Former Geelong skipper DAMIAN BOURKE (pictured below) writes about his former teammate and housemate Paul Couch, one of the game’s greats who was taken from us too soon at the age of 51.
Back in 1985 the Geelong Football Club was undergoing a transition. We had a bunch of young guys either coming through to the senior ranks or being recruited to Kardinia Park, which included players such as Andrew Bews, Tim Darcy, Steve Hocking and myself.
We could never have imagined what the next decade would have in stall for us.
One of the fresh faces recruited that year was to become a huge part of that memorable decade and ultimately carve out a place in the history of not only Geelong Football Club but the AFL.
That man was Paul Couch, or as he was universally known, “Couchy”.
In the early days I was fortunate to live with Couchy for a while; we shared a house in Highton that was owned by our Cats teammate, Stephen Reynoldson.
Couchy and I were 20 years old, young and naive, but it didn’t matter because our real focus was on playing AFL (or as it was known then, VFL) football. That focus became the most important thing in our lives.
It’s fair to say Couchy wasn’t the neatest housemate, but his bubbly and infectious personality made him a fun housemate; he had a habit of regularly running in to wake me with a bomb dive onto the bed in the middle of the night.
Eventually he bought his own house in the suburbs of Geelong, but he still thought like a bush boy from Boggy Creek. His house had a tree with a lot of vines growing through it, so he figured he could just set it on fire to kill the vines but keep the tree. When the fire brigade arrived on the scene he matter-of-factly told them he had the garden hose connected so why all the fuss?
Couchy might have moved to the big smoke of Geelong but he was never dazzled by the bright lights. He still shone a torch for a pretty young country girl who would one day become his wife. Geraldine was a great match for Couchy; he could continue his childish ways but she was the level-headed presence, always there maintaining a balance. We could never have guessed that one day both of our sons would follow in their dads’ footsteps and play at AFL level.
For his part, Couchy announced himself as a league footballer on a hot late summer’s day in a practice match at Anglesea. He had arrived with little fanfare, just a kid from the Warrnambool footy club (which had produced another great Geelong son in Mick Turner, who made it his mission to always looked out for Couchy).
The mail was that he was a left-footer who might be a bit slow to make the grade.
But it quickly became clear he had great skills and could get plenty of the footy, all the time with a casual appearance.
The one thing we all remember about being his teammate, though, was his distinctive laugh. Whether in game one or game 259 Couchy had this laugh which was more like a ridiculous giggle. Sometimes it could drive you nuts but mostly it broke through any circumstance to help ease the pressure.
“In amongst the pushing and shoving I could hear Couchy giggling. He thought it was hilarious.”
In one game against Collingwood in 1991 the footy was as fierce as you’d ever want to see; real old-school stuff that began with glares and stares but quickly turned into fists, bumps and tackles. A bit of push and shove started and every player seemed intense and ferocious. In amongst the pushing and shoving I could hear Couchy giggling. He thought it was hilarious. I actually suspect he was the culprit who started the whole thing with some cheeky comment or other, knowing he could laugh it off while someone like myself, Barry Stoneham or the Hocking boys would jump in when it became physical.
Early in Couchy’s career he had support and respect from some of football’s great names. During Couchy’s first season, our then coach was the late great Tommy Hafey, and in one of his famous fiery pre-match speeches he singled out the 20-year-old and said: “Make no mistake boys, he’s tough. He’s tough, boys, tough as goats’ knees”. Couchy never said anything but deep down I think he was proud of that description, maybe because as a farm boy he knew exactly how tough goats’ knee really are.
Couchy was a larrikin always with a cheeky grin. It was not uncommon for him to be a co-conspirator with Bews or Mark Bairstow in playing practical jokes on teammates. There were times when whichever one of them got off the track early would rifle through other players’ lockers, find a few sets of car keys and move the cars to different corners of the car park. Stoneham was on the end of that little ploy a few times.
For a pretty laidback bloke, Couchy had swagger. His skills were on another level to most, and in 1989 he put them all on show for everyone to see. In what was regarded as an odd move he took up a job as a garbo.
He would run the early-morning route alongside the garbage truck, grabbing bins and dragging them over to the truck. His logic was that the job would help get him super fit, and it did. Back then we trained after our day jobs, and at about 6pm in the middle of winter in the freezing chill of Kardinia Park the boys would be cold and tired and sore.
Meanwhile Couchy and Mark Bairstow would be darting in and out of the group, bumping each other, throwing smart comments around, barely flustered by fatigue or the wintry conditions.
“PLAYERS — AND BLOKES — LIKE HIM DON’T COME ALONG VERY OFTEN. HE WAS A COUNTRY BOY WITH A COUNTRY ATTITUDE.”
Couchy was unstoppable that season and was a thoroughly deserving winner of the Brownlow Medal.
From that season on, though, he attracted a lot more opposition attention on the field and at times he might have two players tagging him. Couchy wasn’t fond of taggers but he dealt with them by continuing to get “the pill’’, as he called it, and racking up possessions.
He roved to me many times and I never told him this but I knew if I called out his name at a centre bounce the opposition midfielders would turn all of their attention on him — much to the delight of Garry “Buddha” Hocking, who would then be wide open to receive a tap-out. Poor old Couchy would come up to me and say: “Good move going to Buddha … they had me covered.” Sorry mate.
In those early days Couchy was likened to another champion of the game, Greg “Diesel” Williams. I got to experience playing with both of them and they were tough, fierce competitors with great footy smarts. Ironically, both had been overlooked by other clubs (Williams by Carlton, Couchy by Fitzroy) much to Geelong’s benefit.
As the Geelong team of that era became stronger, it had numerous great players who would earn All-Australian selection and many other plaudits. But it was Couch and Bairstow who were the driving force in the middle. I saw it first hand as a ruckman; I hate to admit it but those guys could make any ruckman look good.
Their outstanding partnership extended to a close friendship off the field. It was not uncommon during post-victory celebratory drinks to see the two peacocks start chesting each other or anyone close with as much ferocity and strength as they did on the field. It also was not uncommon for teammates to discreetly call their respective wives and suggest maybe they should come and collect their caring and devoted husband.
In those days Geelong players used to take a bus together when we played away. The MCG was always a favourite, not only because we enjoyed playing on the hallowed ground but also because of the hot food vans in the car park afterwards. The usual post-game routine involved Couchy and Barstow, sitting on the team bus, pouring over the stats sheets while they scoffed a bag of hot jam doughnuts.
One of our former teammates, Damien Christensen, once said he loved playing for Geelong because it meant he got to watch Gary Ablett play at the same time.
Well, I can say I was privileged to play for the Cats because I got to see Couchy up close. Players — and blokes — like him don’t come along very often. He was a country boy with a country attitude. He enjoyed the game, knew it was a game but played it hard.
Tough as goats’ knees.
After the final siren he enjoyed having a beer to celebrate or commiserate.
Football was a big part of his life but so was family. Geraldine has been there for the long journey and you could never be in doubt about his love for her. Tom, Jessie, Joe and Molly were his greatest pride.
Couchy loved his family from back home, too. Every social opportunity he could he brought along his brothers Billy, Peter and Gerard and at times his dad as well. Like Couchy, they all knew how to enjoy life.
Couchy, you will be missed. But I hope you look down upon your family and your football family with pride knowing that your spirit is here and lives on.