Gary Ablett: Untouchable intimidation

Gary Ablett’s brilliance extends far beyond natural ability. He has an aura no one else has. It creates fear and uncertainty whenever the ball is close. Opponents are forced into slow motion of mind and body. They lose their instincts.

Ablett is the most valuable footballer in the AFL. His intellectual understanding of the game is unrivalled. He is almost never in the wrong place and finds more time and space than any other player.

Skill and nous, getting the ball and delivering it, separates Ablett from the rest. But it is his being, a supernatural apparition that elevates him beyond a mortal footballer.

Opposition players seem mesmerised whenever they’re near him. A football mantra, take the first option, uttered by every player, coach and supporter since the game began, is shunned.

When Ablett is crumbing the football in a pack, opponents don’t take the first option. Their instinct, to tackle him, is cruelled by hesitancy. They’re too worried about what he’ll do next, rather than what they can prevent him from doing.

That fleeting moment of worry, a hundredth of a second, is enough for Ablett to gather the ball, swivel his hips or push off a weak tackle.

Against North Melbourne at the weekend, Ablett was clinical in execution and relentless in pursuit of victory. In the second quarter he kicked a goal and set up two others. He dragged the Gold Coast back into the game then helped them seal it.

It rained all night yet Ablett gathered the ball without fumbling when no one else could. His passes hit opponents on the chest. His accuracy in front of goal was unnerving.

No one could touch him. Ablett was often surrounded by North men, two, three or four, only to pick the footy up and burst clear.

Anyone else would’ve been tackled or dispossessed.

It is mental disintegration, as Steve Waugh so succinctly put it that is the key to Ablett’s success. Opponents know they need to tackle him but can’t do it because they’re expecting him to make them look silly.

Ablett will do that anyway, so the first option, attack, is the best option. As Ron Barassi said to new recruits in 1977, reputation counts for naught. If you can put Dench, Blight or Grieg into the ground, do it.

Reputation, unfortunately for Barassi, can’t be discounted. The best footballers, swagger aside, often beat their opponents before the game has started. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson bluffed his way through many fights on reputation alone, his opponents worried more about what Tyson could do than what they could be doing.

Ablett is no different. Opposition coaches routinely concede Ablett 35 possessions and two goals. Their instruction to the taggers, do your best, hardly helps.

Only Leigh Matthews at his peak possessed the same untouchable aura that made opponents hesitate before laying a weak tackle or falling over.

No one wanted to tackle Matthews. He could run through packs, like Ablett does, without too much evasion. A pathway, almost a divine separation, split the opposition, who are flung sideways while grasping at air.

But Matthews, from an unscrutinised era, was different to Ablett. Where Ablett blinds opponents with pure skill, Matthew’s had a penchant for belting players when they weren’t looking.

Duplicitous fear prevented a lot of opponents from tackling Matthews. They were worried about revenge and being made to look silly because of his skill.

Matthews might’ve belted them anyway. He certainly made them look silly, and few men ever put Matthews into the ground.

Matthews, like Ablett, took anyone on. Like Ablett, he never shirked an issue. Matthews played as though he was invincible and struck fear into his opponents. Ablett does too, without the amplified aggression.

It’s all about intimidation, about what they can do.

Against North, Ablett had 33 possessions and kicked two goals. The ease which he gathered the footy under pressure was embarrassing to everyone else on the field. He did what he wanted. His reputation ruined North’s defence and exposed mental frailties.

When Ablett could’ve been tackled or pressured he wasn’t. Opponents need to lower their eyes and tackle the jumper, not worry about the man wearing it.

It seems Ablett’s intimidating aura is spreading to team mates and the coaches. During the build up to the game, Suns coach Guy McKenna engaged in trash talk more commonly associated with boxing.

McKenna declared North Melbourne was a first-quarter team and suggested the Gold Coast would overtake them no matter what the lead. McKenna’s tip, akin to Mohammed Ali predicting what round he’d knock out his opponent, was a rarity in the AFL.

Only fighters trash talk. It is an expected feature of boxing hype. Few AFL coaches are brave enough to disrespect the opposition before a game. Generally they are more respectful, in case they lose the game.

Kevin Sheedy, back in 1998, was the last coach to publicly insult the opposition. His tirade, that North Melbourne were marshmallows, was filled with spiteful humour that backfired spectacularly in the finals.

McKenna’s claim was filled with certainty.

Words, though, are easily uttered. Consuming them is much harder. Fortunately for McKenna, his braggarts boast wasn’t false. The Gold Coast did as he proclaimed, which is shattering and embarrassing for North Melbourne and their coach Brad Scott.

Ablett was best on ground, again, as North Melbourne expected.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Ironmike – there is indeed something about the little master. And he seems to like playing against the Roos. I remember a game he played against North (I think it was 2009?) which was the most remarkable performance he’d had to that point. He got about 40 possessions, but simply mesmerised the poor North defenders, who ran out of ideas after the first quarter.

    Even in the horrible red jumper I still love watching him go.

  2. Ben Footner says

    Quickly becoming the best player I have witnessed in my lifetime of watching footy (20 odd years). Certainly the best player I have witnessed live, closely followed by Adam Goodes.

  3. Gary Ablett, clearly the best player running around in 2013. But is he as good as his father ?

    There was an article in the Age a few years back, in which he was described as the ‘common garden variety champion’. This is no ways was a put down, he is a champion. But the father regularly did things no one else could/has.

    The son is consistent in his greatness, wwek after week he is nigh on unstoppable. The father though had peaks and troughs, and his peaks have not been bettered by anyone in my memory. Truly the big Q is; Are the Gary Abletts, the best ever father-son combination world sport has seen ?


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