Gary Ablett - Tribute To A Mersey Marvel

THE truest measure of Gary Ablett’s qualities as a human being is that he straddled the great Mersey divide without losing friends in either the blue or red halves. A player and a coach with Liverpool and Everton, he is a member of an elite group who have represented both clubs with such distinction on and off the pitch that he is held in the utmost respect by everyone associated with the Merseyside giants.

That, along with his relative youth and the devastation it will cause to his doting family, is what makes his passing such a tragedy for all who were fortunate enough to know him. Ablett was a special person, someone whose qualities went way beyond his notable achievements on a football pitch and someone who carried a quiet dignity and understated decency that ensured he was the most normal, down to earth personality that anyone could wish to meet.

As the only player to win the FA Cup with Everton and Liverpool, never mind one who won two league title winners medals while at Anfield, Ablett could have walked around his native city with the air of an icon. That he didn’t was testament to his character and his belief that he had been fortunate to play for the two clubs that dominate his hometown, but the reality was that the opposite was equally true – Liverpool and Everton had been fortunate to have him.

Had Ablett been born just a few years later the likelihood is that he would have gone on to make many more than the 147 appearances he made for Liverpool. His timing was unfortunate in that he broke into Kenny Dalglish’s squad at a time when Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson were in their prime and Gary Gillespie’s status as Hansen’s heir apparent made it difficult for a young, up and coming defender to make his mark. Had he made the breakthrough a couple of years later when Lawrenson was nearing the end, Hansen’s fragile knees were increasingly limiting his involvement and Gillespie’s own injury problems were restricting his development, then Ablett could have made a place in central defence his own for years to come.

As it was, he had to prove his versatility by coming into the team as a left back during the 1986-87 season in which Liverpool were to finish as runners up to Everton. He scored his only goal for the club during that campaign, a memorable – and out of character – volley against Nottingham Forest that he celebrated with all the glee expected of someone who had previously cheered Liverpool on from the Kop.

The following season Ablett played an increasing role in Dalglish’s side, starting twenty games in what many observers believe was the finest and most free-flowing Liverpool team of all. That he was in the side for their 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest, a performance of such all round quality that it was hailed as the best he had ever seen by Sir Tom Finney, illustrated both his ability and his growing stature at the club, something that was further highlighted in the 1988/89 campaign when he made 49 appearances, capping the season with an FA Cup winners medal earned from a thrilling 3-2 win over Everton at Wembley to go with the title winners medal he had won the year before.

After struggling for a place during the 1989/90 season – albeit making enough appearances to win a second title medal – Ablett became surplus to requirements when Graeme Souness took over from Dalglish and was eventually sold to Everton in a £750,000 deal in January 1992. That transfer may not have been as controversial as the one which saw Peter Beardsley make the move across Stanley Park having also fallen foul of Souness’s flawed transfer strategy but the impact was to be keenly felt by Liverpool as the pair combined for Beardsley to score a crucial derby winner just eleven months after Ablett had been allowed to leave.

Just as he had memorably celebrated Liverpool’s FA Cup win of 1989 with a clenched fist salute while wearing a distinctive bobble hat as Ronnie Whelan lifted the trophy, so Ablett wheeled away in delight in royal blue as Beardsley took the plaudits for his decisive goal. His transformation was complete and he became such a part of the furniture at Everton that it soon became hard to imagine that he had previously been such a passionate Liverpudlian. Ablett just blended in to his new surroundings, giving his new club the same unstinting and ever willing service that he had afforded his old one. Several players have made the difficult journey from Liverpool to Everton and vice versa but few have done it with the consummate ease of Ablett.

His reward for having the bravery to make the transition and the talent to make to work was another FA Cup winners medal, earned in a 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Wembley. In doing so, he became the only player to lift the FA Cup with both Merseyside clubs, a notable achievement and one which made him the subject of trivia questions at pub quizzes the length and breadth of the city.

After spells with Sheffield United, Birmingham City, Wycombe Wanderers, Blackpool and the magnificently named Long Island Rough Riders, Ablett hung up his boots in 2001 but it was not long before he was back in football as Everton appointed them to their coaching staff. Working with the club’s under-17s was the perfect role for him given his ability to bring out the best in young people and his desire to give others the kind of opportunities that he himself had made the most of.

Such was the impact he made at that level and so high was his stock in the coaching fraternity that Liverpool came calling in the summer of 2006 when Rafa Benitez offered him the reserve team manager’s job. Benitez, a manager who values tactics and the understanding of them arguably more than any other in the modern game, saw something he liked in Ablett when he asked him to evaluate different situations in a chalkboard test and a subsequent job offer was eagerly accepted.

"I just thought there was no harm in applying so I sent my CV in and a couple of days later Rafa called me and said 'would you like to come in?”, Ablett said following his appointment. “I was interviewed for an hour and a half and found it fascinating to be quite truthful. He grilled me on the tactics board so obviously he wanted to see I knew what I was doing. I waited for 10 days, maybe two weeks, before I got another call asking me to come in when he asked me to do a plan of the season for him, which I did for the young players. Four to five days later I was asked to come in again and was told that the job was mine.”

Under Ablett’s guidance, Liverpool win the Premier Reserve League (North) in 2007/08 and in the same season they were crowned national champions thanks to a resounding 3-0 win over Aston Villa, the southern champions, at Anfield. The harsh realities of football meant that a difficult second season in which results were not as impressive was to be his last at Anfield and Ablett lost his job as part of a reshuffle of Liverpool’s entire coaching set up below first team level.

He went on to manage Stockport County briefly before becoming Roy Keane’s assistant at Ipswich Town in the summer of 2010. But before he had managed to really establish himself at Portman Road, Ablett was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the illness that would eventually cost him his life. He fought the disease for 16 months, embarking on one gruelling course of treatment after another, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, lumbar punctures and even a bone marrow transplant. "I thought it can't be me, it just can't,” he said. I” felt so strong - I had played for the best two teams in the world, coached for the best two teams in the world. It can't beat me.” Tragically, it did and Ablett passed away on New Year’s Day at the age of 46.

A statement from the League Managers Association said: “On behalf of Gary Ablett’s family the LMA has today confirmed that Gary passed away peacefully last night following a hard fought 16-month battle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

“Respected throughout the game by players, coaches and managers alike Gary will be sadly missed. The LMA’s thoughts and condolences are with Gary’s wife Jacqueline and children.”

Those same thoughts and condolences will be expressed by everyone in the Merseyside football family for someone who made a special and unique contribution to both Liverpool and Everton.

Copyright - Tony Barrett

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