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Sport Gary Ablett Jnr was the champion who exceeded football's greatest expectations

23:06  20 october  2020
23:06  20 october  2020 Source:   msn.com

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As the MCG siren sounded on September 29, 2007, it was hard to know where to look.

The scoreboard told an eye-popping story: Geelong had annihilated Port Adelaide by 119 points — a historic margin on a historic day that ended 44 years of yearning. Cats supporters wept in the aisles.

After the presentation, hundreds of people swarmed the 22 men wearing hooped jumpers in the subterranean cauldron of the winners' rooms. In a fleeting moment of semi-privacy, 23-year-old Gary Ablett Jnr slouched by his locker, silently appraising the scene before him.

A Cats trainer arrived with a message: "Gary, your Dad's just outside the rooms." Ablett rose to his feet and eyed his brother Nathan, 21 years old and fresh from the performance of his career. The newly minted premiership stars walked towards their famous father for the most significant embrace of their football lives.

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It was a surreal few seconds. So overwhelmed were the trio by this moment of sporting deliverance, none could find words. Tears flowed in their place. Their heads shook in sync. Three sets of eyes scanned the room, asking a question: is this even real? Gary told Gary he'd cut his medal in half, that it belonged to both of them.

Inevitably, the spell was broken when others noted the symbolic power of the scene. Cameras swivelled, reporters and backslappers rushed in. Cornered again by prying eyes, the Ablett men instinctively went their separate ways, not to reunite until a few days later — a quiet cafe meeting with yet more head-shaking and unhidden emotion.

Over coffee, there were finally some words. Gary Ablett Snr had spent many years of a troubled adult life warning his children not to seek their identities in achievements and acclaim. Yet here he was admitting the opposite, telling his sons they'd filled a giant hole in his life, mending a pain that nothing else could remedy. Perhaps now he could move on from the personal and professional failings that haunted him. The Ablett boys beamed with pride.

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Not long after that cafe meeting, Nathan Ablett retired from the game.

Being Gary Ablett

Thirteen years on, as Gary Ablett Jnr farewells football on the appropriately grand stage of a premiership decider, we are almost numb to the enormity of his achievements.

A pair of premiership and Brownlow medals, eight All-Australian blazers, six club best and fairest awards and five Leigh Matthews trophies headline an astonishing CV.

Such sustained dominance as Ablett achieved — close to a decade as the standard-bearer of a golden generation of midfielders — places him in the rarest company.

Between 2007 and 2014, when injuries started blunting his brilliance, Ablett was unstoppable. Sitting in the stands, Gary Snr was often left amazed that his son could withstand his weekly batterings from taggers and still come out on top. His AFL Tables page became a statistical shrine.

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It is not even slightly absurd to say that Ablett could and probably should have won five Brownlow medals, perhaps four in a row: he might have snatched his clubmate Jimmy Bartel's 2007 award, and was so miffed by the '08 result, he almost skipped his triumphant 2009 count; in these stats-obsessed times, it's perverse to consider that in 2010, Ablett had 119 more regular season possessions and 30 more goals than the winner, Chris Judd.

Maybe 2014 was his most ridiculous year, confirming why his second team, Gold Coast Suns, built an entire franchise around him.

Ablett put on a clinic almost every week, but suffered a career-altering injury after 15 games. It opened the way for a Steven Bradbury-style finish to the medal count. Runner-up Nat Fyfe and winner Matt Priddis bettered Ablett by only three and four votes respectively. In those years, 30 possessions to Gary Ablett Jnr was one of life's few certainties.

But that is merely what Ablett did. We must also consider what he overcame.

When Nathan Ablett quit after 32 games for Geelong, his misgivings mainly related to the very public pressures of AFL life. Taller and broader than his brother, Nathan's personality was smaller. He could be worn down by the expectations that accompanied his surname. More comfortable with the rhythms of country leagues, he also chafed at the ceaseless commitments of big-time football. At times, it made him miserable.

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It takes only basic levels of empathy to understand his vanishing act, just as it requires only modest powers of deduction to understand Gary Jnr's resilience in the face of similar strains.

In fact, the pressure on Gary Ablett Jnr was always two-fold: he was the second coming of Gary — the eldest and most talented son of the man many considered the greatest player to walk the earth. Old-timers recall only Ted Whitten Jnr carrying a similar burden with anything like Ablett's grace. We could also consider the fate of another son of sporting royalty, John Bradman, so overwhelmed by attention in his teens that he chucked in cricket at the first opportunity. For many years, he changed his famous surname too.

In early boyhood, Ablett took the opposite approach to John Bradman, steeping himself in Geelong lore. He was a constant, pestering presence on the training track and in the rooms at Kardinia Park during his father's career, and one folded quickly into the other; it is remarkable to consider that Cats fans endured only five Ablett-less seasons between the coming and going of Garys.

Both were unerringly modest about their abilities and men of faith — the older a cautionary tale, the younger the closest thing to a Christian role model in Australian sport. Where Gary Snr grimaced and gave the press nothing, Gary Jnr smiled obligingly and was often happy to chat. Yet he revealed just as little.

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Of course, Ablett Jnr ended up a far different player than his father, lacking the marking prowess and versatility but exceeding him in most other categories, on and off the field. Yet their physical resemblance — the pear-shaped physique and the hunched shoulders — was irresistible to romantics, as was Gary Jnr's tendency to kick the impossible goal.

Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that if you had a foreign tourist assess the physical attributes of each player before a Geelong game, they would never pick Gary Ablett Snr as the champion of the bunch. The same was true of Gary Jnr, but within minutes of play commencing, there would be no doubt you were witnessing greatness.

There is a story from Gary Jnr's youth that Bill Brownless tells often. Determined to teach the pesky older Ablett boy a lesson in the Geelong rooms one night, Brownless drilled a Sherrin straight and low towards Gary's head. No sooner had it left Brownless's boot than Ablett spun to face him and marked the ball with one grab, directly in front of his face.

Like so many challenges thrown at him down the years, Gary Ablett Jnr had risen to the occasion and left those around him shaking their heads.

The leap years

It is strange to consider now, but at the beginning of his AFL career, Gary Ablett Jnr fought private battles in his mind: on one hand, there were plenty of boosters declaring him a future champion the minute he arrived at Geelong, which filled him with paradoxical insecurity that he wouldn't measure up; doubters made sure Ablett overheard claims that his surname alone had won him his opportunities, which motivated him to succeed. In this light, his ability to forge his own identity is a hallmark of his greatness.

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Geelong, to its credit, did everything in its power to coddle and protect Ablett in the early years of his career, preventing undue attacks on a sensitive soul. Two years before the club secured him with pick 40 of the fabled 2001 'Superdraft" thanks to the father-son rule, Ablett was only a half-hearted footballer. At Modewarre FC his talent was clear, but Ablett applied himself more seriously to basketball, surfing and skateboarding — pursuits that relieved him of comparisons with his father, but surely assisted the ambidexterity, balance and daredevil swooping that later underpinned his football brilliance.

At AFL level, any doubts about his prospects quickly disappeared. His first four seasons were all floppy hair and bouncy, jinking runs around the forward flanks. In seasons two through four, Ablett averaged 30 goals and led the club in tackles. A long-term contract was calculated more on promise than market rate for Ablett's contributions as a small forward. Later, when he'd transformed his game in ways nobody could have sincerely predicted, it became a giant problem for both parties.

Ablett's leap from very goodness to greatness followed a pair of turning points in his early 20s — one a religious epiphany that strengthened his faith, the other a scathing critique by teammates during an unsparing internal review at Geelong. Heartbroken semi-final losers in 2005, the Cats fell out of contention in 2006, and seemingly teetered on the brink of crisis.

That was Ablett's fifth senior season, and he felt he'd done quite well. He was floored when his colleagues told him the harsher truth: he had every bit as much talent as Chris Judd, but nothing like the work ethic. Ablett's reaction was to physically and mentally overhaul himself. Working harder than ever, he developed habits that became the bedrock of his game. Previously known for training in sneakers if the mood took him, now his preparations became obsessive and exacting.

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On field, he was elusive. In future years, when he gave coaching presentations, former Geelong coach Mark Thompson would use vision of Ablett to show how the best players are always in the right place at the right time. But it was not something that came naturally; studying video clips of the running patterns and body positioning of the best midfielders, Ablett worked hard to crack the code. Combined with his spatial awareness and skill, this bank of knowledge made him untaggable. Opponents could only react.

Between the annus mirabilis of 2007 and the final year of his first Geelong stint in 2010, Ablett elevated the midfield craft to new heights, all the while kicking as many goals as he had as a forward. Watching Gary Snr in the 1989 grand final, Martin Flanagan wrote: "The game was Ablett's in the way that magic was Merlin's." Gary Jnr held a different grip on the contest, controlling and directing the game from low-slung patrols of the packs, rather than from the clouds like his Dad.

The results could be spellbinding. Ablett played games in 2010 that should have won him bonus Brownlow votes. If not for a maddening capitulation in the second half of the 2008 Grand Final, Geelong could have waltzed to a three-peat of flags. Central to that run was the brilliance of Ablett. When he was on fire, which was more often than not, the Cats never looked likely to lose.

Like many good things, it ended in a flash, but it was with heartbreak that Geelong fans processed the loss of Thompson and Ablett in one hit after the failed finals campaign of 2010. Following a year of unrelenting speculation, Ablett did what many of his teammates told him they would have done too, and took the contract of a lifetime from the upstart Gold Coast Suns.

At the 192-game mark, Gary Ablett Jnr's Geelong career seemed finished.

House of the rising Suns

Once the Gold Coast move was confirmed, rather than a release of tension, Ablett felt unprecedented wrath from the public and press on three fronts.

The first was the theory he'd put money before success, which was true in one sense, because Geelong would recover from his loss to claim the 2011 premiership. But it ignored the reality of Ablett's predicament: his old Geelong contract had left him a million dollars short on market rate earnings, and the Suns money not only secured Ablett's financial future, but that of many dependents.

The second and third complaints were interrelated: that as Gold Coast's first captain he lacked the leadership traits the role required, and that with every possession-gathering spree — and in a young side, he was chasing the ball deeper into defense than ever before — he denied his young teammates opportunities. The latter was an absurd stigma for a 21st century midfielder, but once it took hold, it became almost impossible to escape.

Behind the scenes, Ablett was under no illusions about his crash course in leadership. Emotionally reserved and averse to even mildly negative adjectives, he tried to lead by example instead, but was often swamped by the negative forces around him. One member of the Suns' inaugural leadership team broke a teammates' jaw. Another had left his last club following domestic violence charges. Three others had never played a senior game. Losses piled up.

Unsurprisingly, it was a time in which Ablett leant more heavily than ever into his faith; the Suns list contained enough Christians for a prayer group, and only those within it could explain Ablett's guidance and support of young men trying to find their way in a new city, while trying to perform under the professional sport microscope.

Ablett produced unerring brilliance in those years. The team did not. The Suns won six games in their first two seasons. That increased to eight in 2013, when Ablett played staggering football and won his second Brownlow, then 10 in 2014, when he was hauling the Suns towards the finals when the disastrous shoulder injury came.

Such was the impatience for success, coach Guy McKenna was sacked. Positive momentum turned into a sharp plummet. Further injuries meant Ablett managed only 20 games in the following two seasons under Rodney Eade. Privately, Ablett worried that his broken body would never heal. Publicly, the pressure on him never let up.

Much was written about Ablett's eventual campaign to return home to Geelong, but it can be summarised quickly: even if it meant giving up a seven-figure salary, Ablett wanted to leave; the Suns wouldn't let him. Only those involved know the full picture, but for his efforts putting Gold Coast on the football map, and his unimpeachable status as a football role model, Ablett was treated shabbily in his final two years.

At the end of the 2016 season, with Ablett contracted to the club for another year, his manager Liam Pickering flew to the Gold Coast and called a meeting with the Suns. Among the agenda items was Ablett's need to be closer to family as his sister Natasha's health spiralled. Ablett and Pickering didn't need to sit down to guess the answer: neither the coach nor the CEO of the Suns turned up, leaving underlings to brush off the club's greatest asset.

So, Ablett pulled on his boots and played out the remainder of his deal. Injuries permitted 14 games in 2017, as they had the season before. Sadly, a glittering career was petering out, and another trade week stalemate beckoned. In the final minutes, an impasse that would have resulted in Ablett's immediate retirement was finally overcome, and he was sent back to Geelong in exchange for draft picks.

A week before that deal was struck, Natasha Ablett lost her battle.

Homecoming king

How much does football mean to Gary Ablett Jnr? Judging by the ordeals he's put his body through for 19 seasons, you would suggest a lot. When he wants a reminder, Ablett is known to re-watch two pieces of footage from his career: Geelong running onto the ground before the 2007 Grand Final, and his teammates' reactions of pure joy on the presentation dais that afternoon.

The minute he returned to Geelong, his gaze was fixed on one perfect day: a farewell premiership. At half-time of the 2019 preliminary final, Ablett had every right to assume he'd be returning to the MCG the next weekend to fulfil his goal. Geelong led by 21 points. Everything was going to plan. Then, just as quickly, it wasn't. Flattened by Richmond in the second half, the Cats fell to a 19-point loss and Ablett slumped to the change room floor. Gary Snr hovered. The cameras swivelled again. Were we witnessing the end?

Overwhelmed by the emotions of that disappointment, Gary Jnr knew it wasn't a time for rash decisions. Above all, in football and life, he is a pragmatist. He waited a few weeks, talked the decision through with his family, and decided he'd play on in 2020. What an imperfect and strange way to go out: quarantine hubs, shortened games, no wall of sound at Kardinia Park when Ablett spun into space, threading unlikely goals even in his sporting dotage. Now, thanks in no small part to Ablett's presence of mind and unerring ability to find forward targets, Geelong stands on the brink of a unique triumph. After the preliminary final, Ablett was the calmest head, delighted his plan was coming together but calmly telling reporters that after all these years, he was still taking it one week at a time.

Ablett's self-containment and ability to compartmentalise underpins that outward calm. If the pandemic didn't put football in perspective this year, the Ablett family's immense personal challenges certainly have. In June, Ablett and his wife Jordan revealed their son Levi was suffering a rare and degenerative disease. When the world saw a photo of a relieved Gary reuniting with Levi at Melbourne airport in July, the end of a football career suddenly seemed less sad.

It also recalled two pictures from Gary Ablett Jnr's youth. In one, taken in 1987, he wears tiny gumboots and descends an aisle at Kardinia Park, crying for Gary Snr. It reduces a champion footballer to the humbler status of Dad.

In the other picture, a diminutive Ablett closely trails Gary Snr from the training track and down the tunnel to the Geelong locker room. It is an arresting image with an obvious metaphor: here is the boy who will follow in the footsteps of a living legend. Caption writers have long identified the boy as Gary Jnr. In fact, it is Nathan Ablett.

It is easy to see why someone would want to believe it's Gary; the photo hints at the unprecedented pressures he will eventually face. The boy could be swimming inside the men's-size Geelong guernsey he wears. He's a child playing dress-ups. What he doesn't realise is that one day, he will be asked to wear that jumper for real, to be his own man.

But being your own man is no simple task for someone with a name like Gary Ablett Jnr. The game asked him to be nothing less than perfect, on the field and off it. It demanded that he fill the giant space in the sporting landscape once occupied by his father — the man they call God.

And somehow — drawing upon a strength of character that defies explanation — Gary Ablett Jnr did it, the exemplar of champions and a credit to himself.


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Ablett's final AFL game falls short of fairytale ending .
Geelong's Gary Ablett's final AFL game did not quite go to plan as the veteran's last hurrah fell short of a fairytale ending.In his 357th game before retiring, Ablett had a nightmare start, injuring his left shoulder in the opening minutes against Richmond.

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