Why Ablett has only good memories of Wembley

Guy Hodgson meets the Merseysider (left) who, after both winning and losing for Liverpool in football's showpiece, crossed Stanley Park and is now a key figure in the Everton defence
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The Independent Online
Memory is a strange thing. When a footballer wins an important match he cherishes every detail. Each incident is wrapped like a precious belonging and stored for future loving scrutiny. Lose and even the big moments are discarded like bits of waste paper.

Gary Ablett can testify to that. On Saturday he will play for Everton against Manchester United in the FA Cup final knowing that his future recollection will be dictated by the result. The two finals he has played in, for example, loom little and large in the grey cells.

"I can barely remember losing to Wimbledon," the 29-year-old Merseysider said of his first Wembley appearance for Liverpool in 1988. "Lawrie Sanchez scoring and John Aldridge missing a penalty but apart from that hardly anything." Ask him about the following year, however, when Liverpool defeated Everton 3-2, and suddenly his mind becomes a perfect record.

"I can still see all the little things," he said with a smile. "Like when Stuart McCall scored an equaliser in the last minute of normal time, Steve Nicol tried to kick him when he was running back celebrating. Look at the video, you'll see it."

By rights Ablett should have a good memory for few players, even those on the United side, can surpass his collection of honours. Two championships, one FA Cup winners' medal, he has quietly accumulated prizes while going virtually unnoticed. On Saturday, for example, he will have a walk-on part while Duncan Ferguson performs the leading role and yet he will be becoming the first man to play for both Everton and Liverpool in the final.

"The only record that counts, is winning on Saturday," the 6ft former England Under-21 player said, dismissing his own claim to prominence. Then warming to the subject, he added: "It would be much nicer to be the first player to win the Cup with Everton and Liverpool."

Even this season Ablett, who was transferred across Stanley Park for £750,000 in January 1992, appeared to be overlooked to the point of being forgotten. A rib injury kept him out of Everton's early games and, as David Unsworth progressed to take his centre-back position, his prospects became even dimmer when David Burrows, a former colleague at Anfield, was bought for his alternative role at left-back.

It was not until February he regained his first-team place, displacing Burrows (now transferred to Coventry) and became part of a remarkable Everton resurgence that saw them lose only three of their last 19 matches. With the team's renaissance has come his own although he admits the sub-plot to his Wembley appearance will be a performance good enough to earn him a new contract.

"We haven't lost in nine matches now," he said. "We conceded goals against Chelsea in a 3-3 draw but two of those were soft. I don't think anyone has come at us and caused us many problems. We've been solid when things have mattered.

"The attack and midfield have been chopped and changed but the defence has remained much the same. I prefer to be at centre-half because that's where I got most of my recognition but I'm happy enough at left-back. To to be in the Cup final you'd play in any position."

He was encouraged to form a left-sided partnership with Andy Hinchcliffe that has worked better on the pitch than it seemed on paper by Joe Royle. He recognised that the tall, angular Ablett would bring defensive orthodoxy to a flank too often exposed in Mike Walker's time as manager. Dependable, unflustered, he became a key element in the climb to safety.

"He's Everton through and through," Ablett said of the manager who was appointed last November and who has guided Everton away from relegation and into the Cup final. "He's played for the club, he knows what the club means in the city and the job couldn't have gone to a better man. As soon as he arrived he created a better atmosphere. All the lads want to play for him."

As for the final, Ablett concedes his team are not expected to win even if Duncan Ferguson - "a very important player for us" - recovers from a hernia operation.

"We've gone into nearly every Cup-tie as underdogs so that suits us," he said. "You look at United and they are stacked with strength everywhere. They don't have weaknesses in any position. It's up to us to surprise everyone."

Provide a performance to remember, in other words.

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