Gary Ablett is the only man to win the FA Cup with both Everton and Liverpool and was a tremendously popular figure with colleagues and supporters at the two clubs.
The former defender passed away on this day (1 January) 10 years ago, aged 46, 16 months after receiving a diagnosis for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Below, in a feature that first appeared in our matchday programme, we spoke with the player’s son Fraser, Joe Royle, the manager of Ablett’s Everton Cup-winning side, and former Liverpool teammate Jan Molby, about a titan of Merseyside football.
With the black boots hung loosely round his neck and blue baseball cap turned back to front, Gary Ablett looked like he’d just finished a game on the local rec.
His soft Scouse tone was measured and the sentiment characteristic of a man described variously as “humble, respectful, quiet and lovely”.
Everton had just beaten Manchester United in the 1995 FA Cup final.
Ablett, cradling a blue and white scarf in his left hand and with his right arm flung around fellow full-back Matt Jackson, said: “Liverpool ended up with the Coca Cola Cup, we got the FA Cup. Red and Blue, it will be all families together. People will be celebrating all over Liverpool tonight.”
It was then put to Ablett that he’d acquired hero status on both sides of Stanley Park.
“I might be a hero in the blue half, I don’t know about the red half,” he laughed.
Ablett, the only man to win the FA Cup with Everton and Liverpool, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, in August 2010.
He died 16 months later – the 10-year anniversary of Ablett’s passing is on 2 January 2022 – surely harbouring no doubts about his standing on either side of the city divide.
Ablett won two league titles and one FA Cup with Liverpool, prior to a transfer to Everton in January 1992.
“I don’t think it was all plain sailing when he first made the switch,” says Ablett’s son Fraser, who was born nine months before his dad swapped red for blue.
“But there were no airs or graces about dad and he got his head down and worked hard.
“He was very personable and would always stop to chat to people and that probably smoothed the transition.
“Then the success with both clubs helped, of course.”
Jan Molby, an occasional roommate at Liverpool, alights on similar reasons for Ablett achieving unanimous popularity on Merseyside.
“I think he went to Everton with the Liverpool fans’ blessing,” says Molby. “They understood it was the right move for Gary.
“The supporters and players at Everton would have seen how serious Gary was about football and doing well for his club.
“I think he had the attitude of, ‘I am at Everton, now, so I am an Evertonian’. And he gave it everything.”
Howard Kendall, the Everton manager, originally exploited a Liverpool rebuild under relatively new boss Graeme Souness to recruit Peter Beardsley in August 1991 and chanced his arm again five months later with a bid for Ablett.
Which was how the defender came to make an Everton debut against Nottingham Forest at Goodison Park only three weeks after playing for the away team in a Merseyside derby draw at the same ground.
Ablett missed only two league matches between the televised 1-1 draw with Forest and February 1994, when a period out of the side under Kendall’s successor, Mike Walker, coincided with Everton sinking into the relegation mire.
He returned for a precious victory at West Ham United in April and played in the last-day escape when Everton overcame Wimbledon 3-2 in a bonkers game.
The masterstroke appointment of Joe Royle rejuvenated the Club and ultimately led to the Cup success that Ablett accompanied with his understated reminder of bonds shared beyond on-pitch squabbles.
“Gary was a lovely man, there was no edge to him, he smiled his way through training every day,” says Royle, whose voice trembles as he remembers a man he clearly thought the world of.
“From the day I arrived until the day he left, Gary was first-class, completely professional.
“If you played for Everton and Liverpool and won the trophies he did, you are a top player.
“I saw him several times at his house in Tarleton close to his death. He was never down, he knew it was serious but wouldn’t give in and always had hope.
“He was a big family man and constantly talking about his kids and wife.
“His passing was very, very sad. He was no age and it looked like he had a very good coaching career in front of him.”
Ablett was taken ill on the training ground at Ipswich Town, where he was beginning a coaching role alongside manager Roy Keane.
He’d spent the previous 2009/10 campaign managing impoverished Stockport County in League One.
The club was in administration for the entire season and Ablett was powerless to prevent their relegation. But Fraser tells a story from the spell in charge of Stockport that “summed up dad”.
“They had an away game in the middle of winter,” he begins, “it was bitterly cold and dad saw one of the fans absolutely freezing without any gloves.
“Dad took off his pair, went over to the guy and gave them to him and told him to keep warm.
“The public perception of dad is how he was away from the cameras.
“He had time for everyone and was very kind and caring.
“He wasn’t one person in the limelight and someone totally different away from it.
“The number of people who can say only good things about him, who talk about him being down to earth and approachable, speaks volumes. That is the dad I remember.”
Ablett encountered doubts and setbacks during a largely illustrious playing career.
Molby owns up to suspecting the “conscientious young man” would, perhaps, need to leave Liverpool for a senior breakthrough.
“But once he got in the side,” says Molby, of Ablett’s introduction to cover for injuries to Gary Gillespie, then Barry Venison, midway through the 1987/88 championship season, “it was impossible to take him out.
“He was popular in the dressing room and always very respectful and disciplined.
“On the pitch, he was a really crisp passer from the back and had tremendous vision.
“He was strong defensively in one-on-one situations and an excellent reader of the game.
“You look back at his career and the success with two huge clubs and realise how good a player he was.”
Ablett experienced an FA Cup final defeat by Wimbledon in 1988 but got his hands on the trophy following the poignant all-Merseyside final 12 months later.
He was in the Liverpool side that lost the league to Arsenal on the last kick of the 1988/89 campaign – but won the title the next season.
With Everton there was that flirtation with relegation when Ablett put through his own net to give Wimbledon a two-goal advantage before his part in a comeback for the ages and Cup glory the following year.
“Everybody goes through adversity and has to find a way to come out stronger and my dad showed he could do that,” says Fraser.
“Without me realising, that trait has probably been passed on.
“I’ve had setbacks in football and coaching but you find your own way of responding.
“We didn’t talk much about his football. It was touched on but being the humble and quiet person he was, he didn’t shout about it from the rooftops.
“It was his job and he did it well. That was how it came across.
“But he was very proud of his achievements and of playing for both clubs in this city. I am proud of him, too.”
Fraser inherited his dad’s broad smile and pronounced cheekbones and has the same generous shock of thick, jet-black hair.
But, he laughs, “my left foot’s not as good as his, unfortunately”.
“Lack of height, size and strength,” led to Fraser’s release from Liverpool at under-16 level, one year after joining.
There is, inevitably, the odd thought about how life would have unfolded if he’d overcome shyness to accept earlier offers of professional trials.
But Fraser, who continued playing with Chester City, contracted the coaching bug early. He owns a UEFA licence and is assistant manager of Northern Premier League Division One West club Warrington Rylands.
“I was a bit shy and reserved and steered away from trials at clubs,” says Fraser.
“Dad never pushed me, he just wanted me to be happy and always supported me in whatever I was doing.
“Technically I was a good player and I possibly missed out on better coaching and other elements that would have helped my development if I’d gone into a club earlier.
“But there are no regrets – I was never made to go down a certain route, it was always for me to do what I was comfortable with.
“One of the memories I treasure of dad is from when he was ill but would sit with me and go through my coaching plans and share some of his own work.
“I will always look back and cherish that guidance.”
Ablett left Everton for Birmingham City in 1996 but returned as a senior Academy coach six years later. He made a second cross-Stanley Park move in 2006 for three years as Liverpool reserve team manager.
“Another standout memory is from Liverpool’s training ground at Melwood,” says Fraser.
“The reserves were training in cold weather and dad let me drive his car round to get a better view and keep warm.
“I was still learning to drive and nearly crashed into a wall. When I told him he just laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Do you want to meet Fernando Torres? Follow me…’”
Ablett, whose 156 Everton appearances added to 147 matches for Liverpool, spent the final 16 months of his life submitting to treatment that was exhaustive and exhausting in equal measure.
He underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, multiple lumbar punctures and a bone marrow transplant.
Side effects included diabetes and Bell’s palsy and hair loss.
“He didn’t want too much fuss, or any spotlight,” says Fraser.
“He felt he had to remain positive and didn’t want everyone’s sympathy.
“He wanted to do it his own way, to get his head down and fight it.
“And to support others going through the same thing. If people in hospital realised who he was, he would chat and try to help and reassure.
“He was always thinking about the future – the time when, we thought, he would be clear of it.
“There were plans for what he would do next.”
Royle valued Ablett’s “versatility and stamina”, characteristics embodied in the player’s 90th-minute charge forwards from left-back to create Everton’s final goal for Daniel Amokachi in the exhilarating FA Cup semi-final dismantling of Tottenham Hotspur at Elland Road.
“I was thinking, ‘What are you doing that far up, get back’,” says Royle.
“Gary had a great left foot and could probably have played a little further forward if he wanted.
“He won the respect of everybody at Everton and Liverpool with his attitude and performances.
“When I saw him towards the end, he told me Everton had been magnificent with his family and looked after him.
“Kenny Dalglish would go to Gary’s house to spend time with him, too.”
Royle and Dalglish, the player’s first manager at Liverpool, were among scores of mourners from the football community at the city’s Anglican Cathedral for Ablett’s funeral 15 days after his passing.
Fraser, who has four siblings, Scarlet, Reece, Riley and Josh, was a pallbearer and listened to a tribute from Jackson, who said: “It takes a special person to gain the respect of both the Reds and the Blues in this city.
“Gary was a fantastic family man, a great teammate and a true friend. We will all miss him dearly.”
Fraser says: “The response from the entire football world, not only Everton and Liverpool, was exceptional.
“There were former players visiting and offering to help any way they could.
“A lot is made of Roy Keane and how he is on television – but there is a completely different side we have seen.
“He was sensational with his help and support.
“Everton were fantastic, inviting dad to watch the team train and to games at Goodison.
“Going through that – and how they were with me after dad passed away – confirmed why Everton is known as the People’s Club.
“They asked me in to watch the teams train and take some coaching sessions myself.
“I never felt I didn’t have any right to be there and was made to feel extremely welcome.
“I am grateful to the fans and everyone associated with Everton who has helped in the past 10 years.
“Every acknowledgment of anniversaries, winning at Wembley, or dad’s birthday or passing, is appreciated and always will be.”
On 22 May this year, 26 years and two days after Gary Ablett uniquely added an FA Cup winner’s medal with Everton to one claimed as a Liverpool player, Fraser had his own heady Wembley afternoon.
Warrington Rylands defeated Berkshire club Binfield 3-2 to win the FA Vase.
“It was meant to be,” says Fraser. “There was a game in the last-32 [against Shildon] when we were battered. We didn’t create many chances and our goalkeeper saved a penalty in normal time – but we won a penalty shootout.
“Before that game there was a minute’s silence and I remember thinking, ‘Dad is looking down, we are going to get a result’.
“At Wembley, I thought about the success he’d had there.
“When we’d lifted the trophy, the ground was emptying and I was by myself. I looked up to the sky and got a bit emotional, thinking, ‘Dad would have been proud’.”
Back to those post-match interviews in 1995. Ablett, illuminated by a harsh artificial light, was understandably pressed on his personal history-making feat. “I am just pleased for everyone involved,” he deflected.
Seven words that embodied a modest and gracious man who united Evertonians and Liverpudlians in one thought.
Gary Ablett was one of the good guys.