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Road to Redemption, or Last Lap 'Round the Block?

I remember the words of former Houston Rockets coach, Rudy Tomjanovich after his team won the second of back to back NBA championships in the 90s.

“Never doubt the heart of a champion.”

We’ve seen those words manifest in the careers of those who will be considered all-time greats, if not the all-time greatest in their chosen fields. Roger Federer would never call himself the greatest – others will do that for him. Tom Brady has defied the odds to play American Football at the highest level into his 40s, and has done it well. And then there’s Gary Ablett – the Little Master.

At 34  years old, the knives have been out for Ablett for a couple of years now, but as we head into 2019, they’re sharper than ever. It’s the Australian way of things – we love to cut successful people down, and in the sport of Australian Rules Football, few have been more successful than Ablett.

Two Brownlow Medals, a record five Leigh Matthews Trophies, three AFL Coaches Association Player of the year Awards, eight All-Australian blazers, and six club championships make Ablett one of the most decorated players in the history of the game. Yet in 2018, upon his homecoming to Geelong, the critics savaged his every mistake, whilst barely acknowledging what he did accomplish.

It’s the nature of the AFL media to hone in on mistakes, or lapses that are costly. Ablett’s miss on the run against Richmond is the image most will associate with his 2018 season. Receiving a handball out wide from Tom Hawkins, Ablett had the chance to put the Cats in front. Uncharacteristically, his shot was narrow, and the Tigers went marching on toward September. The Cats would get there as well, but they didn’t charge there – they more limped into finals action, capitulating to Melbourne at the first September challenge.

But there was so much more to Ablett in 2018 than just that miss, or a hamstring injury in Round 3 amid what was looking like a vintage start to the season from Gaz. After racking up 39 touches in the Round One thriller over the Dees, and 35 the next in an equally captivating duel against the Hawks, Ablett’s hamstring failed him as he was en route to another 30-disposal game.

Gaz was on 26 touches for the game when his hamstring went ‘ping’ and sat for four weeks as a result. For many, it was the point they wrote Ablett off.

Looking back, Ablett did have a couple of quieter games, by his standards, for the remainder of the season. He had 17 touches on two occasions… yet Ablett in the teens. Some thought it would never happen. Others thought it was indicative of a man whose body, at 34, could no longer withstand the rigours of AFL football.

Pragmatists who watch the game closely saw something different. For long stretches in those games, Ablett was thrown forward in an attempt to kick-start the faltering Geelong forward line. However, Tom Hawkins aside, the Cats forward half needed more than an Ablett spark to get them going in 2018. Ablett was put where the ball wasn’t. It was not so much a failure on the part of Ablett to have an impact – it was the failure of the system to give him the opportunity to impact the game.

When the 2018 All-Australian Squad was announced, the name of Gary Ablett was conspicuous by its absence. Joining his captain, Joel Selwood, on the outer of the elite of the AFL season, Ablett was more a victim of his own impeccable standards than those applied to others who did make the team.

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Dayne Beams was a popular pick in the squad After stepping down from the Brisbane captaincy (and later stepping away from the club entirely), Beams racked up impressive numbers. He had 29.14 touches, 2.95 tackles, 11.19 contested touches and 5.62 clearances for the year. He also had a great last quarter against North Melbourne in Round 11, where he kicked four of the junkiest junk time goals you’ll ever see as his team trailed by ten goals.

So, how does Gaz compare to Beams?  Possessions – about the same. Tackles – Ablett gets the nod. Contested touches – about the same. Clearances – Beams gets the nod. So how do you rate beams above Ablett in 2018? Was it sentimentality? After the loss of his father, there was genuine support for Beams throughout the year. Or was it because Beams had less poor games? Those three games where had 17 touches or under must’ve been discounted. It sure as hell couldn’t be measured by how Beams contributed to his team’s success, given his team had basically no success all season, compiling just five wins.

Or how about the inclusion of Shane Edwards, which to me, was more a reward for the Richmond team than recognition of an outstanding individual season? Yes, Edwards would bob up here or there and do some nice things, but Edwards did not have to deal with an negating run-with player all season as the fourth string midfielder behind Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin and Dion Prestia. When up forward, he was third fiddle at best behind Riewoldt and Caddy. As a matter of fact, he was eighth at the club for goals kicked in 2018.

Not only did Edwards make the squad, he made the damn team!

I could also go into the addition of Trent Cotchin in the squad, but again, I think it was more reward for the team that was the best-performed to that point of the season.

Whilst Ablett wasn’t going to reach the lofty standards of 2009-14 in terms of sheer weight of numbers, was what he produced in 2018 so lacking in polish and quality that he wasn’t in the top forty players in the game?

As I said, the knives were out.

The numbers on Ablett’s season don’t lie, and the story they tell is of a player who is a long way off being done in this game. 29.00 possessions per game ranked him 14th overall. He was 11th for Inside 50s – a stat people love to apply to midfielders to indicate whether they’re getting the ball in dangerous positions. He was 32nd in contested touches, despite people stating often that he doesn’t win his own ball – which is obviously incorrect. He was 14th in effective disposals (20.58), so it’s not like he was wasting it, and 16th in metres gained (I hate this stat).

Whilst people lamented his lack of production, they were obviously comparing him to the best midfielder of the modern age – himself.

A quick search of all-time leaders is an eye-opener. Ablett is 7th all time for possessions and should move into the top four or five this season. He’s 225 handballs from the all-time top spot in handballs. He should add this title to his list of accolades in 2019. He is 8th all-time in tackles, 2nd in inside 50s, 5th in total clearances and he is 1st all-time in contested disposals. The man is a walking, talking, possession-accumulating record book.

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2019 poses an interesting dilemma for Ablett and the Cats. Do they buy into the hype that Ablett’s days in the middle are over? Do they do what’s expected and throw him forward in another attempt to support Tom Hawkins? Or do they thumb their noses at those who know better, and let the little master do what he does best – get the footy and use it well?

The football is well and truly in Chris Scott’s court here. Depending on how well Gaz is travelling this pre-season, he may well end up being Geelong’s not-so-secret weapon in the coming season. How would his 2018 be remembered without a hamstring issue and with just one wayward kick going through the big sticks? Would we be lauding the return of Ablett to Geelong instead of writing him off?

With under two months to go until the serious stuff starts, there would have to be a fire in the belly of Gary Ablett. As resilient as superstars are, you’d have to hear the chatter. Geelong didn’t perform to the level expected in 2018, and the return of Gary Ablett failed to deliver – that is the story that has been peddled since the cats bowed out in the first week of the finals.

One big season from the Little Master can change all that, and leave many back peddling to re-arrange their accounts of the state of Gary Ablett and the Cats. One big season could propel Geelong well and truly into contention. And one big season could educate the footballing world that, not only does Gaz have a bit left in the tank, but he may just be the greatest midfielder the game has ever seen.

Never doubt the heart of a champion.

 

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