AS the AFL community mourned the death of feted Geelong footballer Paul Couch, the south-west remembered him as one of their own.
The region’s only Brownlow medallist of the modern era, Mr Couch was a friend and inspiration to many in the south-west.
Born in Warrnambool in 1964, raised in the Nirranda area and lovingly referred to by the football media as ‘The Boy from Boggy Creek’, Mr Couch passed away after suffering a heart attack while cycling with friends on the Great Ocean Road near Apollo Bay. He was 51.
The plucky left-footer first came to many people’s attention as a 15-year-old when he joined his three brothers – Peter, Billy and Gerard – at Terang and helped them win the 1981 Hampden league grand final over reigning premiers Colac-Coragulac.
Corangamite Shire councillor Chris O’Connor was also a member of Terang’s ‘81 premiership side and remembered Mr Couch as a shy kid destined for football greatness.
“He was obviously very talented – he had silky skills for a kid that age and more courage than was healthy,” Cr O’Connor said.
“I’m sure there were many like me where I was an Essendon supporter, but I followed Paul and became an avid Geelong supporter.
“I’d often go down to the clubrooms with him, and talk to Paul and sit beside Barry Stoneham and Gary Ablett Sr with my young son. He always had time for me and my friends – he never forgot where he came from.”
Mr Couch followed two of his brothers from Terang to Warrnambool in 1983 in a move that was controversial at the time, but Cr O’Connor said the club never begrudged Paul leaving as “everyone felt Paul had a bigger future (beyond) Warrnambool”.
In 1984, Mr Couch was part of Warrnambool’s premiers and champions side, winning the best and fairest.
He returned to Warrnambool in 2014 for the premiership reunion, and former teammate Leigh McCorkell said Mr Couch still seemed like “the same old country boy”.
“He was a ripping bloke,” McCorkell said.
“The thing you remember most about him was his giggle.
“And obviously he was a very skillful footballer. He (also) had determination.”
With the then-VFL beckoning, Mr Couch was famously overlooked by Fitzroy for being too slow, but was snapped up by Geelong, beginning a career that spanned 13 seasons, 259 games and 203 goals.
He played in four losing grand finals, though the losses were not for lack of effort on the centerman’s behalf, with Mr Couch notching up over 20 possessions in each grand final and named in Geelong’s best players in three of the games, including the famed 1989 showdown with Hawthorn, regarded as one of the greatest grand finals ever played.
He won the Brownlow Medal in 1989, was named Geelong’s best and fairest three times, was a two-time All Australian, represented Victoria five times, and was named in the Cats’ team of the century.
After retiring from football, he had a short-lived foray into the political arena, standing for the Nationals in the state seat of Polwarth.
Geelong players wore black arm bands in their thumping win over Essendon in a pre-season match at Shepparton on Saturday.
Geelong assistant coach James Rahilly, who also played in the Hampden league before being recruited by the Cats, described Mr Couch as “a practical joker who cared deeply about Geelong”.
"He used to come in now and again," Rahilly said.
"He was just a great character, always loved to laugh and one of those guys who was a bit of a practical joker."
"But he really cared for the club, cared about what was going on, especially when we finally won that premiership (in 2007), he was there, he was as emotional as anyone."
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan extended his deepest sympathy to the family, friends and former teammates of Mr Couch.
"Paul Couch was a bubbly, infectious figure with a ready smile who was a champion of our game," Mr McLachlan said.
"His Geelong teams contested four grand finals across his career as a high-scoring and entertaining team to watch, with Couch pivotal to the regular forays deep into September.
"Off the field, he always presented with a large ready smile and was incredibly popular with all his peers. Our sincere condolences go out to his family from all the football community, which will greatly miss him."
Geelong chief executive Brian Cook paid tribute to the centreman and his glittering career, calling him “an icon of the Geelong Football Club and a friend to all who knew him”.
"With a Brownlow Medal, three best and fairests and selection in the club's team of the century, Paul's record speaks for itself.
"Paul was a critical player in returning the club to being a regular finals team and was a great big game performer.
"However it was as a fun loving person, husband and father that Paul excelled.
"We pass on our deepest condolences to Paul's family and friends at this very sad time.
"Paul remained close to many at the club and to his teammates from the 1980s and 1990s. He will be deeply missed by all that knew him."
Former Geelong coach Malcolm Blight said Mr Couch would be remembered as a "jovial character" and one of the best midfielders of his time.
Current Cats coach Chris Scott said "it was really hard to comprehend" the loss of Mr Couch, while Geelong great Cameron Ling took to Twitter to add he had “loved watching Couchy play as a kid”.
Ling's former teammate Cameron Mooney said Mr Couch had been a "genuine legend" of the club, while former Hawthorn full-forward Jason Dunstall said Mr Couch was a “genuinely brilliant bloke that no one would say a bad word about”.
Couch is survived his wife Geraldine and four children, as well as many relatives who still live in south-west Victoria. His son Tom played three senior matches for Melbourne but was delisted in 2013.