Vale the Geelong Flyer, 'fair dinkum unbelievable'
TO PUT Geelong in the mood for the 1963 VFL grand final, coach Bob Davis brought in piano accordionist and television clown Happy Hammond. Hammond led the players down the race and through the banner. Geelong won that premiership, beating Hawthorn by a handsome margin. For the coach, it complemented the flags he won in 1951 and 1952 as the Geelong Flyer, who was named for the express train and played like one.
It would be 44 years before the Cats won another, but always, something of that blithe Davis spirit animated the club, setting it philosophically as it is physically, a little apart from the the rest. It still does.
John ''Sam'' Newman, who Davis plucked out of Geelong Grammar to play for Geelong in 1964, said yesterday: ''He had some very strict principles about how sport should be played. He didn't like snide football. He liked to play it hard, but play it fair.'' Of the many tributes paid to Davis yesterday, this was the most telling.
Mr Geelong: Bob Davis, scene-stealer extraordinaire at the Cats' premiership cup presentation in 2009. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Oddly enough, Davis lost his job in 1965, and thereafter held no official position at Kardinia Park. But, simply, he personified Geelong, and it took its cues from him. ''He was just so much a part of Geelong,'' Premier Ted Baillieu said yesterday. Baillieu is a Cats' fan, as is former Premier Steve Bracks. Geelong's support - in the image of their club - is smaller than some, but select. This is a Davis legacy.
Geelong put a premium on style. Eschewing the Machiavellian machinations of the draft, they are the only club in the modern era not to finish in the bottom four. From Polly Farmer, to Newman, to the Abletts and now Joel Selwood, the lineage was aristocratic.
Malcolm Blight's teams were heroically unsuccessful, but irresistible to watch. At last under Mark Thompson, it all came together. When the Cats augmented their 2007 premiership with another in 2009, a beaming Davis presented Tom Harley with the cup, but only after a good, long hold of it himself. It was the last public image of Davis. In it, his joie de vivre shines.
Geelong legend Bob Davis
Bob Davis with Jack Dyer, Lou Richards and chimpanzees on the set of League Teams.
In Melbourne, Davis was family. With Lou Richards and the late Jack Dyer, he pioneered the cult of the football television entertainer in two forums, as the ''three wise monkeys'' in League Teams on Thursday night and on World of Sport on Sunday morning. Both shows were calculatedly maladroit, right for Melbourne and for the football zeitgeist, and were much-loved. ''Fair dinkum unbelievable,'' Davis, the straight man, would intone. It has passed into the game's lingo, and was the hashtag linking hundreds of Twitter tributes yesterday.
Davis's personality worked on television as it did in his football endeavours: he took the game seriously, but not himself. He was on television, on and off, from his retirement as a player in 1959 until 2001. ''Perhaps his greatest contribution of all,'' said AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou, ''was to take our game into lounge rooms every weekend.''
That is debatable. It is natural that his post-playing life usurped his football exploits in public consciousness, but it should not be allowed to obliterate them (the same is true of Newman). From Ballarat, the son of a barber and SP bookie, he barracked for South Melbourne, but was rejected by the Swans - so is history incidentally shaped - and alighted on Geelong in 1948, at the start of a thrilling era.
In 10 years, he played 189 games, won two flags and a best-and-fairest, played in an unbeaten streak of 26 games - still a record - and captained the club. He played regularly for the state, and in his last season, 1958, was Victorian and all-Australian captain. In 1996, he was an inaugural inductee into the AFL Hall of Fame.
At 183 centimetres and 95 kilograms, he was big and burly for his time, but also electrically fast. He made his name as a half-forward flanker, but played everywhere. ''Run-on football is not something that was discovered in the '70s,'' he said once. ''I played it in '57-'58. I had the pace to do it.''
In the absence of YouTube, one bold image endures: Davis in long sleeves, legs splayed fore and after, like an Olympic sprinter, but with a football under his arm, goal-bound.
As a coach, he prized flair over intricacy. ''Barassi called me the last of the non-thinking coaches,'' he said. ''I'd like to think he left out 'successful'.'' But, deliberately, humour masked method. He believed in the power of recruiting; his biggest coup was the inestimable Farmer, his next Newman.
Newman called Davis a ''loose cannon and bon vivant''. The Geelong Flyer's record on the road trip to Melbourne was 27½ minutes. Unsurprisingly, he lost his licence three times.
Priorities were different then. But he grew up. At 50, he moved with his family to England for a year to sell cars and see if he could manage without being a football and television identity. He could; he almost stayed.
Just as Davis embodied Geelong, so a part of the club has died.
The modern players knew him only as an old man, but coach Chris Scott said they were feeling this moment keenly yesterday. Unwittingly, they had already honoured him deeply. As Davis's last siren sounded, his beloved Cats were unbeaten, having just lowered Collingwood's colours. Yesterday, not even the hardest-nosed Magpies begrudged them.