Illustration: Jim PavlidisFidgeting with his tie, Gary Ablett remembered his beginnings in life and football in Drouin: the cold, the rabbit pies, the borrowed gear. One early day, he said, he had to wear a pair of boots at least four sizes too big for him. They looked and felt like flippers. “All the kids were laughing at me,” said Ablett. The match began, and within six minutes he had kicked four goals – from the centre. A crooked grin played across Ablett’s face as he paused, then added: “The kids stopped laughing.”
Eighty-odd pre-match lunchers at lowly amateur club St Mary’s Salesian laughed heartily to hear it. Ablett was there at the invitation of Norbert Graetzer, a past president of St Mary’s, also a former Hawthorn trainer. With Ablett was his sister, Fay, and her husband, Michael Tuck, the most illustrious in-laws in footy history. They had come in part to promote Smouldering Stump, an organisation aiding families and children suffering post-traumatic stress as a result of the Black Saturday bushfires five years ago. Their cause was a coup for St Mary’s.
Ablett had donned his tie in the car park, with the whistles and shouts of the reserves game carrying to him over the fence. It was an endearing touch. Everyone else was in club polos or weekend casuals, but it was as if Ablett felt he owed the club and the occasion at least this much respect.
He and the Tucks came without pretensions, other than their exploits. If they were not so instantly recognisable, you might have thought they did regular business at the local hardware shop, Ablett at the counter, Tuck as a customer. Together, they formed a premium package, but wrapped in plain, brown paper. When the raffle tickets were passed around at lunch, Tuck followed protocol to the letter: he grumbled good-naturedly, then bought 10.
But when this package was opened, of course, the room fell under a spell. The guests shut up. The dishes stopped clinking. The senior players, half-changed, clustered in the doorway. Ablett and Tuck trawled over their careers – one dazzling like no other, one lasting like no other – culminating in the wonder that was the 1989 grand final between their clubs.
At last, they arrived at the subject of Gary jnr, son of one, nephew of the other. At his journey’s beginning, young Gary said he would be happy to be half as good as his old man. Even as awards and accolades accumulated, junior always has deferred to senior, agreeing with a popular view that he was the best player the game has seen. But what of senior’s perspective? “I wouldn’t like to play on Gary,” he said. “The way he’s going, I think he might take the crown.” History might remember this moment as the St Mary’s Coronation.
Footy thrives on two sorts of bloodlines, family and club. Both were pulsing on this day. Reunited with Ablett and Tuck at lunch was Leon Rice, another Drouin original and Hawthorn premiership teammate of Tuck’s, now with the calcified bearing of an old footballer, but giving to the game still as a St Mary’s committeeman.
Al Martello missed lunch because he had stepped in at short notice to coach the St Mary’s under-22 team on the other side of town. Martello rose from St Mary’s juniors to play in Hawthorn premierships alongside Tuck and Rice, and at the end of his career to play one day for Richmond against Ablett in Ablett’s one year at Hawthorn. Martello has been back at St Mary’s these many years, a perennial at training and matches, performing whichever unglamorous task the club needs.
Ablett, incidentally, said he regretted that Hawthorn had not worked out for him. This was not a repudiation of Geelong, a club and town he said had suited him temperamentally. It was an honest reflection on the sort of decisions made at forks in the road that punctuate most people’s lives; it is just that Ablett’s have been more public than most. We fans have the luxury to think only of how different the legend of the 1989 grand final might have been if Ablett had not left Hawthorn, and to be grateful again for the way it did play out.
Though booked only for lunch, Ablett and the Tucks were still in the clubrooms at half-time in the seniors, yarning away. Ablett seemed wholly at ease among this salt of the football earth. A reserves player who had kicked 11 goals ended up with the souvenir of a lifetime: a happy snap, him holding up 10 fingers, Ablett one.
Ablett was at his most poignant when dwelling on a topic recently elevated by Nick Riewoldt and Wayne Carey: the challenges of life after football and the sense many players have of losing their bearings. “All they know is football, and it’s gone,” he said. “They don’t know who they are any more. They lose their identity.”
Rejoined the ever-dry Tuck, as only a brother-in-law could: “I’ve got my identity. I had to show it to the police last night.”
Fay Tuck laughed as if she had never heard it before.