AFL: One final act awaits for the little master as Geelong star Gary Ablett gets set for his last dance

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  • Nineteen years at the heart of the beautiful game and it has gone by in a flash.

    Saturday evening will see him race out at the Gabba for AFL Grand Final day, where legions of footie gods have crossed the line through the years.

    Win or lose in his final appearance, Gary Ablett will be carried off the park by his Geelong team-mates and fulfil the customary media requirements post-game, reflecting on his illustrious 357-game career.

    There will be something forlorn about the spring breeze in Brisbane. Ablett’s football life with the Cats has been all about swashbuckling performances and magical genius.

    Since word travelled around Victoria about his incredible potential in the early noughties, he has gone on to win an embarrassing number of accolades, being a: two-time premiership Cat, two-time Brownlow medalist, eight-time All-Australian, six-time best and fairest, three-time club leading goalkicker and five-time AFLPA MVP.

    A remarkable list of individual awards for a man widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. And it’s not over yet either.

    With Geelong competing in their first Grand Final since 2011 this weekend, there is still another chapter to write for the little master.

    At 36, he may no longer have the same zip of pace, but that doesn’t stop him from influencing a match in other ways.

    The body is worn now and the mind has more important matters to focus on, which includes his son Levi, who is battling a rare and degenerative disease.

    Retiring is never an easy decision, especially from a sport he has consumed all his life. He grew up watching his father Gary Sr. become one of the finest AFL players in history.

    Gary Sr. played his fourth match for Geelong when his son was born in May 1984, going on to score a sizzling 1031 goals in 248 appearances over a decorated 14-year career.

    Ablett, meanwhile, made his own professional debut in 2002, and has since played 356 games, kicking 445 goals. His eight-season stretch from 2007-2014 is regarded as the best ever.

    Many believe Ablett is a more complete player than his dad, though comparisons between the two have always been inappropriate because of their different styles and different eras involved in the game.

    What set the Moriac native apart from other players during his glittering career was his strength, ability to pass the ball accurately, rarely losing possession, and breaking through packs of players unopposed.

    Away from the treasure trove of medals adorning his mantelpiece, no player has secured more MVP awards, racked up more disposals since 2000, or polled more Brownlow votes than him. He was simply in a class of his own at times.

    It hasn’t all been a career of showered praise though. At the height of his superiority, he left Geelong after winning two Premierships, to take up a lucrative deal at Gold Coast in 2011.

    In his words, he departed Kardinia Park for a fresh challenge and wasn’t motivated by the $1.9 million per annum salary on offer, sparking mixed reaction from Cats’ fans.

    Up north he thrived in a new environment, his first four seasons at the Metricon Stadium were the finest of his career statistically, winning a second Brownlow in 2013.

    On the field, Gold Coast struggled and averaged a lowly season-ending position of 15th over his seven years in Queensland. Even through those difficult years, he proved his worth, but the team were simply off the pace.

    Returning to Geelong in 2018, he continued to cement his status as one of the greats, even if that meant being devoid of the same magic as before.

    All sporting legends find a way to conjure up that old wizardry, reinventing their playing style when the years wind on.

    Instead of trying to evade five would-be tacklers like 2009 or 2013 seasons, Ablett, instead, used his clean hands, slick skills and sharp football brain to put his team-mates in formidable scoring positions.

    Now 19 seasons on from his round one debut against Essendon, his days at the top level are drawing to a close. A third premiership medal would provide the perfect completion to a near-perfect career.

    Standing in the way is the colossal challenge of Richmond, a side sprinkled with class, vying for a third title in four campaigns.

    The defending champions dismantled Geelong 57-31 last month. However, there is reason to believe things will be different on Saturday.

    One of the significant reasons is Ablett, who did not feature in that round 17 defeat and is sure to have his team purring with confidence in his final act.

    Against Brisbane Lions last week he was named man-of-the-match, further demonstrating why he does not need 30-plus touches anymore to influence the contest.

    Ablett kicked two goals, had seven score involvements and made every one of his 14 disposals count, applying his golden touch to each one.

    Back in a first Grand Final in nine years, Geelong have a finals record to set straight under coach Chris Scott. With so many players on their list on the wrong side of 30, it has a real last roll of the dice feel about it.

    The end of a professional sporting career is emotional for any player especially when you are consumed by it for the bulk of your best years.

    For Ablett, he ignored the creaks and whistles from his body and worked harder to keep coming back from injury, year after year, seemingly as indestructible to age like other warriors.

    He has given so much to the game. In the immediate few days after Saturday’s swansong appearance at the Gabba, there will be something sad about him stepping away.

    Even the players and the teams across the AFL whom he dominated over the course of those 19 summers will commend his towering efforts. Messages will flood into his inbox and players will tribute his contributions on social media. A deserved send-off for such an idol.

    In time to come, sports fans with fewer teeth and less hair will recall his memories on barstools across Australia, his standout moments, his key contributions, the happiness he brought to them at that time of their lives.

    Ablett was enthralling and even if he doesn’t bombard the scoreboard this weekend or rack up high possession numbers like 10 years ago, he is still a messiah and can inspire a squad in different ways.

    One final act awaits for the little master.