His smile was like that of the Cat that got the cream.
He didn’t – his Geelong side falling short in four Grand Finals between 1989 and 1995 – but it is with that cheeky grin that Paul Couch will always be remembered.
Couch died on Saturday aged 51, the result of a suspected heart attack while cycling with friends near Apollo Bay.
Part of a brilliant Cats midfield that included Garry Hocking and Mark Bairstow, the sight of Couch streaming through the middle of Kardinia Park or the MCG was a staple of his 259-game career, spanning 1985 until 1997.
Not blessed with blistering speed, Couch could run all day and his left foot was used with precision to feed the likes of Barry Stoneham, Billy Brownless and Gary Ablett.
An affable country boy from Warrnambool, Couch was zoned to Fitzroy, but after the Lions failed to keep a meeting with his parents, he had to wait another two years before Geelong picked him up as a 20-year-old.
He supplemented his football career with a job as a garbage collector – purely to keep himself in tip-top condition.
“It was just to get fit,” he said in a colourful interview on Open Mike in 2014.
“I’d train on a Wednesday night, be really sore the next morning.
“The bloke, it was a Russian who was driving, and if I was slow – he didn’t like that.
“So he’d go faster in front of you so you’d have to catch up.
“After half an hour I’d really loosen up and get going.
“I used to run eight or 10km on a Friday and I’d think: if I can run eight or 10km on a Friday, how are they going to stop me on a Saturday?”
Very few could stop Couch during his pomp, and in 1989 he won the VFL’s highest individual honour when he took home the Brownlow Medal – winning by two votes from Hawthorn’s John Platten.
Four days later, Couch would suffer heartbreak in the Grand Final when his Cats went down to the Hawks by just six points.
He would endure defeat on Grand Final day three more times, losing to West Coast in 1992 and 1994 then Carlton in 1995.
Carlton were clearly the best side of 1995, but after three previous disappointments on footy’s biggest stage, Couch was not for lying down.
“I was a bit angry at the 10-minute mark of the first quarter, they were shredding us to pieces,” he said.
“I’d lost three grand finals and it was looking pretty ordinary.
“I came in at half-time and I was pretty steamed up.
“Paul Armstrong was the footy manager at the time … I grabbed him by the throat.
“I said ‘look, I don’t know what you’re doing up there’. I said ‘we need to man up … their kick-outs, we can’t touch it’.”
Geelong improved, but Carlton was still too good – winning by 61 points.
Couch was a consistent performer at the business end of the season, playing 18 finals and averaging 23.56 disposals.
As well as his Brownlow Medal, Couch was a three-time Cats best and fairest, was named in their team of the century and represented Victoria five times.
Tributes have flowed from across the AFL for the beloved centre man, from teammates and opponents.
His coach in the first three of his Grand Finals, Malcolm Blight, said Couch, along with Hocking and Bairstow, was integral.
“He got us into those Grand Finals, we were there because of them,” Blight told Fox Footy.
“Of course, that lack of pace didn’t really hinder him, he found time and space in the way he moved with that trusty left foot of his and of course the number seven on his back.
“He had a great sense of humour, nearly always had that smile on his face.”
League CEO Gillon McLachlan described him as “a bubbly, infectious figure”.
“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,” he said.
“He was a consistent State of Origin representative and among the very best midfielders in the game his time, as evidenced by his stellar record.
“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 CEO Brian Cook also paid tribute to Couch’s infectious personality.
“Paul Couch was an icon of the Geelong Football Club and a friend to all who knew him,” Cook said.
“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. He will be deeply missed by all that knew him.”
A photo posted by Billy Brownless (@billybrownless) on
The Brownlow medalists of the 80s always sit together on Brownlow night , won’t be the same without good mate Paul Couch RIP no 7 — Dipper (@dipperinc) March 5, 2016
We are deeply saddened by the passing of Brownlow medallist, Paul Couch. A true gentleman who will be missed. pic.twitter.com/j5tisqcz5R
— Geelong Cats (@GeelongCats) March 5, 2016
So sad to hear of Paul Couch’s passing. Thoughts are with all of his family. Loved watching Couchy play as a kid! — Cameron Ling (@CameronLing) March 5, 2016