GARY Ablett's seemingly unstoppable 11th AFL season will come to a halt today in the relative obscurity of Adelaide's AAMI Stadium. That disappointing fact alone is reason enough to reflect on just how outstanding a job he has done for his youthful football club over two predominantly losing seasons.
Even a brief conversation with the 28-year-old champion would indicate that he is a different man from the young player who earned a famously rewarding rev-up from his former teammates at Geelong back in 2006, and even from the rookie captain who left the country last September, reportedly torn internally as the Cats won another flag without him.
One day he will tell the whole story, but when The Saturday Age spoke to Ablett, it was suggested beforehand not to dwell on his regrets about leaving the Cats. He has had a gutful of that topic. What should be stressed now, is that joining Gold Coast has not only made him wealthier, but also elevated his reputation, given how he has improved as a captain and performed almost miraculously on a consistent basis.
While today marks his last on-field performance for the year and his decision to leave Geelong robbed the AFL finals of Ablett's talent, there is an excellent chance he will make it onto the stage at the conclusion of the Brownlow Medal count. True, the Suns cannot end the season on any more than four wins, but Ablett statistically has never done better in terms of disposals.
In his 2009 Brownlow year, Ablett's game average disposals were 33.8 but he eclipsed that this year with 34.2. He has bettered his contested-possession average (14.9 a game) once - last season with 15.1 - and he has also kicked 24 goals this year.
Coach Guy McKenna's plan next season is to take some of the pressure off Ablett and allow him to spend more time up forward in the belief that he has not denied his young midfield teammates this season with his massive tally of possessions, but, rather, empowered them.
In 12 of Ablett's 19 games, he has amassed at least 30 disposals. In seven he has eclipsed 40 disposals, including his controversial career-high 53 against Collingwood at the start of June.
''I thought that was pretty unusual,'' said Ablett, of criticism that he was holding back young Suns players by his dominance. ''I'm not sure what people want me to do, but sometimes it was like, I was damned if I did, or if I didn't.
''It's not about the number of possessions, it's about trying to win and I'm never going to stop that. Sometimes footy can be over-analysed.''
While McKenna conceded at the time that 50 Ablett disposals was not ideal because it meant another young teammate was not getting the ball, the club's football boss, Marcus Ashcroft, summed up the predicament thus: ''Our view is that if Gary can have 50 possessions, then that's good for us because he's such an elite ball user.
''Those 50 possessions means he'll hit the target 48 times. There's a huge expectation on him to lead and carry the side and he just keeps living up to that and more.''
Ablett said he had worked to improve his captaincy qualities beyond on-field leadership, forcing himself to become more vocal and direct at team meetings and scrutinising his own mistakes. He said that year one at the Suns had proved overwhelming at times in terms of the captaincy, even though he ended his year as club champion and with his reputation enhanced.
The departing Brett Kirk's part-time role with Gold Coast - he spent a day each week with the Suns administration and a day with the players and leadership group - was one key factor in Ablett's development this season although the Suns' coaches insist the example he has set in terms of training and recovery has not wavered from day one.
Even though he turned his over-exuberant remonstration with young teammate Rory Thompson during the Suns' loss to Port Adelaide into a Twitter joke, Ablett recalled the criticism he received over the incident as ''ridiculous''.
It was no different, he said, to what he had endured as a young player when his body language or his efforts were poor. ''I'm going to keep the pressure on all our young players - everyone - as long as I'm playing and I'd expect them to do the same to me,'' Ablett said.
Last year, Ablett shared a house with Dean Robinson on the Gold Coast - the now-notorious ''Weapon'', whose high-performance program at Essendon this season has failed, leaving the man himself under pressure to keep his job and Essendon with a plethora of soft-tissue injuries.
Robinson's move back to Melbourne - some of his philosophies and work practices did not suit the Suns' youthful list - coincided with Ablett buying a house not far from Carrara, which he shares with a mate and, for extended periods this year, his sister.
His closest friends among the team include the older trio of Nathan Bock, Karmichael Hunt and Michael Rischitelli. Losing 21 games in succession was a terrible experience for Ablett, but the club at the very least can now boast two home-ground wins in succession.
The captain has been one of the key drivers in the club's decision to increase its football department next year, with Gold Coast actively searching for an extra line coach and another full-time development coach.
The team heads to its second post-season high-altitude camp in Arizona at the end of October.
It is a loss for football fans that Ablett will not play finals this season and potentially never again, although he does not believe that.
This columnist still believes he should have stayed at Geelong - for the sake of romance, as much as anything - but it cannot be denied after two outstanding seasons that the once-unlikely skipper has more than earned his famous pay packet and enhanced his reputation, just like his old football club. In AFL terms, romance's loss has been a gain for progress.