Three times in four weeks, Gary Ablett flirted with suspension. The first two times, he escaped, but not this week. It was not so much third time unlucky as twice before, mighty lucky.
The three incidents are worth watching as a package. After each, Ablett makes a slight, but telling gesture, a flapping of the arms, hands outstretched. In it, there is a proclamation of innocence, but also an admission of exasperation. Twice, he is milliseconds late to make a tackle, as he rarely has been these last 18 years. The third time, he is taken in by a bit of niggling as almost never before in his career. It was a niggle that he had initiated, by the way. Taken as a set, they add up to footballer perhaps feeling for the first time the merest intimation of his mortality.
Context is important. Ablett is having a very, very good season. Recast as a small forward, he is influencing games in a way few 35-year-olds ever have. For the Cats, it is a luxury that Gold Coast never had. He is not the least reason they are sitting on top of the ladder. Ablett is a long way from the caricature footballer of old who plays a year too long and goes out wailing and flailing.
Now he has week of pause, with a bit of think music. He’s been an exceptional player, perhaps the best of his era. His place in history is assured. It is easy to imagine that he has mixed emotions as his time passes. Pride, certainly, but perhaps also a little wistfulness as he watches Tim Kelly, Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood, Mitch Duncan et al divvy up the midfield spoils. In his new role, possessions necessarily are scarcer, the premium on abstracts like “defensive pressure” greater. For Ablett, the difference would be subtle, but different nonetheless.
Meanwhile, opponents are cheeking him as they would never have dared once. And at home, there is a four-month-old baby, joy of his life, but nonetheless with the sleeping habits of a four-month-old baby.