It was a sight seen by many before.
A fast few handballs means the glistening yellow Sherrin finds its way out of the centre stoppage. Despairing Brisbane players lunge for an arm to hold, a torso to cling onto to prevent the following play. But they can’t resist it; the flanker is up at the contest and is pumping his legs in full flight by the time the ball falls into his possession. The rest, like a jungle chase between predator and prey, is over quickly. The flanker dashes towards the arc, steadying and slamming the footy in a high parabola towards the goals. It hangs in the air, time suspended while mouths sit agape in the stands. Time speeds back up, and the Sherrin flies home for a goal.
Gary Ablett Jnr has made a career of these jaw-dropping moments. Ever since coming into the league with his mane of long hair and withering pace out of centre bounces, he has wowed opponents and crowds in equal doses. Now, he only has one more game to dazzle before one of the greatest careers in VFL/AFL history comes to a close.
Ablett was born into football success. When he first entered the world, his arrival culminated with the peak of another career. In 1984 Gary Ablett Snr began to sparkle. By the end of the ‘80s, he was the superstar of a competition that had expanded across the country. His weekly feats defied physics and rules; his famous nine-goal effort in the 1989 Grand Final proved he was a rare talent.
He may have been too young to comprehend what he was witnessing, but Ablett Jnr was there every step of the way. It makes perfect sense that young Gary’s career would centre around Geelong’s Kardinia Park; only his years in the Gold Coast saw him separated from his home. While his father shot into the ‘90s with the same record-breaking prowess, Gary and brother Nathan were constants at training and game-days. Some of Ablett Snr’s teammates recall Gary and Nathan running through the rooms barefoot and demanding kick-to-kicks. Some would label them pests – but not within earshot of Geelong’s champion player.
Young Gary’s prime years haunting Geelong players coincided with his father’s peak. No one could stop ‘God’ on the way to three consecutive Coleman Medals and some cherished finals memories. The only thing Ablett Snr couldn’t do was will the Cats to a drought-breaking premiership. Having witnessed this, the son of God took it upon himself to finish his father’s mission.
Ablett Jnr played his junior footy at Modewarre – a country town outside of Geelong where he was born. He elevated through the ranks until selected for the Geelong Falcons Under-18 program in the TAC Cup. This choice was met with scrutiny from parents and teammates; it was only general manager Mick Turner who stuck by Ablett Jnr’s presence and ensured he featured in the 2001 season. In a career now famous for churning out star players, Turner made another great move when he backed in young Gary.
As a bottom-age player and with a wealth of followers religiously chasing the Ablett name, the son of God faced plenty of pressure. 2001 was the type of year that could make or break Ablett Jnr’s career; with such expectation surrounding his name, one bad game could see the Ablett thread unravel.
But Gary was cut from a different cloth. In the first of many times where he seemed to defy all pressure, Ablett Jnr was good enough to feature for Vic Country in the mid-season National Championships. A few months later he made the decision to nominate in the draft a year early alongside a bevy of stellar names.
The 2001 national draft is now an immensely popular class. It is arguably the greatest assortment of young talent the game has seen, giving many clubs All-Australians, Brownlow Medallists, Norm Smith Medallists and vital cogs in premiership sides. In the five rounds of selections, 18 players would receive premiership medals during their careers. Ablett, as an under-age rookie, was left behind the names of Hodge, Ball and Judd until pick 40, where Geelong snared him as a highly-touted father-son pick.
Both Hawthorn and St Kilda would argue they ‘won’ the 2001 draft, but in the decade that followed Geelong ensured they settled the debate. Alongside Ablett, Jimmy Bartel, Steve Johnson and James Kelly all walked through the doors. 19 years later, they share three Brownlow Medals, two Norm Smith Medals and (sans Ablett) three premierships.
Many expected Ablett Jnr to be slotted in the Reserves for numerous years before he bulked up and developed his craft as a wiry small forward. But Geelong had faith in their youngsters, and Ablett was given games in the 2002 season. This confidence boost gave Ablett the ability to return to the Reserves and become a vital player in their VFL premiership, meaning young Gary received another shot in the Seniors when 2003 rolled around.
In those days, the flowing hair and galloping stride of Ablett lent him to a high-pressure small forward. With a slight frame that would catapult into contested situations, Gary didn’t take long to solidify his spot as a forward-come-midfielder. But the frustrating lack of finals success in the ensuing years left a stale feeling permeating through Geelong.
It may eternally live on as a very dark night for the Geelong Football Club. Nick Davis’ last quarter antics in the 2005 Semi-final led the Swans on a barnstorming September run that ended with a drought-breaking premiership. But if it hadn’t happened, the following years could have panned out very differently.
It was after this heartbreaking loss that hard truths emerged. Ablett was told he didn’t work hard enough and was wasting an opportunity to become one of the greats. In the drastic next season, he slowly built his aerobic capacity and became an instrumental goal-kicking midfielder for the Cats.
His improvement culminated in the 2007 season. With coach Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson staving off calls for his sacking, he instilled in the maturing Cats an attacking brand of footy where backwards handballs fed runners streaking down the middle. With such firepower across the ball, Geelong romped to the minor premiership through fierce corridor-based footy. Ablett was central to this – his prowess with ball in hand made him the key instigator of goals. But now he had added a gritty in-and-under aspect to his game that led Geelong into a Grand Final. His final quarter stoppage goal against Collingwood in the Preliminary Final is one of many great Ablett moments, his shoulders hunching over the footy as he curled home the match-winner in front of the Punt Road End.
The Cats would go on to break their own drought, while Ablett would narrowly miss out on a Brownlow Medal to teammate Jimmy Bartel. In doing so, Ablett had done what his father never could. If Ablett Snr was God, his progeny was fast becoming Jesus.
The next few years produced one of the better runs of footy from a single side; the Cats dominated all of 2008 only to fall at the final hurdle (Ablett was stiff not to become one of the rare players to win a Norm Smith Medal in a losing effort) and then attone in 2009 (where his delivery to the goalsquare in the final minutes led to Paul Chapman’s flag-clinching snap). In that second premiership year, he finally landed his first Brownlow Medal. Unfortunately, it was all too good to last for long.
Moving on up
It came not long after the 2010 Preliminary Final. Rapturous Pies fans trickled out of the Ponsford Stand and onto the concourse. Whispers soon flew around, feeding satisfied Collingwood supporters who would then belt it out.
The secret was confirmed in the off-season, and Gary was abandoning his spiritual home. The lure of captaincy and a glorious pay packet on the sunny Gold Coast was a deal too good to refuse. In the next seven seasons, Ablett’s ability and will was deeply tested by the shoddy start-up effort made by the Gold Coast Suns.
Some interesting recruiting and a mediocre environment meant the pressure was eternally placed on Ablett’s shoulders. The little master did all he could; taking home the 2013 Brownlow Medal to add to his collection. He was on track to win it in 2014 too, as his golden form led the Suns towards a potential finals berth. But his body was beaten up by the double tags placed on him. Shoulders soon gave way and injuries marred his remaining years at Gold Coast. At the end of the 2017 season, Ablett wanted out, back down to the familiar barricades of what was soon to be renamed GMHBA Stadium. It took an administrative struggle between agents and the Suns, but Ablett soon got his wish.
One goal in mind
Gary Ablett Jnr didn’t return to Geelong for simple sentimentality. For many in the football community, it was a wholesome full circle moment, of Simba returning to the tribe and resting atop Pride Rock. He was no longer the best footballer in the League, but he had a final play in mind that would satisfy his incredible career.
Geelong had gone through nearly a decade of being perennial bridesmaids. Ever since Chris Scott cracked through to lead the Cats to the 2011 flag in his first season, his sides were consigned to gut-wrenching Preliminary Final losses. By the end of the decade, Geelong were scoffed at, never taken seriously in finals.
After last year’s dismal second half capitulation to the firing Tigers, Ablett chose to stay on for another season. His final campaign, in the craziest of circumstances, has reverted back to the early days of 2003. In 2020, Ablett has nested himself deep in the forward line, kicking clever goals and having brief runs through the midfield when required. It is this role that killed the Lions last week – Ablett the forward pocket is already an intimidating match-up, but when he is able to waltz up the ground and waddle back down with the footy only to slam goals through from beyond the arc, he is nigh on impossible to stop.
Personally, Ablett’s career is undervalued. There are constant comparisons to Chris Judd and other members of that 2001 draft. But he stands alone, both statistically and in regards to his impact. Ablett has always been a wizard. Firing under the most difficult of circumstances. Under the pressure of a Geelong community who followed him from adolescence. He entered the AFL with expectations as high as can be, which is customary when your father has enjoyed one of the greatest careers ever witnessed. When Ablett Jnr causes a moment of pause in the debate between father and son, it means he has done something no one else has. He has matched his father. If he can lead the Cats to an emotional triumph on Saturday night, he may leave the game with one final sparkling moment, one last mind-blowing goal. But he may also depart having put together the best career in recent memory, even better than that of God’s.
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