When it comes to describing the career, skills and style of Gary Ablett Jr. over 300 games, to use footballing superlatives leaves one some distance short. Arguably the greatest player of the last 10 years boasts incredible pace, brute strength, sublime kicking ability, both in distance and accuracy. But that just doesn't do him justice.
If one were to consider footy a religion, a notion Ablett would no doubt reject, he would be a prophet. Travelling the land spreading the potential of the game to reach dizzying heights. If the game was poetry, he would be its Lord Byron, skilled with showing the innate beauty of the human form and experience.
To me, footy is an art form and if that sounds like absurd hyperbole, consider the words of English philosopher, Simon Critchley,
"Football is all about an experience of disappointment in the present that is linked to some doubtless illusory memory of greatness and heroic virtue."
He's specifically talking about association football but the sentiment applies equally to Australian football, and if that phrase doesn't describe what can be considered art then I don't know what.
In that case Gary Ablett is a renaissance man. An expert craftsman adept at every skill necessary. And, just as the polymaths of the renaissance era did, he uses his mastery over his craft to display exquisite beauty. Watch clips of some of Ablett's great goals and chances are you will be left agape, speechless or both. Personally, I've never been to the Musée du Louvre or The Sistine Chapel but I honestly doubt that I would see anything within the walls of those historic places that Ablett couldn't at least give a run for its money in the divinity stakes.
Like many of those great masters Ablett put in a few years learning his discipline. His career can effectively be split into three, possibly four, distinct eras. The first, The Early Years, begins with his first game in 2002 and ends with his 100th in 2006. Having been selected by Geelong as a father-son pick in the so-called Superdraft of 2001, Ablett came into the game under perhaps more pressure than any other player of his time. Not only the son of a player affectionately known as "God" but bearing his name as well. That's a lot to live up to.
For those first five seasons it never really looked like he would. Junior would never be the same sort of player as Senior with his different body type, but it almost seemed as though he'd never really set the world alight as any sort of player. For his first 100 games he wasn't much more than a handy small forward. Capable of occasional flashes of brilliance, but mostly inconsistent, not really a match winner as such. In that first era of Ablett's career he never had more than 30 touches in a game and didn't have the tank for a full game in the midfield.
By all reports it was a series of honesty sessions at the close of a disappointing 2006 season that turned it around. Ablett was told in no uncertain terms by his teammates that he needed to work much harder in games and at training. The result was a run of dominance unmatched by just about anyone in the ten years since.
The Cats had a famous win over Richmond in round 6 of that year, tuning up the Tigers by 26 goals, and turning around their season in the process. Gary had 32 disposals and three goals in that game, picked up the three Brownlow votes, and Vintage Ablett was born. For the next four years, The Premiership Years, the same was more or less expected from Ablett every week and, more often than not, he delivered. In his next 86 games he went goalless only 18 times and had less than 25 touches only 15 times. Those 86 games included two premierships, a Brownlow Medal, four All-Australian selections and just 13 losses.
When Ablett played his last game for Geelong in the preliminary final loss to Collingwood in 2010, his 192nd, he was universally considered to be the best player in the competition. After much conjecture on his future the third era in his career, The Gold Coast Years, had dawned.
With all that Ablett had achieved in his time at Geelong, it was hard to imagine that he could elevate his game any further, but Gold Coast Gary was another incarnation. He was now the captain of a brand new club made up almost entirely of teenagers. Partly through necessity he was transformed from outside release player into in and under contested ball player.
On his way to a second Bronwlow and steadily building Gold Coast into a potential finals team, Ablett went from an undeniable great to a virtually unstoppable leader of men.
It could be argued that we are still in The Gold Coast Years, he certainly still plays for Gold Coast, but it could equally be argued that era ended with his season-ending shoulder injury towards the end of 2014. Ablett had continued his 2013 Bronwlow-winning form and the Suns looked set to compete in their first finals series, sitting inside the top eight with eight wins from their first 15 games. So dominant was Ablett's season to that point that it took another four rounds for his lead in that year's Brownlow count to be reeled in by eventual winner and runner-up, Matt Priddis and Nat Fyfe.
Gold Coast won the game against Collingwood after Ablett left the field halfway through, but they would win only one more game for the year with him out of the side. Thus begins The Post-Injury Years.
In the two full seasons between then and the start of 2017, Ablett teased with occasional returns to form only to succumb to soreness, lack of fitness, or fresh injury. As recently as round 2 this season, many wondered out loud whether we'd see the best of Gary Ablett again, the general consensus being "No, we won't." How quick we are to write off a genuine champion of the game.
It was after round 2, when Gold Coast were embarrassed by Greater Western Sydney, that scribes came from far and wide to report that the reign had come to an end. Ablett's mind was elsewhere, they said. He was focussed on getting back to Geelong, wasn't working hard enough, was a shadow of the player we had come to love. Enjoy the last remnants of a once majestic dominion.
In the nine games Ablett has played since then he has averaged 34 disposals, more than seven clearances, six tackles and six inside 50s per game. All those numbers are as high as, or higher than, at any point in his amazing career. If the Suns can manage another few wins in the second half of the year he is every chance to become the first player since Ian Stewart to win three Brownlows. At this stage he is virtually assured of becoming the first player in VFL/AFL history to be selected in nine All-Australian teams.
It is fair to say that all those that were so quick to announce the end of the Best of Ablett were at least a year too early. And to those that asked all those years ago whether the son could manage to eclipse the father, the answer is yes.