Steve Hocking keeps his eyes on the ball in role as AFL footy operations chief
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Steve Hocking keeps his eyes on the ball in role as AFL footy operations chief

Not long after AFL football operations manager Steve Hocking decided at the end of 1994 to retire, just one game short of the 200-game milestone, his former coach Malcolm Blight couldn't resist a jibe.

He told Hocking he was more chance of being remembered as a 199-game player than he ever would have been had he simply passed 200 games.

AFL football operations boss Steve Hocking brings an understated presence to the AFL.

AFL football operations boss Steve Hocking brings an understated presence to the AFL.

Photo: Justin McManus

Hocking was happy to laugh at Blight's pointed joke. Not only was the Cat a realist who knew it was time for someone else to take up the baton, he was also happy his 11-year career had been one of the more anonymous, long-lasting journeys at the top level.

"He was very much his own man," Blight said.

Geelong's Steve Hocking and Hawthorn's Dermott Brereton scuffle in the 1989 grand final.

Geelong's Steve Hocking and Hawthorn's Dermott Brereton scuffle in the 1989 grand final.

Photo: Stuart Hannagan
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Two losing grand finals, four times named the most determined player at the Cats, three Brownlow votes, a reputation as a role player, and the respect of former teammates who say he always had their back, satisfied the Cobram-raised footballer who had been talented enough to win the country club's seniors best-and-fairest award in 1982 before joining the VFL.

But that unknown quantity is now in charge of footy operations at the AFL, suddenly attracting headlines in a job he started soon after last season finished.

As the only person with club experience on the executive he carries a significant responsibility.

Diligent is the first word Blight uses when asked about his former charge, who used to amaze teammates with his capacity to train harder than anyone just hours after ending his day's work as a bricklayer.

Steve Hocking played 199 games for Geelong.

Steve Hocking played 199 games for Geelong.

Photo: The Age

The two-time premiership coach respected the back pocket's knowledge of the game enough that he thought he might make a good coach one day.

So he was slightly surprised and amused when Hocking wondered aloud how Blight stayed in the job for so long after coaching Newtown-Chilwell in the Geelong Football League for just two years.

Hocking didn't think coaching was for him so he began establishing a successful picture-framing business in Geelong.

That could have been it for Hocking but Brian Cook came knocking on his door soon after being appointed CEO at the Cats in 1999.

"A few people were telling me when I first arrived that Geelong needed to get a few ex-players back of good character and a lot of people said [Steve] Hocking was a beauty," Cook told The Sunday Age.

Hocking kept the Cats at arm's length before joining them part-time as chairman of selectors in 2003, about three years after Cook initially tried to entice him back to the fold.

In the next 14 years, Hocking, the administrator, found his niche in football and earned a reputation as a change agent.

In fact, Cook said this week that the 53-year-old is a rare beast who loves dealing with change.

Such an attitude can unsettle people initially but most of those who worked with him at Geelong eventually found him to be a man who engendered loyalty and trust.

Collaboration is the word Cook comes up with when asked for Hocking's defining ethos.

"He turns the difficult into the simple," Cook said.

Hocking sees such collaboration as the essential component of his new role, believing strongly that the only way to succeed is to use the expertise that surrounds him.

Cameron Ling, who led the Cats to a flag and played in three premierships with Hocking in the football department, saw such characteristics in action.

At leadership meetings Hocking's only contribution might be a well-placed question that made the players think about a problem differently. At times during the season, he would sidle up to a player and suggest it might be a good idea to sleep in the next morning and perhaps have breakfast with his partner rather than train.

Such little things added up for the players who began to respect Hocking's intuitive sense of what they needed.

That style helped the club balance itself and then negotiate the tumult in 2006, when Hocking was the man everyone trusted, to win three flags between 2007-2011.

Neil Balme, who joined the Cats as football manager in 2007, said he and Hocking complemented each other when they worked together.

"He is a forward thinker who is prepared to think outside the square [but] his first thought is for the players and the organisation rather than himself," Balme said.

"It's a loss for the Geelong footy club in some ways [but] it's a gain for footy. He's a terrific footy guy."

Hocking is a footy guy but not the stereotypical one, celebrating the drought-breaking flag without the need for a drink in his hand.

"You wouldn't have known but he was as happy and excited as everyone else," Balme said. "He just wasn't quite as stupid in the end."

Stupid is never an adjective applied to Hocking, with clubs unanimous in their praise of his approach to matters that concern them, even those who questioned the wisdom of the memo to AFLW clubs that created controversy this week.

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Despite the title and the scrutiny that comes with it, not much about what Hocking holds true will change (and those who underestimate his commitment to upholding the spirit of the game do so at their peril). He sees himself as a role player rather than someone with all the answers.

"It's not that he always initiates change. He does that sometimes but it's more when the world is changing around him really quickly, how do you accommodate that and shape your own strategies and your own people around that," Cook said.

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