In 1970, Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell gifted the world her hit track ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Within the lyrically subtle and often karaoke mangled chorus, Mitchell mused that “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”.
Although the prevailing sentiment is that the Canadian chanteuse was referring to the cessation of a romantic relationship, the rhetorical query can also be also be applied to the closure of a footballing career.
Australians have often exhibited a green-eyed adherence to detrimental phenomenon of the tall poppy syndrome. If you grow too high, you face the prospect of being beheaded. If you play to well, you’ll no doubt attract the derision of dullards over the fence.
Along with an observance of this cultural condition, the parochial nature of footballing fans often leads us to collectively take greatness for granted. Fans of particular teams are willing to forgive and forget the ills of their own flock, but should an opposition star even contemplate sneezing, the masses charge armed with their pitchforks. At times, our singular eyes are unable to cherish champions clad in foreign colours.
With Saturday’s Grand Final set to cap the career of one of the game’s greatest at 357, fans of the code from all far flung locations will be afforded one last chance to witness Gary Ablett Jnr go about his business.
Despite being universally loved by all and sundry within Melbourne’s pivot city, ‘The Little Master’ has at times drawn the admonishment of rival footballing fans. Whether this be due to output or opinion, only the outraged individual can make their case.
What cannot be argued is the follicly challenged champions ability.
Ablett’s peerless resume should have been enough to silence any incorrect claims levelled at his greatness. However, his performance at 36 in last week’s Preliminary Final victory undoubtedly rounded up the final few heathens.
As this remarkable career played out in a pair of juxtaposed, waterfront locations ends, we at Zero Hanger saw it fit to remind you of Ablett’s borderline biblical achievements and why we all should count ourselves lucky to have witnessed his wizardry.
So, with Saturday presenting you with your last chance to see said sorcery, irrespective of your footballing denomination, sit forward in your pew, silence your sacrilege, as the son of God is set to deliver his final sermon.
The Early Days
For many years now, the 2001 AFL Draft has been labelled superior to all those to have gone before and come since. With names like Hodge, Judd, Ball, Bartel, Dal Santo and Kelly selected within the first round, the tag has not been without reason.
However, now 19 years removed from that momentous afternoon, only a single player from the vaunted class’ boots remain unhung – the mop topped kid from Moriac taken with a third round father-son selection.
Following a pre-season at a ground that he knew intimately, the familiar name of Gary Ablett was once again found in the footy record in Round One of 2002.
In the number 29 guernsey, rather than his father’s famous five, Junior spent the entirety of the evening inside the forward arc for a return of eight disposals and four marks.
Although success eluded him and Geelong that night, Ablett found himself selected in the seniors for the following nine weeks, including the Round three encounter against North that yielded his first of 192 wins and the first of 445 goals.
Despite the initial unimpeded stretch of firsts footy, Ablett’s debut season finished at VFL level, albeit with flag to his name.
After this initial omission, Ablett returned to Mark Thompson’s team list for the next 88 of a possible 93 games between 2003 and 2006.
The son of a gun’s output rose dramatically as he shared his time between centre square and forward fifty averaging 16 touches and 1.4 goals a game across the same period.
The flashes of brilliance were there to see, and the club shop was already doing a roaring trade selling hooped jumpers with 2’s and 9’s stitched to the back. Still, the materials for the subsequent banquet remained raw.
These ingredients may have been whisked and placed on the oven rack, but it would take the heat of some home truths before this soufflé was set to rise.
The Ascension to Stardom
Following an inability to return to the finals after a disastrous 2006 season, coach Bomber Thompson’s job was on the line.
With rumours surrounding internal issues at the club, combined with these failures within the confines of the boundary line, Geelong sought the consultation of the Leading Teams management group in an effort to arrest their alarming decline.
Across the last decade and a half, the fallout of these honest meetings has been well documented, with the prevailing understanding being that senior members of the playing group called a 21-year-old Ablett’s commitment and work ethic into question.
Even last week, questions surrounding the now infamous, catalytic exercise were still being posed to those who took part.
On the Preliminary Final edition of channel Seven’s The Front Bar, Paul Chapman candidly answered queries.
In case you missed it…
— The Front Bar (@thefrontbar7) October 17, 2020
“It was massive for everyone. The Leading Team’s thing, that was the fad then, wasn’t for everybody, but it really worked well for Geelong,” Chapman began.
“’Gaz’ hated it at the time. He left the room pretty angry. [He] didn’t speak to Steven King, who put him on notice, for probably two weeks.
“But to ‘Gazza’s’ credit, you could just see a change in mindset from him. He relished the challenge, and the rest is history. He’s become one of the best players of the modern era.”
This recount of events was backed up by Ablett six years ago when he publicly discussed this ‘change of mindset’.
“I do think back to that, where the boys really sat me down and said ‘we think you can work harder on the training track and there are so many areas where you can improve’,” Ablett told journalist Roger Vaughn.
“As hard as it was at the time, I walked away from that and thought ‘you know what, these boys really believe in me and there’s a lot of improvement left in me’.
“So it was a good thing.”
Anyone with a modicum of understanding about geology will understand that diamonds are formed under the greatest of pressure. Those that hold a rudimentary knowledge of salt-water bivalve molluscs can tell you that over time, an oyster has the ability to turn parasites into spherical pearls.
Although somewhat tenuous, the metaphor can be applied to Ablett’s ascent to prominence.
Following a drought breaking season in 2007 that delivered Ablett his first taste of Premiership glory, this pressure was no longer warranted. His pearl was ready to be plucked.
From 2007 to 2010, Ablett reigned supreme over the competition.
A Brownlow Medal, three league MVPS, four All-Australian selections, two club Best and Fairests and another premiership medal in 2009 provided enough marine grown riches to open a string of jewelers.
The King had found his throne. The trophy case was stacked. However, every ruler needs a ransom.
The Move North
When you have achieved all of your goals, what do you do next? Naturally, you seek a new challenge.
When you are offered $1.8 million dollars for five years of work, what do you say? You say yes, of course.
In a 2011 move that turned blue and white hearts everywhere cobalt, Ablett agreed to terms with the Gold Coast Suns.
Now it would have been easy to label the now bald Ablett as a mercenary, but what left was there to achieve at Geelong? By going from the penthouse to the outhouse, the then 27-year-old forwent a third flag with the Cats and afforded the footballing public an opportunity to hear how his tunes sounded solo.
Across his seven seasons in the Sun, Ablett was forced to play everything from percussion to ivory, whilst his band of fledgling teammates could only gawk rather than support.
Despite a year that provided a harvest of just eight wins, Ablett was again crowned the 2013 Brownlow medalist following a season in which he averaged 31.1 disposals, 5.9 clearances and 1.3 goals a game.
This second salute marked only the fifth time in which a player had won the award at their second club.
Although injuries, a lack of finals football, family matters and homesickness eventually ended his time on the Sunshine coast, the importance of this testamentary chapter cannot be understated.
Although further silverware alluded him, the near decade allowed him to explore new approaches to football through fastidious dietary, physical and spiritual preparation. Despite flying almost solo across enemy lines on a weekly basis, Ablett also reinstated his credentials as the best name in the contemporary game.
Nobody can usually say they spent seven years living in Australia’s playground and returned home richer and wiser, but this only proves the man’s incredible abnormality.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
Some things just seem destined to go together. Peanut butter and jam. Golf and bad pants. Coffee and cigarettes.
I’m sure you have a list rattling through your mind now having read that sentence, but what I am also sure of is that the combination of Ablett and Geelong is there too.
The return of Gary Ablett Junior to Geelong for the 2018 season sparked celebrations along the Bellarine only bettered by Lebron James’ Ohio homecoming four years earlier.
As per usual, the decision drew external derision.
‘How could he leave the Suns in the lurch?’
‘Didn’t this bloke choose money of this club?’
‘How was pick 19 and a swap of steak knife selections enough to get him home?’
Irrespective of this, Ablett wasted no time in proving his tank was not in need of a re-fill. With 39 possessions in first game back in hoops, the then 34-year-old had punters happily parting with paycheck portions on the odds offered for a Cat’s flag.
Although a third flag remained out of reach across 2018 and 2019, Ablett proved that father time is not cruel to everybody.
With an average of 22.2 disposals and 1.1 goals across his past 54 games, to call this superstar evergreen is not service enough.
Don’t believe me? Well you obviously weren’t watching last week, were you?
2️⃣ crucial goals
7️⃣ score involvements
— AFL (@AFL) October 17, 2020
Purists of the game saw Ablett’s homecoming as romantic at first, but if the Cats are to salute on Saturday night, this narrative will surpass anything even Nora Ephron has scripted.
As has been mentioned throughout this eulogy of a career, ‘The Little Master’s’ curriculum vitae is more impressive than just about anyone to ever lace a boot.
Throughout a peerless 19-year career, ‘Gazza’ has made us continually reappraise what we thought was possible and frequently implored us to redefine greatness.
The label of ‘the GOAT’ may be as popular as it is tacky, however, in this case it is befitting – disturbing illustrations and all.
— AFL (@AFL) October 17, 2020
The legacy that Junior will leave is an obvious one. With his name almost certain to be enshrined as a legend in the Hall of Fame at the first availability, not much more needs to be said and not a lot can be argued.
However, it is the lessons that he has subconsciously imparted on the generations to that will precede him that require further light shed.
Due to his reign, no father son selection should ever feel daunted about spending a career in a paternal shadow. Ablett Junior has proven that it is possible to step out of the largest radius of shade possible and in the eyes of some, better his Senior’s output.
In addition to this, irrespective of Saturday’s Grand Final result, Geelong will doubtlessly find an appropriate way to honour Ablett in due course. Still, the question remains, if God has a terrace named after him at Kardinia Park, just what piece of stadium architecture awaits his son’s naming rights?
Those of us who have spent our youth watching the second coming will need a place to take our future children and spin tales of the glabrous sorcerer’s brilliance. Who wants a stand named after a car manufacturer anyway?
So scream yourself hoarse on Saturday Cats fans and for those adorned with yellow sashes, maybe just begrudgingly, but still silently, admire him. Take the chance to soak him in, as it will be your last one.
If you’re in need of an entrée, then look no further