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The Age

Ablett the younger makes his own mark

Date: 18/09/2004
Words: 600
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 1
Gary Ablett has spent a lifetime growing into his name, and outgrowing it. When he was with the Geelong Falcons in the under 18s, 200 turned up to see him one day at Warrnambool. On learning that he had missed the bus, all but a handful left.

Ablett grew up at the edge of the limelight, so its glare now is not as blinding as might be presumed.

"The reality of Gary Ablett's life is that he has been in the spotlight for more than three years," said Geelong chief executive Brian Cook. "He had to get used to it a long time ago."

He and brother Nathan went to training and games with their famous and enigmatic father, and sometimes he absent-mindedly left them behind.

Many Geelong players remember the mini-Abletts as barefooted pests in the rooms, and Tim McGrath and Garry Hocking have told of how they drilled kicks at their heads to try to drive them out. The junior Abletts caught the balls and laughed.

The Abletts were comfortable with their name. Player/manager Ricky Nixon, speaking on Fox Footy recently, told how the boys would get their father to sign football cards, then sell them at school for $70 apiece, until Gary snr stopped it.

Ted Whitten jnr, one of the few who has successfully followed in the footsteps of a legendary footballing father, said fame was not so alarming once if he wished he had a different Christian name, Ablett jnr matter-of-factly replied: "I'd still be his son."

Ablett grew up and lives still with his mother, Sue, in Jan Juc, a beach town not given to fuss. "Everyone knew he was Gary Ablett's son, and people did treat him differently, but not differently bad, " said Josh Rudd, a teenage friend and teammate at the Falcons, who tomorrow plays for Port Melbourne in the VFL grand final. "He was just Gaz, you know.

"Jan Juc's a bit of suburbia. It's not like walking down Bourke Street. It's a surfie town. There are a lot of young people, and a few don't have an interest in footy. If he lived in Belmont, it might be different."

Ruddwhen it was all you had known.

"When you grow up with your dad playing footy, and you're at the club day and night from when you were born, it's not that hard," he said. "You get used to people looking at you and knowing who you are."

Asked said that life at the Falcons was all-consuming, since everyone knew that this was the shop window for AFL recruiters.

"A lot of our life was footy," he said. "Any time we got the chance, we'd kick the footy together. Footy and surfing - that's what Torquay's all about."

Ablett still surfs, as coast kids must. When he began in the AFL, his unruly hair was a teenage surfer's careless effect. Now a Geelong salon claims to style it that way for him. Ablett snr left long ago, and Sue understandably has guarded her privacy so rigorously that few even at Geelong footy club know her.

She has left Gary jnr to his own footballing devices. He idolised his father and remains close, but when his dad retired, Ablett became fascinated with Robert Harvey. Ablett had his father's name, but his own ideas.

Falcons general manager Michael Turner, a Geelong legend and contemporary of Gary snr, said other parents grumbled about nepotism when Gary jnr was picked out by the feeder club at 15. Turner was unfussed because he could see an exceptional footballer.

"He will be more like Garry Hocking than Gary Ablett," he told Geelong at the time. "He's so creative with his hands." Hocking, a contemporary of Ablett snr, won four best-and-fairests at Geelong.

Others have seen in Ablett an image of the prepubescent Michael Voss. Ablett has had to live up to many names. But always there was one.

"He's got the Gary Ablett gene," said Billy Brownless, an accomplished and much-loved teammate of Ablett snr. "Only one other's got it. It's something different. If you could, you'd clone him."

Andrew Bews, another much-decorated peer of Ablett snr, hears the father in the way the son laughs.

Ablett jnr worried then, and does still, about undue privilege "He's very anxious about the fact that people do things for him," said Alan McConnell, until last year an assistant coach at Geelong, and chauffeur to Ablett before he got his licence. "He doesn't want too much of a fuss."

This consciousness led to an overdeveloped team ethic. Damian Christensen, Ablett's coach at the Falcons, said Ablett had to be taught to be selfish.

McConnell said: "One criticism early was that he handballed too much, almost to the point where it was ridiculous."

The 2001 draft was the richest yet. Nine Falcons were taken, and Ablett was a bargain for Geelong at No. 40 under the father-son rule. He was 17 and rough-edged. He sometimes borrowed clothes without returning them, though this soon stopped. But he won people with his guileless nature. Gary snr negotiated with the club on his son's behalf about media and training. He feared inquisition and overexposure from the media, and burn-out on the training track. He also asked his own manager, Michael Baker, to handle Ablett jnr's affairs.

Ablett snr realised his son had a privilege denied to him in his footballing youth - control of his own destiny. "If I had someone like yourself, I probably could have done a lot more than what I've done," he said to Baker. But Ablett snr had enjoyed a privilege his son did not - his name had been his own to make. Young Ablett initially preferred the club's new spa to the gym. He kept a wary distance from the media. Brownless interviewed young Ablett and the other draftees for The Footy Show one night at Kardinia Park, but only after Ablett snr had rung Brownless to ask him to go easy on Ablett jnr. Ablett snr waited in a nearby cafe.

Ablett jnr was suspicious of people until they earned his trust. One was Gary Harrison, a friend of coach Mark Thompson and his clipboard man until a recent fall left him in a wheelchair. There was a poignant moment at the end of last Saturday' semi-final, the first game Harrison had attended since his accident. He and Ablett embraced, and Ablett spent a long time kneeling by his chair.

Ablett has never been less than proud of his father and his football heritage. "If I'm half as good as my father, I'll be very happy indeed," he said in a rare public utterance in his first season. He displayed more social graces than his father, who had always been a remote figure at the club.

"He wasn't the next Gary Ablett," said Warwick Hadfield, then media manager. "Except he was."

Ablett began the year in the seniors and finished it in the reserves, usual for a rookie. The interest he excited then was enormous.

By the second year, Ablett was accustomed to the rigours of AFL life. A club official was astonished early that season to see Ablett with a group of new draftees in the club restaurant. "No chips," he cautioned one. "Have salad."

He began to speak up at team meetings. His football blossomed. Kevin Sheedy called him the best young footballer in the competition. Ablett finished fourth in the club's best and fairest award.

This year has been Ablett's coming of football age. He is bigger and stronger. He has made sticky positions his specialty. He leads the league in contested possessions. He leads Geelong in tackles. Two-thirds of all his possessions are classified as "hard" - the average across the league is one-third. Turner has seen him strip the ball from opponents in the thick of packs, as he saw him do in the under 18s, but not again until this year.

He is third among Geelong's goalscorers, first for scoring assists. McConnell highlighted a moment in last week's semi-final when he marked, played on and weighted a pass into a space that he knew would soon be filled by Paul Chapman. It was, said McConnell, the play of the natural.

Ablett jnr has managed all this despite a continuing battle with osteitis pubis that watchers say has obviously limited his preparation all season.

McConnell said Ablett's progress was a tribute to coach Mark Thompson's delicate handling of all of his generation over three seasons. Thompson has not rushed and ruined any of them, but nursed them in and out of the team, accepting short-term defeat and the fans' opprobrium for the gain that has ensued.

"People don't understand how well he has managed that," he said. McConnell explained this was why Ablett was not played on the ball sooner, and was not always played there now. It is clear now that father and son are different people from different generations, playing in different Geelong teams and in different roles. Ablett jnr chose not to wear his father's No. 5 guernsey, but the next that came out of the bag. Now, said Cook, his No. 29 is the guernsey most demanded by Geelong fans.

Ablett gets more emails than any other player. At clinics, half the kids want to be in his line. At matches, the older crowd thrills to the romance of Ablett reincarnate, seemingly without the torment this time.

Turner had seen previously how one player could fill Skilled Stadium, and did not believe it would happen again. "But it's getting to that stage again with Junior," he said.

Ablett is thriving in all ways. He owns two blocks of land in Torquay and is building a house on one, and has just bought a $60,000 car. He has thawed a little towards the media. He is completing year 11 with the help of a tutor at the club.

"He knows where he wants to go in life," said Baker. "He's gained a lot more confidence in himself, not only in footy, but in his personal life."

Cook said Ablett was obliging with sponsors and coteries, and open with supporters, "in particular those who seem to be in need".

Associates describe Ablett as polite, courteous and good-natured, but cherubic only in appearance.

"He's had his moments," said McConnell. "No one's suggesting that he's an angel. He's a knockabout kid. His name happens to be Gary Ablett."

Rudd, watching from a distance, said he felt relieved that Ablett was making it on his own terms. "It's like, there you go, he's done it himself," he said.

Ablett jnr is 20, but has played 50 games already. His father did not begin at Geelong until he was 22. That does not mean that Gary jnr will be an even better player, just that he has grown up in another time and another system. He is his own person and his own player, in his own time, and it is now.

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