Gary Ablett: the tragic hero who conquered both ends of Stanley Park

Gary Ablett: the tragic hero who conquered both ends of Stanley Park

In the early months of 2010, Gary Ablett was approached by an avid Stockport supporter in a supermarket in the village of Burscough, West Lancashire, not too far from his home and around half an hour away from Anfield and Goodison Park, the grounds he had graced as a player and coach.

Stockport was a club in turmoil, sat at the bottom of League One and being slowly drawn towards an inevitable relegation. Having slipped into administration towards the tail end of the 2008/09 season, the club had been forced into the peculiar move of making their previous manager, Jim Gannon, redundant.

Ablett, having led the Liverpool reserve team to both the North and National Premier League Reserve titles in 2008, was identified at Edgeley Park as an upcoming coach who might be looking to stretch his wings into the front line of Football League management.

Appointed in early-July, it didn’t take Ablett long to discover that he had dipped his toe into murky waters at Stockport and that the ship was listing badly. By December, they had sunk to the foot of the table, a position they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the season.

When Ablett was approached in that supermarket in Burscough, he was wary of the direction the conversation was going to drift with the Stockport supporter. Fortunately, it was a Stockport supporter who could see beyond the pitch and the league placing and to the near-thankless task Ablett had taken on. Being told his efforts were appreciated, at least by one Stockport supporter, must have made Ablett’s shopping expedition that little bit more bearable.

Less than two years later, Ablett died after suffering with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. He passed away on New Year’s Day 2012, aged just 46.

On the football field, Ablett still owns a unique piece of history. He is the only player to win the FA Cup for both Liverpool and Everton. Converse to the way Liverpool-born players are idolised by both the Anfield and Goodison faithful in contemporary terms, Ablett was widely underappreciated by Liverpool fans in the late-1980s and early-90s, at a time when local players were given a harder time than those from outside the Merseyside region.

Ablett was by no means on his own in this respect. For any scouser to be walking on to the pitch at Anfield or Goodison at the time, when trophies were being collected as a course of habit, they were carrying the dreams of a city with them. They were living the dream of those who clicked through the turnstiles, and they had to be word perfect in doing so. Any dip in form, any free-kick or penalty given away, any header outjumped for, any goalscoring opportunity missed, the admonishment from the stands and terraces would be sharper than it would for those born anywhere else.

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Ablett came through at a time when the giants of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Gillespie and Steve Nicol roamed the Liverpool back line, with local players making the breakthrough at Anfield a rarity. Sammy Lee had been the last youth product to make a prolonged visit to the Liverpool first team, while in the 1985/86 season, Mark Seagraves had deputised for Gillespie in two cup ties without ever playing a league game.

When Ablett’s opportunity arose, away to Charlton in December 1986, filling in for the injured Hansen, it was with a sense of pride and trepidation that he would have taken to the pitch at Selhurst Park. While he ran on with Hansen’s number 6 on his back, Ablett made his debut on the left side of midfield, beginning what was a nomadic role in the Liverpool first team squad.

A left-back by nature in the reserves, when he returned to the starting line-up in April in his more familiar position, Ablett did so during a defensive crisis at the club. The loss of Jim Beglin to a horrific broken leg in January, a litany of niggling injuries suffered by Nicol, and a devastating ruptured Achilles for Lawrenson brought Ablett back into contention.

Selected to face Nottingham Forest at Anfield, he made a goalscoring return during a 3-0 victory, holding onto his place in the team for games at Old Trafford against Manchester United, his first Merseyside derby at Anfield, and away at Coventry City.

Just short of a fortnight prior to returning to the team against Forest, Liverpool had gone into the League Cup final against Arsenal with Ronnie Whelan playing at left-back. They were beaten 2-1, and Ablett’s performances beyond then had possibly suggested that Kenny Dalglish might have been better served fielding the inexperienced Ablett at Wembley instead.

Omitted from the team for the last two games of the 1986/87 season and on the outside looking in as the 1987/88 season started, Ablett once again bided his time in the reserves. When Gillespie succumbed to a thigh injury prior to the FA Cup fourth round trip to take on Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa at the end of January, Ablett was drafted in to cover at left-back, while Nicol shifted across to centre-back.

Expected to be a short-term situation, Ablett held on to the position for the remainder of the season, as when Gillespie returned to fitness, Barry Venison immediately picked up an injury that ruled him out of the run-in