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Usain Bolt, Burnley and the story behind one of the season’s strangest photos

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It was one of the more unexpected social media posts of the Premier League season.

It came from Burnley and showed a visitor to the club’s training ground smiling in front of a slogan reading: “It’s a way of life.”

This, however, was no ordinary guest: this was Usain Bolt, the eight-time Olympic gold medal winner, the holder of world records in the men’s 100m and 200m, and one of the most famous sportsmen on the planet.

The Jamaican has dabbled in the footballing world since retiring from athletics in 2017, but his visit to the struggling Premier League side was not to discuss becoming their new No 9.

Instead, Bolt was attending Burnley under-21s’ 4-3 victory over Stockport County, who were fielding Che Gardner, the son of the sprinter’s close friend Ricardo, a former footballer who made over 400 appearances for Bolton and spent 11 years in the Premier League.

Bolt and Gardner met while the latter was on international duty with Jamaica — he made 111 appearances for the country in total and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in their history. After leaving Bolton in 2012, he did not play another senior game until announcing his retirement in May 2014.

Ricardo Gardner was a Jamaican international (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Gardner and Bolt’s friendship has grown over the years, including a shared love of music, which has seen them work together on various projects.

“We met ages ago just from being two sportsmen from Jamaica. We both represented our country so got to know each other and we’ve remained good friends,” Gardner tells The Athletic. “He’s become closer to the family as time has gone on. In Jamaica, the way we operate, Che would consider him his uncle. He’s not his actual uncle, but it is just out of respect.”

Gardner’s son Che is a first-team scholar for Stockport County and made a brief late cameo in the game on Wednesday.

Whenever Bolt has commitments in Europe, he will try to visit the Gardner family and if possible see Che in action. In March 2023, Bolt attended an under-15 game between Blackburn Rovers — where Che was on trial — and Burnley.

He posed for a picture with Rovers’ players after the game, which was posted on the club’s official social media channels, and stayed in The Avenue Hotel in the Ribble Valley, which includes former Blackburn midfielder David Dunn as one of its owners.

“He has been a massive influence and inspiration for Che,” Gardner added. “He’s always been supportive of him. He will give him advice as much as possible, being a mentor whenever needed. Che follows many things he has told him and looks up to him. It’s great when you have people around you who have done it at the elite level.”

Bolt is a huge Manchester United supporter, but after calling time on his athletics career at the age of 30, he turned his attention to playing professional football.

There were trials at German side Borussia Dortmund and Australian A-League side Central Coast Mariners in 2018. He scored twice in a friendly for the Mariners, but despite reports of a contract being offered, he did not sign. A two-year deal with then Maltese champions Valletta was also turned down.

After admitting in early 2019 that he had given up any hope of a professional career, Bolt has become one of the headline stars of the annual Soccer Aid charity match.

Usain Bolt is a regular in football charity matches (Chris Arjoon/AFP via Getty Images)

Stockport celebrated promotion to League One after being crowned League Two champions earlier this month. The club is on an upwards trajectory and Gardner praised the work that is going on at all levels of the club having seen it first-hand through his son.

“Che’s enjoying his football, he’s growing and developing into a good human being,” says Gardner. “He’s on the right path, Stockport are doing a great job in terms of player development and you see where Che was to where he is now.

“They’re working hard to try to get the best out of all parties and he’s enjoying learning and the results are being seen as time has gone on.”

Keen to not miss out on the opportunity of recruiting Bolt, Burnley minority owner and NFL legend JJ Watt shared Burnley’s image of Bolt with his own message.

“Pleasure having you brother,” he wrote. “I guess I can settle for second fastest man to ever step foot on Burnley’s training ground. Still time to rearrange that schedule for TST. Just sayin’…”

Watt was referencing Burnley’s participation in The Soccer Tournament (TST) held in America this summer. Watt is captaining Burnley’s men’s team, while his wife, former USWNT forward and fellow minority owner Kealia, is captaining the women’s team.

Whether Bolt takes up that invitation is yet to be seen. In the meantime, Burnley are simply happy for his star power.

(Top photo: Burnley FC)

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