There is often one particular moment in an athlete’s career, a tipping point, where excellence gives way to transcendence, and you know you’re watching greatness.
With Rafael Nadal, for me that moment came with a forehand passing shot in the fourth set tiebreaker of the 2008 Wimbledon final. With LeBron James it was the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.
For Gary Ablett Jr, the moment came in the dying minutes of a meaningless game at Skilled Stadium in August 2007.
The Round 21 match against Port Adelaide was a dead rubber for Geelong. The Cats were riding a 15-game winning streak and had already locked up top spot on the ladder. The game had no meaning in the bigger picture, but Ablett’s brilliance gave it extraordinary meaning for a few seconds. Down by five points with two minutes to go, Ablett finds the ball in traffic in the forward 50, leaves two Port Adelaide players in the dust with an impossible dummy and has a third chasing his shadow before kicking the Cats in front.
There are very few AFL players who could kick a goal as majestic as Ablett’s. Scott Pendlebury’s brain might move fast enough, but his feet could not. Maybe Chad Wingard or Eddie Betts could do it. Therein lies the magnificence of Ablett though – that he has the awesome skill and electricity of a sparkplug small forward but the hardness, work-rate and consistency of an elite on-baller. There is grit to his glamour.
Ablett and Geelong would go on to lose that game to Port Adelaide, but they would beat them by 119 points a month later in a slightly more important game. With Gary Ablett in their team, the Cats never lost another game in Geelong.
The football world hasn’t forgotten about Gary Ablett Jr in 2015, but it’s pushed him to the side, marginalising him in favour of new, fresher endeavours. If the AFL were last year’s Oscars, Ablett has become the Gone Girl to Nat Fyfe’s Birdman.
While Fyfe’s aerial exploits are all we can talk about at the moment, less than twelve months ago Ablett was unanimously regarded as the best player in the game. To suggest otherwise was considered blasphemous first, idiotic second.
After suffering a season-ending injury in Round 16, there was legitimate discussion about whether Ablett could still win the Brownlow despite missing the last seven-and-a-half games. That’s how great his edge on the rest of the competition was.
In a sport that rushes to appoint new contenders to the throne faster than an HBO series, it’s important not to lose sight of the player Ablett was and still can be. Fyfe has been dominating the league in disposals, contested possessions and clearances for the past three months, but Ablett has been doing it for the past eight years.
Ablett’s stats since 2007 are almost laughable they’re so outrageous. They are nonsensical – a glitch in the Matrix. He’s polled at least 20 Brownlow votes each of the last eight years – Luke Hodge has never polled that amount once in his career. From 2007 to 2014, Ablett averaged 31 disposals and 1.3 goals a game, which is just 0.6 less goals per game than Travis Cloke has averaged for his career.
Ablett has never been just an accumulator though – his touches have been as damaging as anyone in the game. He’s the white swan to Dane Swan’s ugly duckling.
Over the past decade, people have whimsically posed the open question ‘imagine if Cyril Rioli averaged 25 possessions a game’. The question has already been answered though, because Gary Ablett Jr has been averaging 30+ for eight years. Ablett has that Rioli/Wingard/Alan Didak dynamism, but he has the week-to-week, in and under grinding consistency of Matt Priddis to back it up. That’s what has made Gary Ablett Jr unquestionably the best player of the 21st century.
Two Brownlow medals, five MVPs, eight All-Australian selections, five Best and Fairests, three times the leading goal-kicker of his club, and two premierships. Nobody in the new millennium can touch Ablett’s resume. Chris Judd has the best case, but as much of a champion as he was at his peak, he runs a clear second to Ablett’s sustained output and dominance.
Ablett has succeeded in every context – be it playing alongside Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel and Steve Johnson, or standing taller than Danny Stanley, Karmichael Hunt and Josh Toy. He’s been the best player in a grand final (2008) and the best player in countless ten-goal losses wearing orange. He became a superstar with hair, and the best player of his generation without it.
Wayne Carey is the best football player I’ve ever seen but Gary Ablett Jr is second. Carey was an Adonis, an athletic beast who was born to play AFL. Ablett has never had that supreme athletic aura – he’s more like a video game character with a rating of 100. While visually they share little in common, to me Carey and Ablett have the same defining strength – extra-terrestrial balance.
Carey was impossible to beat in one on one contests because of his gargantuan strength and balance in the upper body. Meanwhile, Ablett was someone you could never get into a one on one contest with – he was far too elusive, the best the game has ever seen at sleight of hand in traffic. Ablett’s incredibly low centre of gravity propels that prized art of side-steps and misdirection, creating impossible mazes for his opponents, leaving them to freeze to death like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Ablett has three years left on his contract, and there’s no indication that he’ll be leaving the game anytime soon. But football is fickle, and oftentimes as cruel as it is unexpected. Ablett is just eight months younger than Chris Judd, and potentially another shoulder injury away from never being the same player again.
So savour the little maestro while you can, because when he reappears, it won’t just be the return of a superstar captain to his fledgling team – it might be the return of the greatest player football has ever seen.