They were both on the rise in their respective fields when their paths crossed in the late summer of 1967.
Gough Whitlam, clad in a Collingwood guernsey, was pressing the flesh of all and sundry at the Victoria Park Social Club, as cameras whirred around him.
And when an embarrassed 15 year-old was pushed forward by Wangaratta’s Country Week cricket manager, Clem Fisher, the dialogue went something like this…..”Now, Mr.Whitlam, I’d like to introduce you to our up-and-coming fast bowler, young Geoffrey Welch”…….
The lad never aspired to politics. In fact his chance meeting with the towering figure who was to become Australia’s 21st Prime Minister was the closest he came to mingling with political royalty.
Rather, he went down the pathway of developing a stellar career in Education and Sport. Over a period of almost 50 years, he was to become renowned as a natural leader, an entertaining speaker, a clear-thinker and a diplomat. Ideal attributes indeed, that would have equipped him well for public life – had he not preferred to shy away from the limelight.
As a kid, Geoff Welch was a top all-round sportsman, who achieved distinction as an athlete and represented the state in under-age baseball.
He chose to focus, instead, on footy and cricket and took a wicket with his first ball at Melbourne Country Week at, yes , the age of 15. Two years later he was ‘standing’ the Ovens and Murray’s best full forwards in his role as the Wangaratta Rovers’ dour, close-checking full back.
Not blessed with truckloads of footy ability, he earned the respect of opponents by playing the game hard.
Statistics are not the only measure of a player’s contribution and Geoff was one of those blokes who were vital to the fabric of the side – on and off the field. He helped to ‘create the culture’, as they say.
He was a member of the Rovers’ 1971 and ’72 premiership sides, despite a ‘dicky’ knee that was already giving him trouble.
Eventually, after 100-odd senior games, he bowed to the inevitable and handed over his number 17 guernsey, opting to help out his brother John, who was coaching Tarrawingee.
On one fateful day, at Beechworth’s Baarmutha Park, he reckoned his life passed before him when he and a star Bomber, and ‘boarder’ at the local Gaol, Frankie Marinucci, became involved in a fierce embrace. Those close to the confrontation in the centre of the ground swear they saw Geoff’s eyes rolling, as muscly Marinucci threatened to…..”knock your f…… head off, Golliwog”.
He survived, but later that season his knee finally ‘caved in’ later and he returned to the Hawks’ Nest, where he joined the Board and took on the role of coaching in the lower grades. In a 12-year stint as a coach he guided the Club to seven flags – five with the Reserves and two as the Thirds mentor.
His was a mixture of firmness and friendly guidance and it worked a treat. Players swore by ‘The Cat’ and in another era he’d have made an ideal senior coach.
A rare example of his discipline going awry came when he consigned a young Thirds player to the bench for the first quarter of a practice match in 1982, as a penalty for arriving just minutes prior to the first bounce.
It was only after Geoff had sought an explanation at half-time that Jurgen Schonafinger apologised and told him he’d had to ride his bike in from King Valley and mis-judged the time of the journey!
As a menacingly quick left-arm bowler, Geoff created havoc right from his first season in the WDCA, as a 14 year-old. An early haul of 5/30 signalled his arrival.
He had a strong physique and, with a long, rythmic run-up, threw everything into his delivery stride. He could cause the ball to move and bounce and he was decidedly quick. And he thrived on bowling!
In his first full season of senior cricket he took 121 wickets – at one stage playing for a month non-stop at Benalla, Bendigo and Melbourne Country Weeks, WDCA and Social cricket.
A couple of years later, he ripped through the heart of the powerful Victorian batting line-up in a match at Benalla. In his first over he all but claimed the wicket of Ian Redpath with a ‘pearler’. He had Ken Eastwood caught, Bob Cowper lbw and Keith Stackpole caught on the hook, to boast the heady figures, at one stage, of 3/18.
Naturally, Geoff was coaxed to District cricket and had a season with the new ball at North Melbourne. But his heart was always back home, and he returned to spearhead United’s formidable attack and represent Wangaratta in rep cricket. And in a career highlight, he matched wits with the West Indies’ finest at the Showgrounds in 1969.
The evolution of Geoff Welch the bowler went as follows: Stage One was the lightning quick who could almost decapitate you. Then, as his knee became more troublesome, he became a slippery medium-pacer, relying on movement. With the limp becoming more pronounced, he reverted to a steady ‘stockie’ with guile and accuracy.
The gift that he never lost was his competitiveness and a streak of meanness and inner-confidence.
He took 788 WDCA wickets and was twice the Cricketer of the Year, but one of his fondest memories was of a swashbuckling, unbeaten 87 that he hammered at Beechworth. His modus operandi with the willow was not to poke around but, in a powerful United batting line-up he was rarely required.
Geoff’s service to football and cricket continued long after his playing days had expired. He coached, managed and organised representative teams. There was no-one better to keep exuberant youngsters in check. Hundreds of kids benefited from his steadying influence and sage advice.
He served a marathon 17-year tenure as the WDCA President and was handed a list of gongs as long as your arm for service to sport. Of particular fondness to him were his induction to the Wangaratta Rovers and WDCA Halls of Fame.
As to the connotation of his nickname? It stemmed back to his days as a Uni student, when he and a mate, Bruce Desmond, would return home for the holidays and do some work for a good friend, tiler Lionel Hill.
Lionel likened the sight of Geoff clambering across the tiled roofs to that of a big, black cat on the prowl.
There’s an old saying that no one’s irreplaceable in sport, but in the case of ‘The Cat’ I wish to disagree.