In Round 2 of this year's AFL season, I managed to sit down to watch the second half of the Giants v Suns game. I don’t particularly like either team, but I always try where possible to watch Gary Ablett play. He hadn’t played much in the previous two seasons, so I was pretty keen to see how he was going. I was stunned to find a man who looked disinterested in the contest.
The commentators, of course, didn’t miss it, and proceeded to spend large periods of the game focussing on his body language and output. I wasn’t comfortable with it, as Little Gaz is the best, most competitive, brilliant and consistent midfielder I have seen, but I knew also, that what they were saying was right. There is something awful seeing a player near the end of his time at the top. I have written in the past about Ablett, and not writing him off to soon (read here), so I expected a bounce back the following week.
As such, I made sure to watch the Suns v Hawks in Round 3. Sure enough, Gazza left his 16 possession game against the Giants in the past and accumulated 36 possessions and kicked two goals. There was still something missing though. Suns coach Rodney Eade pointed out after the game that Ablett was not playing at his best, despite the obvious statistical improvement from the week before. I was inclined to agree. Ablett’s body language was greatly improved, in that he seemed, once again, to want to be out there and competing, but he didn’t seem to have the zip in his legs and the power in his trunk.
Ablett himself has made comments in recent weeks about how 2017 could be his last year. He has personal issues that have him wanting to make his way back to Geelong, and so if a trade to his old club can’t be negotiated, he may well pull the pin. Whatever the result, I will be sure to heed my own words and remember him for how he was for ten or so seasons, with all his full brilliance on display. Hopefully he gets back to full strength and proves me wrong, as I love to watch him play, and would like to see him continue.
Regardless, what it has reminded me, is that no-one can play forever. At some stage the very best of us will fade like everyone else and, eventually, retire. Being a Richmond supporter, due to the lack of team excitement I’ve experienced, I’ve made a point of following particular players throughout their careers, such as Ablett.
Some examples are as follows:
• Quite obviously, Matthew Richardson, who for so many years was a beacon of light illuminating just how awful the stinking pile of chicken crap was.
• Robert Harvey, who I wrote about here with some absurd reverence way back in 2006.
• Jonathon Brown, the country lad who loved the Roys and played like Wayne Carey but seemed to be fond of his own wife.
• Jimmy Bartel, the quietly spoken Geelong champ who couldn’t really run or jump but kept doing everything right and could handle the ball in the wet like it was a tennis ball and he had one of those Velcro pads.
• Michael Voss, who was a brutal force at his very best, and whose coaching stupidity should not be held against him when recollections of his career are made.
There are a few others here or there like Ablett Snr, Tony Lockett and Nicky Winmar, but the point is that the vast majority of my AFL Man-Crushes have retired. Only Gazza is really left of the prime bunch. It got me thinking, who the hell am I going to invest my sporting adulation in? Who is coming through that I will watch when things are bleak for my own team? It’s a little speculative, but I’m thinking the below is a good solid list of players who may keep me interested, even if they’ll never be as good as the little bald champ.
• Jack Viney is not exactly speculative, as I’ve already been watching him for some years. In fact, I wrote about my appreciation for his style of play back in 2014. You can read it here, but the abridged version is that the son of Todd is a footballing animal who overcomes his relatively small stature with a dynamic attack on the footy that must be inspirational for his team mates and fans.
• Patrick Cripps overcomes two obstacles to get on this list. Richmond could have had him is the first, as he went to Carlton the pick after we took Ben Lennon. The second is that he went to Carlton. I hate Carlton, but I admire Cripps, a 195 cm midfielder who plays in a crap team but has tried his best to lift it up since he was a teenager. The fact that he plays for Carlton may see him slide in the future, but while they’re no good I quite admire the way he goes about it.
• Chad Wingard takes speckies and kicks awesome goals. He hasn’t appeared quite at his breathtaking best for the past 18 months, but I’m hopeful he can start bringing some of his talent back to the fore again, as the competition is better off with players like Wingard playing at their best. As with Ablett, he can do the impossible, and that’s one of the great things about watching sport.
• Daniel Rioli, or Dyril as I like to call him, probably shouldn’t be on the list due to his Tigerness, but I don’t really care. It’s my list, I’ll do what I want. Yes, there are other Tiger players I love to watch like Dusty, Rance, Cotchin and Jack, but Dyril is on here because there is something exhilarating about watching him live, and it is always so unexpected. He has the knack of doing the gobsmacking, flying for a mark, kicking a crazy goal, bursting clear with tremendous speed, or beating someone with strength and nous you wouldn’t expect. He’s far from the finished article, and I hope he will learn to find a lot more of the ball, but he does work very hard and I could see him being a shining light in dark times. Also comes across as a nice, young blokes, which I like.
• Brandan Parfitt is not big, he doesn’t seem all that quick, but he has some things that stand out. He has time and space and the ability to think clearly and act decisively in heavy traffic. He’s an 18 year old kid who, when he has the ball, looks like he’s played 150 AFL games. He is not quite averaging 15 possessions a game just five games into his career, which is not a heap, but it is when he has it that he stands out. It’s an encouraging start, and should he lift his numbers, he may well have a stellar career. Not since Joel Selwood, another player I’ve enjoyed watching though never quite warmed to enough to make him a favourite, have I seen a player look so at home in his first season.
I can’t with any confidence say exactly where my heart will lead me with certain players in the years ahead. Perhaps I’ll never have a strong Man-Crush on non-Richmond players in future like I’ve had with Ablett or Harvey, but hopefully one of the above establishes themselves, or a new one comes along that captures my attention without me even thinking about it.
Whatever transpires in that regard, I’ll do my best to appreciate Little Gaz while he’s still playing, and try not to feel sad while the inevitable happens, and he gets old and no-where near as good as he used to be. Who am I kidding? I’m already sad.
Follow Greg Gibson on Twitter: @GregGibbo28