Gary Ablett Snr: From the other side

 


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When you ask footy fans about the best players they’ve ever seen, you can expect many of the fans of my vintage to mention Gary Ablett Snr in the first two or three names. If you want a more detailed and nuanced assessment of Gary’s career, there are two types of fans you should ask. Obviously, the Geelong fans of the 80s and 90s can regale you with tales of the wonder, the splendour and the mastery of the great man, but the other fans you should ask are the long-suffering Richmond fans of the 80s and 90s because, quite simply, we saw him at the peak of his powers.



Gary saved his very best for us. Thanks to AFL Tables, I can tell you that in the 20 games that Gary played against the Tigers during his storied career, he kicked a total of 118 goals and 62 points – that’s an average of almost 6 goals a game…let me say that again, an average of 6 goals a game. His tallies included a 12-goal performance, a ten, an eight and a host of fives, but there was a day in 1989 that, for me and many other Richmond supporters, ranks above all of them.



In 1989, Geelong was a classy, pacey, attacking machine with winners on every line. That team set a season record of 2,619 points for – that’s almost 20 goals a game. They were on their way to playing in one of the classic Grand Finals which still stands among the high-water marks of the game.



Conversely, in 1989, Richmond looked like starving orphans. Although we had unearthed budding stars such as Knights, Lambert, Free and Pickering, we were about to suffer the indignity of “saving our skins”, only just being able to remain financially afloat for the 1990 season. Kevin Bartlett did what he could with a cupboard which was almost bare. He knew, we knew and probably the players knew that we just couldn’t cut it against the top teams.



Set against this stunning disparity of footballing fortunes, Round 9 of 1989 saw the Cats pitted against the Tigers at the ‘G’ on a sunny day with a fast track. The Cats boasted stars such as Couch, Bairstow, Hocking and Stoneham to mention just a few, but the bogey man for the Tiges was undoubtedly Gary Ablett. Richmond supporters already knew plenty about Ablett, fresh off a ten goal return against us in Round 4 of 1988. We knew “he could play a bit” but, on this day, we were about to be witness to his sublime skills with the volume turned up to 11.



Ablett lined up on a wing and quite simply did as he pleased. He found the ball so easily that he looked like he was playing in a practice match. In fact, his shorts weren’t even dirty, and I doubt he even raised a sweat. The game was over – as it so often was for us in those days – before quarter-time. By three-quarter time, he had left a litany of opponents in his wake and had ten goals next to his name…from a wing!



To start the last quarter, Geelong Coach Malcolm Blight gave everyone at the ‘G’ a gift: he moved Gary down to the goal square to play Full Forward for the last quarter. The Tiger fans in the old Southern Stand’s standing room looked at each other and gulped. Those with belief in a higher power silently said their prayers and steeled themselves for an even bigger onslaught.



A dominant Geelong midfield made sure Gary didn’t have to move too far from the goal square to get his vice-like hands around the ball. Goals number 11 and 12 were on the board after only a few minutes of the last quarter. “Next opponent please!” Defenders such as Laffy, Nixon, Goodwin and Leys had all tried valiantly but couldn’t match the imperious skills of the Cats star. Goals 13 and 14 were on the board soon after. 14, and counting.



With almost 20 minutes left in the game, a surprising calm descended upon the standing room Tigers as we looked at each other, realising that we were about to witness a moment in footballing history. We nodded to each other with guilty smiles and embraced the prospect of seeing a player break the 20-goal barrier. We were no longer afraid: our fear was replaced by the anticipation of being able to say that we were among the 24,321 who were “there”. I imagined that I would be telling wide-eyed children on my knee about the day that “I was there to see…” in 50 years’ time.



Gary’s next opponent, perhaps his eighth for the day, was a young Mildura recruit with a handful of games to his name, Brendan Bower. Bower was the quintessential Jack Dyer “good ordinary player” mismatched against a superstar. This reinforced our expectation that, within a matter of minutes, we would see football history created.



A centre bounce produced yet another clinical Geelong centre clearance, sending the ball towards you-know-who when all of a sudden, a strange thing happened: Bower intercepted and the ball was taken upfield by the besieged Richmond backs. I’m not sure who was the most surprised – Ablett, the Richmond backs, the fans, or even Bower himself. A minute or so later, the ball was again propelled towards Ablett and, again, Bower somehow got in the way with the ball going out of bounds. When Bower chopped off the next forward thrust, the Richmond fans, eager to make sure that they would be part of football history, started yelling out, “Get out of his way Bower!” “What do you think you’re doing, Bower?” We were barracking against our own player! The game was gone at the fifteen minute mark of the first quarter so if we didn’t salvage something memorable out of this blue-and-white killing field, what was it all for?



With absolutely no sense of occasion, Bower continued to wear the champ like a second skin. Whether Gary was simply tired, or maybe bored, I can’t say but Bower toiled manfully, clearly the only person in the ‘G’ who hadn’t read the script. In a massive anti-climax, the final siren sounded without another Ablett goal. So, ultimately, Gary and the fans of both Geelong and Richmond had to settle for a lazy 14 goals 2 behinds, ten of which had been kicked from the wing in the first three quarters.



Essendon fans will probably tell you that Gary’s 14.7 against the Bombers in 1993 was his zenith, but by then, Gary was mainly a full forward who was busy winning Colemans and demoralising full backs. To see the great man “free ranging” from half back to the goal square, with all the party tricks on display, was a sight to behold.



In the 90s, I regularly endured the sight of Wayne Carey plundering the Richmond backline like a Viking with a bad hangover, at times winning the ball one-out against three, and showing it to the defenders before kicking it into the top tier of the stand. But was he as good as Gary? Not for me, and I’d venture to suggest not for most Richmond supporters. Gary was other-worldly.



In an ironic postscript, when Gary finally gave the game away in 1997, there was one more twist in the tale. Whether Gary actually knew about this or not I couldn’t say, but Richmond was all set to use its last draft pick in the 1998 draft on Gary Ablett! We were going to shock the other clubs by coaxing the retired superstar out of retirement – injured knee notwithstanding – to play for us rather than against us. What a cathartic sight that would’ve been for the Tiger faithful! But, in a situation only Richmond could concoct, we were found guilty of a salary cap breach, resulting in us losing that last draft pick. Sadly, we were denied the opportunity to see a forward line containing Gary Ablett and Richo together.



Brendan Bower, the accidental hero, went on to become a respected clubman at the Tiges, playing 92 games in six seasons before playing a handful of games at other clubs after leaving at the end of the 1994 season. I wonder how many times he’s told the story of the day he played on the great Gary Ablett and how he held him “goalless”, even though it was for 15 minutes. I wonder if Gary even remembers the day. Most probably, he would rather have been fishing.

 

To watch highlights of Ablett’s performance, watch the YouTube video here.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this flashback, Ian. And the highlights reel – simply amazing. One of those occasions where, regardless of your allegiances, you just have to stand back, appreciate what you’re seeing and applaud greatness.

  2. I remember this game well, also remember the day he kicked four or five in the last quarter against the Tigers to take a relatively close game to another rout.

  3. That’s funny. “Get out of the way Bower”. My mate Warren always had faith in Bower. Now I know why.

  4. Terrific memories. I was at a lunch on the Sunshine Coast and snuck away ‘to get a score on the radio. Ended up listening for about 10 minutes because Ablett just kept kicking goals. I’m guessing that was early days of PNN footy coverage in Qld?

  5. Good stuff Ian. I was there that day. Geelong after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in consecutive rounds against Fitzroy & Hawthorn got themselves on a roll with 100+ point victories at the ‘Cattery’ vs the hapless St. Kilda & Brisbane

    Then this match @ the ‘G’. I was enthralled by Ablett’s afternoon. He had a veritable roaming role drifting up, around, & through the forward line kicking goals with ease. The five in the final term were the icing on the cake.

    Wonderful memories of the greatest player I’ve (the game has) ever seen.

    Glen!

    Geat memories of the gretaest player I’ve ever seen

  6. matt watson says

    That era seemed to have superstars all over the place.
    Ablett certainly stood out.
    I loved watching him except when he played North.
    Ablett is easily one of the best I’ve ever seen.
    I never saw the full game, just highlights.
    How we’d love someone like him in the competition now…

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