To the father and the son

Comparing Gary Ablett and his son is pointlessly fascinating.  It is not a fair comparison.  Father and son are built differently.  In the eras they dominated, they played in different positions.

The only comparison that can be made is that they share the same name and are both great footballers.

Like all hypothetical questions, this one should be difficult to answer but it isn’t.

Most hypothetical questions are accompanied by furious argument and rested on differences of opinion.

This one isn’t.  It’s a bit like arguing with a fool.  Who is the more foolish?

At the weekend, Gary Jnr equalled his old man’s games tally.  Both Ablett’s have played 248 games.  They’ve kicked a swag of goals and dominated games more than any father/son combination in football history.

Old man Ablett sits in fifth place on the AFL’s goal kicking list with 1030 goals.  He is one of just five men to kick more than 1000 goals.

In ten of his fourteen seasons, Ablett kicked more than 60 goals.  Twice he kicked more than 80 goals.  In consecutive seasons, 1993-94-95, he kicked more than a hundred goals.

Back in 1982, when Ablett was 20, he played six games for Hawthorn before quitting and fleeing to the bush.  The talent was obvious, but his temperament was all wrong for city life and discipline expected by his coach Alan Jeans.

When Ablett was recruited by Geelong in 1984, he was 22-years old, which is relatively late to start a career.

At 186 centimetres tall, he was considered too short to play in a key position and too tall and heavy for the midfield.  He spent time on the wing and the forward flank.  Occasionally he was played off half back or in the midfield.

In 1985, his third season of football, Ablett kicked 82 goals.  He was born to be a footballer.  His skills ensured he spent most of his time up forward, but he wanted to play elsewhere.

When Malcolm Blight went to Geelong in 1989, he told Ablett he’d be playing at full-forward.  Ablett wanted the midfield.  Blight got what he wanted.

Ablett’s lack of height didn’t provide a handicap.  He had explosive speed and was outrageously strong.  He could leap above packs and take one-handed marks and hit the ground running.

In 1993, Ablett was 31 when he kicked 124 goals.  By the time he was 33, he’d kicked three consecutive bags of 100 goals and won three consecutive Coleman Medals.

In 1996, when Ablett was 34, he kicked 69 goals from 17 games, which is almost enough goals to win a Coleman nowadays.  A knee reconstruction before the 1997 season killed off his career.  Ablett wanted to do the rehab and play on but Geelong ruled out a comeback.

That he only played 248 games was by his own doing.  He debuted late, vanished for two years then quit before the 1991 season, only to return in round 13.

He also missed plenty of games through injury or unnecessary aggression.

No one doubted Ablett’s ability.  Plenty doubted his ability to cope off the field.  There were concerns about his life in retirement.  He was a complex character who fulfilled his potential at an age when most footballers are retired.  His afterlife has been shocking.

Gary Jnr seems free from the mental demons and reliance upon religion.

He is fast, strong and slick.  Short for a modern day midfielder at 179 centimetres, he is too short to play as a key forward, and he is too important in the midfield to be relegated to the pocket.

His brilliance extends far beyond natural ability.  He creates fear and uncertainty whenever the ball is close.  Opponents are forced into slow motion of mind and body.  They lose their instincts.

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.  Opposition players seem mesmerised whenever they’re near him.

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 are too worried about what he’ll do next, rather than what they can prevent him from doing.

His worth is immeasurable.  From 248 games, he has kicked 327 goals.  By comparison, dual Brownlow medalist Robert Harvey kicked 215 goals from 383 games.  Chris Judd, also a dual Brownlow medalist, has kicked 213 goals from 254 games.

Midfielders are often criticised for not kicking enough goals.  Ablett’s goal tally is impressive for a permanent midfielder.  As he ages, he might find himself playing as a permanent forward, but he’s not the type of footballer to kick eighty goals from the forward pocket like Leigh Matthews could do.

He is not going to kick 14 goals in a game, like his old man did.

History often compares the AFL’s greatest footballers by virtue of a premiership.  Great players, it is believed, need to play in premierships.

That unfortunate comparison is understandable.  Premiership players are rightly feted, but it devalues the contribution of men like Matthew Richardson, Chris Grant and Paul Roos.

Gary Jnr won premierships in 2007 and 2009.  In the 2008 losing grand final, he was Geelong’s best.

He won the Brownlow Medal in 2009, and is a four-time best and fairest winner, two with Geelong, two with the Gold Coast.  Ablett sets the standard for every footballer in the AFL.

Simply, the son is the best player in the league.

Not bad for a little guy.

His old man never played in a premiership and never won a Brownlow.  He played in four grand finals and was poor in two.

In this era, he would not be kicking 100 goals a season.  The game is too structured for his freedom.  Of course, he would still be a star and might win the Coleman Medal with 75 or 80 goals, in a good season.

He would not be allowed the latitude granted to him by a succession of coaches.

The Leigh Matthews Trophy is awarded each year to the AFL’s most valuable player.  It’s a peer driven award, with every player filling out a ballot, voting for the three best players by virtue of three, two and one votes.

Gary Snr won the Matthews in 1993.  His son has won four, 2007-9 and 2012.  Gary Jnr might be the best player in the league, but across several season his old man was the best player in the league too.

Aficionados argue that Gary Jnr is more consistent, but that is absolute rubbish.  No one kicks 1030 goals in 248 games without being consistent.

Gary Snr’s legacy is tarnished by the lack of a premiership.  That is the signifier in all discussions about who is best.  People argue because the son won premierships, he must be better.

But the difference is apparent, if statistics are considered.  Statistics progress the argument and offer proof of different eras and different positions, proof that the comparison is unfair.

Gary Snr averaged 12 kicks, six marks and two handpasses per game.  He also averaged four goals and three behinds.

His son averages 12 kicks, three marks, 12 handpasses and one goal per game.

Gary Snr averaged three more goals per game than his son.  His son averages ten more handpasses per game than his dad.

Putting aside premierships and awards, to answer the hypothetical, which Ablett is better, a simple question must be considered.  Is 10 more handpasses per game preferable to three more goals per game?

Is an average of 24 possessions, two marks and a goal better than an average of 14 possessions, six marks and four goals, with three behinds?

The argument, clearly, will rage.  Gary Jnr might get the nod as the best, but he will never equal the extraordinary feats of his father.

So the argument progresses, which is why the comparison isn’t fair, because there is no true answer.

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. Peter Schumacher says

    Fantastic analysis.

  2. Love it Matt. Both are/were brilliant. No one excited me like Gary snr. The answer to your question is another question: define “better” in a football context.

  3. Skip of Skipton says

    Ablett Snr became the permanent full-forward in 1993. He rarely played full-forward in Blight’s first four years ’89-’92, (the ’89 GF being a notable exception.)

    Brownless, Gavin Exell and even Bruce Lindner sometimes played full forward.

  4. Ironmike, you rubbish the point made re Ablett Snr not being consistent, but that is a pivotal part of acknowledging the player he was. He had peaks and troughs, like the three times he booted 14 goals in a match, with also a few less than stellar occasions such as against St Kilda in the 1991 elimination final, when he hardly saw the ball. Sure those troughs were rare, but they occured. I can’t recall those sort of troughs in the sons career.


  5. Peter Flynn says

    In 1989, Ablett Snr played a few games at centre half-back.

    He was impassable.

    It’s Snr for mine.

    89 Prelim final:
    22 kicks 10 marks 8 goals 5 behinds

    1993 Round 6 v Essendon
    25 kicks 12 marks 14 goals 7 behinds

    1992 Round 4 v West Coast (in the centre at Subi)
    27 kicks 8 marks 9 handballs 5 goals 1 behind

    There were plenty more masterpieces.

    Jnr wasn’t all that flash a footballer early doors.

    Jnr is a far better footballer now than he was at Geelong.

  6. G’day Peter. Malcolm Blight played Ablett Snr on the half back line at the opening of thr 1989 year. He only played there in the first few rounds, i think round 3 V Carlton was the last time. A return to the forward line beckoned, and as they say ‘the rest is history’

    Glen !.

  7. Peter Flynn says

    Aah yes, the day he collected Wayne Johnston.

  8. R3 1989 @ Kardinia Park was when he collected Wayne Johnston. Luke O’Sullivans’ floating pass set up Johnston, and to return to an old phrase, ‘the rest is history’.

    Glen !

  9. Michael Viljoen says

    Fascinating comparisons.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say Ablett Senior was ‘reliant’ on religion. That was part of his complex character, a part that he wore quite outwardly. I don’t know about Gary Junior, but there would be any number of players who hold to their faith seriously but more quietly.

    Could we compare father and son by asking who brought more spectators through the turnstiles simply because they saw Ablett was named in the team? Both have this attractive quality.

    I vote for Ablett Senior for his Superman quality. He was faster, stronger, could jump higher, kick longer, bust open more packs, etc. than any other player.

  10. Hey Michael

    Great to see you again prowling the site for all things religous. Like Ian Syson’s work on anti round ball sentiment, you do a fine job straightening people out about religion. On thios technical note with G Ablett, I happen to agree with you!!

  11. Michael Viljoen says

    I don’t prowl the site for all things religious. I just comment on things that interest me. I don’t know what your problem is.

    I love footy. And I love watching great champions such as the Ablett duo.

  12. Easy Michael. Just elbowing u in the ribs. Great that u love Footy. Me too!!

  13. Mark Doyle says

    This is a meaningless discussion! Both Gary Ablett snr. and Gary Ablett jnr. have both been great A grade players who have been champion AFL players. However, I am not sure that they are either the best Geelong players or the best VFL/AFL players since 1897. It is almost impossible to compare players of different eras, but if an objective analysis of individual and team awards plus the opinions of team mates and opposition players is done, it would be hard to argue that Dick Reynolds was not the greatest VFL/AFL player. In my opinion Polly Farmer was the best Geelong player , but blokes such as ‘Carji’ Greeves, Bernie Smith and the two Abletts are all very close. However, we Geelong supporters should underestimate the careers of blokes such as Reg Hickey, Bruce Morrison, Fred Flanagan, Bob Davis, Bill Goggin, Peter Walker, Doug Wade, Denis Marshall, John Newman, Ian Nankervis, David Clarke snr., Gary Malarkey, Paul Couch, Steve and Gary Hocking, Matthew Scarlett, Joel Corey, Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel and many others.

  14. Thanks Mark Doyle. But that’s nonsense (re.neither are the best since 1987).

    Senior the best. At Geelong. Of all time. Easily.
    Only 53 people in history have kicked more than 500 goals in a career.
    Only 5 have kicked over 1000.
    4 of those were career full forwards.

    In fact, of the top 30, 27 were either full forwards or played very close to goal more often than not.

    That’s how hard it is to kick goals consistently. It is also why Leigh Matthews and Kevin Bartlett are greats of the game.

    In the 70s and 80s, teh Brownlow was a ruckman’s award. From the 90s, it’s been a midfielders award.

    Quality forwards are like hens’ teeth; quality midfielders not so. Junior may be the best at of those at the moment but the 6 teams at the top of the ladder are going OK without him and I reckon if you gave those 6 teams the choice of Junior or Jeremy Cameron, the majority would go for Cameron.

    Kicking goals consistently is the hardest caper in the game which is why:

    – so many promising youngsters recruited as key forwards end up playing as key backs, or not at all.
    – forwards do not win Brownlows because it is so difficult.
    – great forwards are the highest profile players,
    – Harry Taylor, Tom Lonergan and Corey Enright are the most important players at the Cats because they can blanket the brilliant forwards.

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