, and footballers are no exception. Even the most promising of prospects can fail to reach their potential, thanks to sustaining a devastating injury or two.
The Aston Villa midfielder has long been an exciting product of the club's youth academy. Gardner broke into the first-team under Alex McLeish and seemed set to factor into Paul Lambert's plans when Lambert became manager in the summer of 2012.
Unfortunately for Gardner, the Englishman would suffer a crippling ACL injury that ruled him out for the entirety of the 2012-13 season. This was particularly damaging for Gardner, as he had sustained the exact same injury three years prior and had now lost two years of crucial development as a player.
Now 21 years old and finally returning to full fitness, Gardner is at a crossroads in his career. He has featured just once under Lambert and finds himself out of contract at the end of the season.
The Birmingham Mail's Mat Kendrick quizzed Lambert regarding Gardner's situation.
[Gardner] trained the last few weeks now and he was on the bench at Liverpool. He's doing all right. It's hard for him to get in the side at the minute and he knows that himself, but he needs games that's for sure. He's out of contract in the summer and he's in the same boat as a few of the others. There's too many games to play to worry about that yet - it will be resolved in due course.
Although non-committal regarding offering Gardner a new contract, Lambert clearly stated his desire to see Gardner perform on the pitch. With just a few months left to prove himself, Gardner will have to demonstrate that he can be a contributor at Villa Park if he wants to stay at the club.
Fortunately for Gardner, Villa's midfield has been inconsistent this season, and there is definitely room for improvement, particularly in the shape of an attack-minded, creative player. Fabian Delph has been irreplaceable in Villa's three-man midfield, but Villa's other midfielders have not been as convincing.
Ashley Westwood has been a regular during Lambert's tenure, and his calm, disciplined style is a strong foil to the adventurous Delph. He has struggled, however, to help Villa create chances with consistency.
Karim El Ahmadi has most often been Villa's third midfielder, but the Moroccan has frustrated many Villa fans with his uneven performances. El Ahmadi has showed usefulness with his combativeness and sporadic surges into the box, but he has struggled passing the ball and has looked out of form in recent weeks.
Lambert seemed prepared to address his midfield concerns by signing Wes Hoolahan during the transfer window, but the move for the Norwich player never materialized. Still without a recognized playmaker, Lambert may call upon Gardner to prove himself in that role.
Although Gardner is not the natural attacking midfielder that Villa currently need, he has an all-around skill set and is a more offensive-minded player than El Ahmadi or Westwood. Gardner may not be a long-term solution as a No. 10, but he could be successful if played there in Villa's current team.
Although Lambert's stubbornness as a manager may make it seem unlikely for him to suddenly call upon Gardner, prior examples show that the Scotsman is willing to suddenly inject fresh legs into the team.
The manager's recall of Marc Albrighton earlier in the season led to Albrighton receiving a pair of unexpected starts after a long spell out of Lambert's plans, and Gardner could soon find himself in a similar position.
Gardner played the full 90 minutes for Villa's U21 team over the weekend as a part of his rehabilitation, and he was named on the bench at Anfield. These are small but encouraging signs that Gardner may see a return to first-team action soon, perhaps against West Ham on Saturday.
When his name is called, Gardner must be at his best and do all he can to impress his manager. With just fourteen games left to prove himself, it's now or never for Gardner to earn himself a longer stay at Villa Park.