Once upon a time, Gary Ablett was the most revered AFL player in the land. Now, he’s a reclusive and slightly tragic figure who, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, is sought here and there but only fleetingly seen in public.

An increasingly tormented soul, Ablett’s post-career nadir came in February 2000 when the woman with whom he had shared a day-long drug and alcohol bender, Alisha Horan, was found dead in a hotel room in Melbourne. Horan was 20; Ablett 38.

At the inquest into Ms Horan’s death, the coroner Noreen Toohey found that she had died from a combination of heroin, ecstasy and amphetamines. Ms Toohey criticised Ablett for failing to take seriously his role as a high-profile sportsman and restated submissions by a barrister for Ms Horan’s family that he had failed to “protect their young daughter when she was in trouble”.

Ablett was cleared of any charges, although he was later fined $1500 for using and possessing heroin and ecstasy.

Ablett refused on legal advice to answer police questions after Ms Horan’s death. At the inquest, he declined to respond to most questions on the grounds he might incriminate himself. To this day, Ms Horan’s father, Alan, has remained a staunch critic of Ablett’s behaviour and his lack of contrition. “Just because someone plays football it doesn’t make them God,” he once said of Ablett.

This is the background then to the story in today’s Herald Sun, and other News Ltd publications, in which Ablett tells “for the first time” his remorse over Ms Horan’s death and reveals his constant battle with depression. (The article was a forerunner for the December release of a book, Gary Ablett, Icons of Australian Sport – a series that has already featured Leigh Matthews and the late Peter Brock.)

The Herald Sun story was a most unusual one. It consisted of 49 paragraphs, 43 of which were Ablett quotes. Only six belonged to the journalist, Jon Anderson.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a giant free kick for Ablett who was allowed to give an unchallenged view of events – eight years on. There was no apparent attempt to get in touch with Alan Horan or anyone else who might have offered a counter-view. In short, it was a puff piece. And an unedifying one, at that.

Ablett reveals how his depression led him to experiment with drugs, chiefly cocaine and ecstasy. He admits he felt ashamed and humiliated over the circumstances that led to Ms Horan’s death. He stressed how he didn’t want to profit from Ms Horan’s death in the book. He bemoans the tall poppy syndrome in Australia. He is disappointed in how “self-righteous and judgmental” people can be. And so on.

As I said, a rather tragic and pathetic figure.