Alan Hansen: Ablett was right up there with the best I ever played with
On December 7, I sent a text to Gary Ablett to arrange a meeting for a cup of tea. "I'm just off to the doctors, Alan," he replied. "We'll meet in the new year. Hope you and your family have a happy Christmas."
I was looking forward to seeing Gary again this month, hoping and believing he was recovering from his horrific illness. So the news I received yesterday of his death was a huge shock.
Gary Ablett was one of the finest players to have played for Liverpool Football Club, and probably one of the most under-appreciated.
During all the years I played alongside him, the perception of his talent did not always correspond to how good he really was.
As a centre-half he was up there with the best I worked with. Players such as Mark Lawrenson, Phil Thompson and Gary Gillespie are rightly lauded, but Gary deserves his place alongside those illustrious names and I consider his premature sale to Everton in 1991 as one of the biggest transfer mistakes Liverpool have ever made.
At the time he broke into the side, when we won the Double in 1986, you had to be a special talent to play for Liverpool. There were not so many local boys emerging through the ranks at that time, but he instantly settled in and I expected that he would be part of the club for most of his career.
It was an era when we were packed with big players with huge personalities.
Into the dressing-room walked this quiet, unassuming 21-year-old with a dry sense of humour. The initiation can be tough for a young player, but in many ways 'Abbo' was given an easier ride from the lads compared with some of the others because of how liked he was and how comfortable everyone felt in his presence.
The way to become accepted in that dressing-room was to perform, and Gary did that.
During the longest spell I played alongside him at centre-half, in the 1988/89 season, he made it easy. He made playing alongside him easy because he was so good and deservedly became a permanent fixture in what was a great Liverpool team.
When asked how a match had gone, the phrase "Abbo played well again" became almost obligatory. He really was a class act, both on and off the park.
After I retired, Liverpool decided to sell him and I was shocked. It was a huge error, which was proved by how well he performed for Everton. That he could make such a move without any sense of aggravation from either set of fans, and continue to be held in such a high regard, underlined his likeable nature.
It came as no surprise to me that later he continued to excel as a coach as much as he had as a player.
Gary was always a most diligent kind of guy, always looking to learn, absorb new ideas and information and conduct himself in a way that made it easy to engage with him. He was a thorough football man, blessed with a great intelligence which would have led to a prolonged coaching career.
When I learnt of his illness, I went to visit him, sitting for an hour or so discussing the old times, sharing stories of previous games, players and our experiences.
Like all his former team-mates and friends, it was the kind of afternoon we wanted to enjoy again.
We had organised a reunion of the old Liverpool team from the late '80s before Christmas, and everyone was asking how Gary was. None of us believed there was anything untoward and we all hoped we'd be enjoying his company again soon.
Yesterday, I looked again at the final text I received from him in December and it saddens me deeply to know how much his condition deteriorated over the last few weeks.
The city of Liverpool has lost one of the best and most popular players it has ever produced, and all of us who had the pleasure to know and work with Gary Ablett will miss him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)