The Highton Recreation Reserve is as picturesque a suburban football ground as you will find anywhere. At the right time of the morning, its lush green surface glistens brilliantly in the winter sun.
A five-minute drive from the old Kardinia Park, it’s a magical little place on it’s day, and as the home of the Geelong Falcons, has been the launching pad for a laundry list of the game’s greats.
Bartel, Brown, Hodge, Dangerfield, Ling, Lewis, Scarlett. The list goes on.
Back in the early 2000s a young Gary Ablett Jr. had been plucked from Modewarre in the Bellarine Football League, to join the Falcons. There were cries of nepotism from some disgruntled parents.
But in the eyes of Falcons’ Regional Manager, Michael Turner, he had something. Something other than a familiar last name. “He was so creative with his hands,” he said.
Then it happened.
The 17-year-old began “ripping the balls out of the centre square, taking three bounces, and kicking goals. He was still very small but some of the stuff he was doing was unbelievable,” Turner said.
It took Cats’ list boss Stephen Wells one intra-club trial game before he sidled up to Turner one afternoon and said, ‘How are we going to handle this?’.
There are expectations and then there are expectations.
The father-son rule is one of the most unique features of Australian Rules football, and one of its most cherished. And the Geelong Football Club one of its greatest beneficiaries.
Recruiters, as a breed, aren’t known for their sentimentality. A father-son selection, no more than a roll of the dice. But for a fan, it’s so much more.
Perhaps it’s a chance to snatch back a slice of their youth, pure indulgent nostalgia. A certain romance. Or is it less emotive than that? What if, no really what if, he’s better than the old man?
On the eve of Gary Ablett Jr’s 350th AFL game, perhaps the most extraordinary thing he has achieved is that there’s no need to mention his famous lineage. No need. Think about that for a second.
The Ablett name is as synonymous with Kardinia Park as the whistle of the train roaring through South Geelong station, and in Gary Ablett Snr, possibly the greatest name of all.
But over the past two decades we have watched Jr. grow into a genuine giant of the game in his own right.
His list of achievements is remarkable. Two-time premiership player, two-time Brownlow Medallist, five-time Leigh Matthews Trophy winner, three-time AFLCA Champion Player of the Year Award, eight-time All-Australian, and a six-time Best and Fairest (two with Geelong, four with Gold Coast).
Ablett has crafted his own legacy, his own place in history, his own mythology for a new generation. The Premierships, the Brownlow's, the highlights, the return.
Matthew Scarlett has said that he thought the city of Geelong was expecting the Cats to lose in 2007, after all, they’d seen their heroes go down four separate times in the late eighties/early nineties.
Gary Ablett was the best player in the teams that broke that hoodoo. That run, that group of players, restored confidence to a town that was afraid to believe.
That will never happen again.
The best plays were when Ablett would burst out of a pack like a classic seventies muscle car. All hips and horsepower. Crouch low, lean forward, accelerate. Goal. Exhilarating football.
James Button tells a story in his book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong, about how sometimes former Cat Ken Hinkley would rile up a young Ablett on bus rides back from Melbourne.
“What’s your name?”. Gary Ablett, he’d respond.”
“You’re not Gary Ablett, he’s Gary Ablett,” pointing to Sr.
Jr. by this point would apparently be stamping his feet, “I’m Gary Ablett!”
350 AFL games later and the Hall of Fame beckons, perhaps even legend status. He is Gary Ablett.