Darcy Gardiner is the beneficiary of the biggest preliminary final selection call in Brisbane Lions history – and an overwhelming vote of confidence from Luke Hodge.

Even before Gardiner got a call-up last night to replace the injured Jack Payne in Saturday’s grand final qualifier against Carlton at the Gabba Hodge had given the now 27-year-old a resounding endorsement.

He said he had ‘no doubts’ Gardiner would be up to the task despite the fact that he has not played at AFL level since 10 June, and has played only two games in 12 months.

Now a full-time media commentator but still with an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the club, Hodge, who joined the Lions in 2018, described Gardiner as ‘the heart and soul of the football club from the first day I arrived”.

He said of the veteran defender: “He (Gardiner) has played a lot of good minutes and consistent football in the VFL recently and if Payne can’t get up no doubt with what he (Gardiner) has done for the club over the years they’d have full confidence in him to do the job.”

That is exactly what Gardiner has been asked to do after Payne, who has carried an ankle problem through the second half of the year, could not get through a searching fitness test after it flared again in the qualifying final a fortnight ago.

Gardiner was held out of the Lions’ VFL preliminary final last Sunday as a precaution, and will now slot back into a defensive unit that had been his regular place of ‘work’ from 2014-22 before a 2023 season crucified by injury.

As the Lions prepare for their eighth AFL preliminary final Gardiner will be the 13th player called up to play in the penultimate game of the season after not playing in the preceding final.

In a sequence that has included some of the biggest names in club history, preliminary final selection changes have been:-

In 1996, after the then Bears beat Carlton by 97 points in a Gabba semi-final, Michael Voss and Jason Akermanis were ruled unfit for the MCG preliminary final against North Melbourne and were replaced by Nathan Chapman and Gilbert McAdam, who had each played in Round 22. The preliminary final was McAdam’s last AFL game.

In 1999 Chris Scott and Craig McRae played in the Lions’ 53-point semi-final win over the Bulldogs but were each suspended for one match. With the Lions facing an MCG preliminary final against North Melbourne, they were replaced by Richard Champion and Ben Robbins, who had not played since Round 18 and Round 21 respectively.

In 2001 Alastair Lynch copped a one-match suspension in the qualifying final win over Port Adelaide and missed the Gabba preliminary final against Richmond. He was replaced by Matthew Kennedy, who, having not played since Round 21, made his 188th and last appearance against the Tigers.

In 2002, when the Lions beat Adelaide by 71 points in the qualifying final, coach Leigh Matthews made two changes for the Gabba preliminary final against Port Adelaide. He called up Robert Copeland, who had not played since Round 21, to replace the injured Chris Scott, and dropped ruckman Jamie Charman to bring in Beau McDonald, who had not played since Round 22.

In 2003 Marcus Ashcroft missed the preliminary final against Sydney through injury and was replaced by Tim Notting, who had missed the 42-point semi-final win over Adelaide through suspension.

In 2004 Alastair Lynch and Clark Keating, who had missed the 80-point qualifying final win over St.Kilda through injury and illness respectively, returned to replace Ash McGrath and Joel Macdonald, who were omitted.

And last year, Tom Fullarton and Darcy Fort made way for the return of Joe Daniher, who missed the MCG semi-final win over Melbourne to attend the birth of his child, and Oscar McInerney, who was out with concussion.

Still, if the Lions are to beat Carlton on Saturday to qualify for their first grand final since 2004 there is a sentimental element that says Gardiner deserves a chance to play even if he is only keeping the spot warm for Payne.

Because in the past seven years Gardiner has been a fixture in the Lions defence. When he was fit he played. Every time. And even for the two years before that, when he was still feeling his way in the AFL, he only played twice in the Reserves. And only when he missed the start of the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injury and had to fight his way into the top side.

He finished 7th-8th-4th-10th-8th in the Merrett/Murray Medal from 2016-20 and was enormously valued as a utility defender equally comfortable on a tall or small opponent.

This year got off to a bad start with off-season shoulder surgery and a subsequent foot problem, and since then ongoing niggles have restricted him to two AFL games in Rounds 11-13, split by the Round 12 bye, and 10 games in the VFL.

Gardiner will play his ninth AFL final and his third preliminary final on Saturday in an otherwise unchanged starting line-up, with Jarryd Lyons, the qualifying final substitute, bracketed on the bench with ruckman Fort, running utility Jimmy Tunstill and defender Darragh Joyce.

Two Lions will play their first preliminary final – off-season recruit Conor McKenna, who played two losing finals at Essendon before joining the Lions, and first-year player Jaspa Fletcher.

Five players will play their second preliminary final –  Daniher, who only joined the Lions in 2021, Keidean Coleman, who was dropped for the 2020 preliminary final, Ryan Lester, not selected in 2022, and Darcy Wilmot and Deven Robertson, who were not even in the mix in 2020.

Lachie Neale will play his fifth preliminary final after two with Fremantle in 2013-15, while Charlie Cameron will play his fourth, having added the Lions’ 2020-22 grand final qualifiers to that of 2017 with Adelaide. Lincoln McCarthy, too, will play his fourth, having tasted the all-or-nothing pressure of the preliminary final at Geelong in 2016 before moving to Brisbane.

And while the rest of his teammates play their third preliminary final with Brisbane, 2023 recruit Josh Dunkley will play his first for Brisbane and his third overall after two previous preliminary final outings in 2016 and 2021 with the Bulldogs.

Lyons would have the experience of the 2020 preliminary final to call on if he again wins the substitute’s role, but it would be a first for the other three bench players.

Fort, who played the last of seven games this year in Round 21, at least has the experience of the Lions’ 2022 semi-final win over Melbourne to call on. Joyce, not seen in the AFL side since Round 5, and Tunstill, whose only AFL outings this year have been Round 1 and Round 20, have never played an AFL final.

Perhaps the only saving grace for Gardiner – until now - is the fact that he had avoided the almost annual mention leading into Monday night’s Brownlow Medal vote-count of the fact that he has played most games for the club without a vote.

He has logged 148 home-and-away games, plus eight finals in which votes are not awarded, and is well clear of Cheynee Stiller, who went 99 home and away games and one final without a vote.

James Polkinghorne (92), Brandon Starcevich (87), Ryan Harwood (81), Josh Green (81) and Joel Macdonald (79) are next on the list. And Starcevich, after another solid season, will have a chance to end his run in the 2023 count.

At least Gardiner has barely moved up the all-time AFL list headed by ex-Bulldogs/Collingwood defender Jordan Roughead at 193 home-and-away games, from Geelong’s Tom Lonergan and Sydney’s Nick Smith (191).