Book Review: All praise to exploration of Ablett enigma

Book: Playing God: The Rise and Fall of Gary Ablett

Writer: Garry Linnell

Publication: HarperCollins, 2003

Reviewer: Phillip Dimitriadis

Some may consider Garry Linnell’s book, Playing God: The Rise and Fall of Gary Ablett to be a work of fact-based, journalistic non-fiction. It is an unauthorised biography that at times has an unnerving mix of anecdotal evidence and fictional descriptiveness. This combination makes for a rare book in the Australian Rules football landscape because it challenges the established conventions of fictional and non-fictional writing. In some instances it treats Ablett as a God, through his football ability, in others it criticizes his apparent inability to take responsibility for himself. In other areas Linnell examines the football culture that allows the likes of Gary Ablett to get away with actions that would not be so easily tolerated in the general community. It is as if Linnell is playing the role of observer through this book, reflecting the tensions and emotions of the culture around Ablett rather than inserting personal opinions. By doing this he is able to shape the opinions of readers in a subtle way because readers can sometimes feel that they are engaged in a work of fiction while at other times they may feel that they are reading a feature article in a newspaper. Linnell tantalises the imagination of the reader with a sprinkling of facts foregrounded by heavily mythological language and archetypal imagery. For example, he writes:

Ablett knows all about the ages-old battle between good and evil. It has raged within him throughout his adult life. It is one of the reasons why he turned to the church and asked God to save him… a showdown between those two enemies and all that is good and bad in himself, is looming. Fame will engineer this showdown. It started the whole mess, and it will help finish it, too. But by the time it takes place, there will be no one to pray over Gary Ablett.

Page 17

Linnell is able to tap into the cliché riddled world of football journalism which can be argued brings an absurd sense of peace and familiarity to readers of football texts. At the same time he is able to draw on language to describe much more complex aspects of not only Gary Ablett, the person, the player and the commodity, but of the support cast that has accompanied Ablett on his journey. A number of asides on former coaches, teammates and officials is effective because it provides contrasting views and sub-plots, like characters in a movie or fictional text who the tragic hero meets and is influenced by along the way.

Linnell also tries to capture the mood of place as he traces Ablett’s life. With the descriptive techniques of a feature writer, he presents vivid snapshots of Victorian country towns like Drouin and Myrtleford as well as the insular feel of a small city like Geelong, which can feel like a large country town. Staying faithful to the rhetoric of mythological symbolism and archetypal conservatism, he writes about Drouin and small Australian country towns in general:

In an Australian country town, there was only one institution more powerful than the local council or church. And that was the footy club. The good reverend might have been able to speak to the All Powerful on a Sunday morning, but it was Saturday afternoons when the fair dinkum worshipping took place. Out there, on a windswept oval ringed by utes and old rusting Holdens fringed in mud, reputations were forged, lost and remade. The morale of a town depended on the high flying centre-half forward who could boot six goals a week.

Page 43

The contrasts between realism and mythology are not so clear if we are to believe Linnell in this instance. Does the earthiness and gritty realism of rusted cars and windswept ovals help deify the feats of the high-flying kid who has the potential to be the next great hope? Perhaps this myopic tribal loyalty has a darker underbelly that tends to cage the young men and cement their identity in the game and little else.

The ‘relationship with Jesus’ seems to be a recurring paradox with Ablett. One feels that if he didn’t have some faith he may have been dead by now. On the other hand, his use of the symbolic saviour can be seen as a way of justifying his actions and deflecting the criticism from an exasperated public who have heard the Jesus theme once too often to really believe him.

The media struggles to classify Ablett and this is why he is such a facinating character. He arguably has the personality of a wet blanket, publicly at least, yet there is something paradoxically interesting that the media wants to unravel in one sense and ensure that it remains cryptic in another. It seems that the media is more interested in maintaining the illusion that the game is holy and that there are stars who have distorted the orderly utopia. It could be argued that Ablett has in many respects been portaryed as a Luciferan figure, an angel especially endowed with gifts only to reject the grace the game bestowed upon him, according to the scribes, and succumb to the timeless flaw of hubris. He is not a fictional character. And yet reading some media accounts one could be forgiven for thinking that Ablett has played a major role in upsetting some imagined cosmic AFL order. Linnell brings an objective and  dramatic balance to these perceptions and this makes Playing God a ‘must read’ for any serious sports fan.

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.


  1. Thanks Phil.

    Much food for thought here.

  2. Stephen Cooke says

    I read this book several years ago and still recommend it to all and sundry. Do yourselves a favour.

  3. Damian Balassone says

    Nice work. Love the Lucifer analogy. In terms of sporting biographies this is a gound breaking book.

  4. Phil

    I was very engaged by your piece and would love to be organising a beer at the NFA to discuss it further.

    Your point about the game’s constructed holiness is a good one, and if the myth remains central it could have significant consequences. HYpocrisy looms as a millstone.

    I read PLaying God with great interest a few years ago and thought GL did a mighty job without having access to the suject, or the subject’s family. (But not as good a job as Chris Ryan did without HUghes’ cooperation in Golden Boy).

    I don’t mind writers specualting a little. I think it can be done intelligently in a way which respects the ability of the reader to think critically. I certainly found myself thinking in response to some of GL’s assertions.

    I thought it was a book about celebrity in the end, and quite a postmodern book, in that it was a reading of the Ablett texts. I suspect GL knew the limitations and approached it accordingly.

    When I interviewed him on Grandstand (along with Dan Lonergan I think) GL was terrific. He spoke very thoughtfully – an unlikely Sunday pre-match, really. I asked him whether in offering a critique of celebrity he was adding to the very body of work he was having a crack at, he acknowledged the conundrum. But backed himself to navigate through it, which I reckon he did.

    I often wonder what my view of Ablett would have been had he played for another club. I hope it would have been the same. A bizarrely skilful, powerful, explosive and brutal player. He reminds me of some of the towering figures from the Ancient Olympic Games, who captured the gaze of the historians then. (And there were plenty of those figures – we tend to forget that the Ancient Olympics went for 1000 years)

    Will have that beer some time.

    PIes blew it int he final minutes tonight.


  5. Phil Dimitriadis says


    just got back from Docklands, somewhat disappointed, yet relieved that the Collingwood hype won’t play out through the rest of the NAB Cup.

    The thing I really respect about Linnell’s book is the quality of the writing. He takes the reader into the usual hagiographic footy realms at times, yet at other moments there is a wonderfully objective detachment that gets closer to the truth of what he is trying to portray. It’s almost like he is trying to stop himself from engaging with reality because he is a footy fan. I have found similar difficulties writing my PhD. How can I be critical of a game I love so much?

    After reading this book I neither pitied or condemned Gary Ablett. I saw him as a simple man with simple needs who was somehow thrust into a complex world. A country boy who had to deal with adulation he wasn’t expecting. Watching him play between 84-96 I was always intrigued by the fact that he played as a boy with a strong man’s body. He could be brutal without being thuggish. GA is one of the paradoxical characters of our game and because he could not hide who he really was, it made him fascinating.

    I remember one night at the NFA a couple of years ago I asked you whether GA was like a misunderstood Christ in the game. You went to the toilet and mused that it was a good question. GA is one of the few players who is mythologically both Christ and Satan. This is what makes him interesting. As a personality he had little to contribute. As a player he entered the divine presence far too often to be ignored.

    In the end what do we value more, the person or the player?

  6. Pamela Sherpa says

    I read this book several years and thought it was excellent. Recently re-read it. Appreciated and enjoyed it just as much second time .

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