I don’t quite know what makes a football fan latch on to some players more than others. In a week that Sky showcased three local derbies, one after the other, I witnessed rivalries that see all logic thrown out of the proverbial window. I think back to players who have worn both the blue of Everton and red of Liverpool and reflect on why so few have been lauded by both sets of fans. Of course, it’s relatively easy in some cases, given the circumstances involved in their respective transfers. Nick Barmby for example, his career in some peoples eyes having reached a plateau signed for Everton and following good performances had earned a recall to the England team. There followed a transfer to Liverpool and his status as a local ‘folk devil’ initiated.

Gary Ablett who would have been 53 last month was a member of Liverpool’s last Championship winning side in 1990, having won the FA Cup with them a year earlier. The defender seemed to fall out of favour with manager Graeme Souness becoming a stand-in for Glenn Hysen, David Burrows and Steve Staunton who seemed ahead of him in the pecking order. In January 1992, Everton boss Howard Kendall paid £750,000 to bring Ablett on the short journey to Goodison Park.

At the time, Everton were in a period of steep decline. Champions less than five years earlier, a combination of poor decisions made at the club over many levels, left the blues in the lower reaches of what was then the First Division. At the time, the transfer made few ripples locally other than maybe another instance of the club settling for what fans believed were Liverpool’s ‘cast offs’. “If he’s not good enough for them, why should he be good enough for us?” was a common expression and I include myself in this. Maybe I was still clinging on to the fact that we should have been title contenders, despite our lowly situation. Why can’t we still buy players from the top table as we did in the 1970s, despite our position? The harsh truth was that having been unable to cash in on European football at the peak of their powers only years earlier, the club was skint.

The one positive aspect at Goodison was the form of Peter Beardsley, signed from Liverpool the previous August who also ended up being loved by both blues and reds. He had been a revelation and many quickly realised that Liverpool may have made a mistake selling him. Everton though did not learn by Liverpool’s ‘mistake’, bizarrely offloading Beardsley way too early, when he went to Newcastle in 1993.

Gary makes his mark

Gary Ablett slotted into the team straight away making 18 appearances over the rest of the season. The following year he played 48 games, a number only equalled by captain Dave Watson and his qualities and versatility became apparent. Equally at home at left back and central defence his good reading of the game, use of the ball and hard work attitude endeared him to Everton fans.

He scored six goals in 156 appearances for the blues, none probably more important than his goal that defeated West Ham in November 1994, the blues having won none of their first 12 games. It was his second goal of the season. In the same game, he cleared a ball off the line. The peak of his time at Everton came in 1995 when he was a member of the FA Cup winning side. One of the highlights was the 4-1 defeat of Spurs in the semi-final at Elland Road when to cap a dominant display he tore down the left wing before sending a perfectly weighted cross into the path of Daniel Amokachi for the 4th goal. Holding up the FA Cup that year made him unique in Merseyside football folklore and cemented his place in blue hearts.

He was a quiet professional man, who shunned the limelight at a time when the Premier League was in its infancy and spiralling wages just about to take off. In later years he was more likely to be home with his wife Jacqueline and their children rather than amongst the bright lights of the city. He had actually met his wife in a bar in the city centre and having slipped her his phone number, she agreed to meet him. Not being a football fan she wasn’t aware of how well known he was when they met for a first date at the Jolly Miller pub on the outskirts of Liverpool. They were married in 1998 and a family followed.

The emergence of Andy Hinchcliffe at Everton had threatened Ablett’s place and both were often accommodated in the team with Hinchcliffe pushed forward into midfield as happened in the FA Cup Final of 1995. First team appearances though, became limited and he was soon on his way but not before inadvertently and amusingly entering another part of Merseyside folklore. In the days of Acid house parties his name was to be used as rhyming slang for ‘tablet’ as in the Urban dictionary’s interpretation as follows:

(Gary) Ablett rhymes with tablet.

Alright mate, got any Gary’s?

Is Gary Ablett gonna be at the club with you tonight?

From player to coach

His transfer to Birmingham, where he played over 100 games was only a temporary departure from Merseyside. Within six years he was back via spells at Derby, Hull, Sheffield United, Wycombe, Blackpool and a stint in the USA. As Everton under 17 coach under David Moyes, it was his intention to work his way up through the ranks but things often don’t go to plan. His upward progression was halted behind reserve team coach Andy Holden, who was going nowhere. An opportunity came up to return to Anfield as reserve team coach which he took with open hands. He quickly found success with his team winning the Premier League (North) Reserve title in 2008 before becoming National Champions beating Aston Villa in the title playoff. He also completed his UEFA pro licence and a future as a top coach looked likely.

A year later it was announced he was leaving to take over at Stockport County, which ended up being a somewhat poisoned chalice with the club in administration for the 2009/10 season. Less than a year later he left and shortly after joined Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town as coach. This is when his life turned upside down.

The worst possible news

During a training session, Gary collapsed and was taken to hospital. His diagnosis could not have been worse. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the same condition that claimed David Rocastle at the tragically young age of 33 in 2001.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, which is a network of vessels and glands spread throughout your body.

The lymphatic system is part of your immune system.

Clear fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic vessels and contains infection-fighting white blood cells known as lymphocytes.

In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the affected lymphocytes start to multiply in an abnormal way and begin to collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system, such as the lymph nodes (glands).

The affected lymphocytes lose their infection-fighting properties, making you more vulnerable to infection. The most common symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a painless swelling in a lymph node, usually in the neck, armpit or groin.

Approximately 13,000 are diagnosed each year and the likelihood of diagnosis increases as you get older. A third of new cases are in those over 75 years of age. It’s slightly more common in men.

(Taken from NHS.UK)

There are many possible causes, one of which is linked to artificial football pitches. In recent years, Gary’s wife has been vocal in calling for research into this possible cause given that so many people, particularly youngsters play on the surface.

Join the stem cell register

Gary fought his condition with dignity, rarely complaining. Amongst his treatment, he received a bone marrow transplant. Stem-cell transplants can help save lives when stem cells or bone marrow have been destroyed by the disease or treatment of chemotherapy or radiotherapy. In 2013, Everton FC together with Gary’s family launched a campaign to get more people to join the register in Gary’s name via the Anthony Nolan Trust.

To register, you need to be between 16-30 years of age and in good health. A quick swab and you will be entered onto the register to await a match and donating is painless. If just one person enters onto the stem-cell register as a result of reading this, then a life could be saved in Gary’s name. For further details https://www.anthonynolan.org/8-ways-you-could-save-life/donate-your-stem-cells

Gary passed away in January 2012 at the age of 46. The funeral took place at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and was attended by many greats of Merseyside football.

Gary Ablett was…

The early 1990s wasn’t the easiest time to play for Everton but his performances stood up to scrutiny by demanding fans. Despite his illness, he was still an occasional visitor to Everton’s Finch Farm training ground. The best compliment I can give him is that he was loved by both blues and reds as well as fans of the other clubs he played for, especially Birmingham City. I never heard a bad word said about him and that’s rare for someone in the limelight. He achieved more than the vast majority of professional footballers achieve with two League Championships, appearances for both England Under 21 and B teams and uniquely an FA Cup Winner with both Everton and Liverpool.

Gary Ablett

19th November 1965 – 1st January 2012

Gentleman, footballer and all round good bloke.