GARY Ablett was conducting a radio interview at the back of St James Park’s main stand, moments after Stockport County had ended a terrible run of results with a 1-0 victory at Exeter.
It was February 2010. County were hurtling towards relegation from League One, and teetering on the brink of extinction, having spent almost a year in administration. On the pitch, they had lost a club record 12 successive league games. Ablett, taking his first steps into management, was gamely struggling with an impossible job.
His dry sense of humour, though, hadn’t deserted him. After the win at Exeter ended a 17-match run without a league victory, a local radio interviewer asked him for his thoughts.
He said: “Football would be a great game if it wasn’t for Saturdays, wouldn’t it? We could enjoy the week and not worry about the weekend.”
As he spoke about Stockport’s win, Ablett also reflected on the valued support of his family at a time when his working life had been so difficult.
“All this will certainly make me appreciate the good times when they come – if they ever come,” he added.
“I think I’m a fairly well-grounded person. I have a good staff, we have a good set of players, and I have a fantastic family at home who keep me going.”
Sadly, football’s good times did not return for Ablett. By the end of the season, with Stockport’s financial crisis deepening to the extent that they couldn’t even afford to buy a new microwave for the training ground, he admitted that his job at Edgeley Park had become a burden.
When he left at the end of that season, his coaching skills were in demand, and it didn’t take him long to find a new role at Ipswich Town. Soon after his arrival, though, he was taken ill with the blood cancer that would eventually claim his life. He died yesterday, aged only 46.
The tributes to Ablett from within football today speak of his ability as a defender and a coach, but also of his tremendous decency. An amiable footballer, he achieved the rare feat of gaining respect on both sides of Stanley Park, spending a decade at Liverpool and then four years at Everton.
He made his Liverpool debut at a time when the club were still winning league championships on a regular basis, scoring on his home debut in April 1987, slamming a shot past Steve Sutton for the third goal in a 3-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, and looking almost as surprised as delighted.
It would be his only goal for the club, but his contribution to the team over the next four years would be invaluable. When Glenn Hysen, David Burrows and Steve Staunton nudged him down the pecking order at left-back, Ablett switched to the centre of defence and proved a more-than-capable deputy for the increasingly injury-troubled Alan Hansen.
He won league title medals at Anfield in 1988 and 1990, before moving to Everton, where he went on to lift the FA Cup in 1995. Barry Horne, a Goodison team-mate, recalls Ablett making “an unbelievable run” to set up a late goal in the 4-1 semi-final thrashing of Tottenham at Elland Road that year. Horne’s description of Ablett as a versatile player, and as an understated, generous person, will tally with the recollections of anyone who encountered him.
He was a player who bore his career setbacks with dignity, too. After leaving Goodison Park in 1996, he established himself as captain at Birmingham City, only to see his career thrown into the balance in a single moment.
It came during a match at Crystal Palace in February 1999, when Birmingham were challenging for promotion to the Premier League. Ablett snapped his cruciate and medial knee ligaments in what looked an innocuous challenge. It put out of the game for almost a year. At the time, Birmingham manager Trevor Francis had been about to offer him a contract extension, but that plan was scrapped while the club assessed his recovery.
With his contract due to run out at the end of 1999, Ablett went on loan to Wycombe in a bid to prove his fitness. He was made the subject of a feature by ITV’s Football League Extra, and spoke honestly about the difficulties of facing an uncertain future with a young family to support.
“I’d agreed [the contract] with the manager on the Friday before the game, then got the injury and they wanted to hold fire until they discovered the extent of the injury,” he said.
“When they did, they said: ‘We’ll take it one step at a time.’ To be fair, they stood by me in one way by supporting me through the injury, it would have been nice to have the extra five months from Christmas until the end of the season – which the original contract would have given me – to prove I was fit.”
Even as he battled to save his playing career, Ablett could still see the humour in his plight. During his month at Wycombe, he played under the management of Lawrie Sanchez. It was Sanchez, when playing for Wimbledon, who scored the goal that beat Ablett’s Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, one of Wembley’s greatest upsets.
“I remember the back of his head, because I was supposed to be marking him when he scored,” Ablett smiled, ruefully.
After Wycombe, he linked up briefly with former Liverpool team-mate Steve McMahon in the Second Division at Blackpool, and had a stint playing in the United States, before retiring in 2002 and beginning a promising coaching career. He led Everton’s Under-17 side before guiding Liverpool to the Premier Reserve League national title. His departure from the Anfield backroom staff in 2009 was something of a surprise, but Stockport County soon offered him their manager’s job.
Perhaps, if he’d known just how difficult that role would be, he might have waited for a better offer from elsewhere. But he bore a difficult season with dignity, and deserved a chance to rebuild his career elsewhere. That chance, tragically, was denied him.