New Year's Day has always been regarded as the time for new beginnings, the time to cast away the bad memories of what had gone before and a time to embark on a fresh path.

But the first day of 2017 was tinged with sadness for much of the football fraternity, not least Chester FC boss Jon McCarthy.

It marked five years since former Liverpool and Everton defender Gary Ablett lost his battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, at the age of just 46.

Ablett, the only player to win the FA Cup with both Merseyside clubs, having won it with the Reds in 1989 and the Toffees in 1995, had long been lauded as one of the nice guys of the game, a player who commanded respect and admiration in equal measure.

It's 19 years since Ablett first encountered the current Chester boss, who had just signed for Birmingham City in 1997, with the two embarking on a lasting friendship that would see McCarthy being given the honour of being godfather to Ablett's son, Jack.

And it all began at a service station just off the M6.

Said McCarthy: "We were thrown together. I had signed from Port Vale and it's probably three of four games into the season and Trevor Francis (then Birmingham City manager) has said to me to be at Sandbach Services for this time and a couple of lads would be there to pick me up.

"I genuinely didn't know who it was, and bearing in mind I had been playing non-league, then at York for four years, then Port Vale and I had just got this big move to Birmingham, Steve Bruce rolls up in a car. He'd just come from Manchester United and he is my car school! Gary Ablett was sitting in the passenger seat with a copy of the Daily Express in his hand. He used to love that '10 to tackle' quiz they had in there. That pretty much set it up.

In pictures: Jon McCarthy's playing career

"They were two genuine characters. I do remember conversations about them winning championship medals and FA Cup winners medals and I remember sitting in the back thinking do I dare mention my Anglo-Italian runners-up medal? Dare I bring that in? I need not have worried, though.

"They looked after me and it was a case of the sandwich run after training. Every trip was punctuated with this '10 to tackle' and Gary used to be quiz master and would score me and Steve. He used to take it pretty seriously. He would always win. He just loved sport and he knew everything about everything."

McCarthy and Ablett would remain at Birmingham for two seasons together until a knee injury brought an end to the Liverpool-born defender's career at St Andrews.

A couple of short spells with Blackpool and American side Long Island Rough Riders followed but Ablett had already set his sights on going down the coaching path, a decision that would prove a shrewd move for someone who, like McCarthy, was a student of the game.

He spent time coaching the under-17s at Everton before switching across Merseyside once more to take over as reserve team manager at Anfield, replacing Spaniard Paco Herrera.

He would prove a success in his new role, winning the Premier Reserve League in 2008, earning his Uefa Pro Licence that same year.

Everton's Daniel Amokachi (front) leads the Everton celebrations as teammates Gary Ablett, Barry Horne, Matt Jackson, Paul Rideout and Graham Stuart celebrate with the FA Cup in 1995

"Gary picked up a nasty knee injury at Birmingham and I was involved in the game, away at Crystal Palace," said McCarthy.

"That was the time when he went into the coaching side of things.

"I remember when I was teaching at the college and I rang him, and we hadn't spoke for a while. As I rang him he was as animated and excited as I've ever known. I'd just rang him after he'd come out of a meeting with Rafa Benitez for the reserve team manager role at Liverpool. It was weird how I had just rang him at that time and it was just like it had always been.

"He knew the game so well and it was a measure of how good he was that he beat off some serious competition to land the role. He was so excited.

"I get the poignancy and sadness, and the hurt felt by his family is something I can't imagine, but I always raise a smile whenever I think of him.

"It's not just the loss of a great bloke, it's the loss of what he could have been and what he could have done coaching wise.

"To progress the way he was, he was clearly going to excel."

Gary Ablett in his Liverpool days

After leaving Liverpool in 2009, Ablett, whose son Fraser had a spell in Chester City's youth team in the late 2000s, moved into management with Stockport County but left the cash-strapped Hatters in 2010.

He moved back into coaching shortly after, linking up with Roy Keane at Ipswich Town. But, just weeks into his new role and the club going through their pre-season preparations, Ablett was taken ill on the training ground and rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with the illness that would claim his life much too soon, on January 1, 2012.

"I went to the funeral and just kept thinking that this shouldn't have happened, not to Gary, he was so fit and full of life," said McCarthy.

"The turnout at his funeral showed just how well thought of he was, and you are like passing ships in football, but Gary made a mark. Both sides of Merseyside came out to honour him.

"He had a real impact on people and I'm sure there will be plenty of people who want to speak about Gary. But I really miss him, he was a special person and a great friend."