No. 55: Austin McCrabb and Mark Neeld

With no players since 1980 having represented the Cats in Number 54, we skip to two Geelong favourites who wore the Number 55.

Number 55 – Austin McCrabb and Mark Neeld

Colac farmer Austin McCrabb was a cult figure with Geelong supporters who stepped out in the number 55 jumper for the final two home and away matches of 1987.  He moved to number 38 in 1988, the number he wore for the remainder of his senior career.  In 1987, number 38 was taken by Peter Zychla, always the final name in an alphabetical list of AFL footballers, who played for the seniors in the early- to mid-1980s.

McCrabb and Sean Denham made their first senior appearances together in round 21, 1987 against the powerful Sydney Swans side at the SCG.  This was a memorable game for a number of reasons.  Primarily, it was memorable because the Cats, clinging onto a hotly contested 5thspot on the ladder, went in as underdogs, trailed by 27 points at the last change and steamrolled the Swans in the final stanza to win by 8 points.  Bruce “the Pres” Lindner kicked a mammoth torpedo goal from the centre square in the last quarter to help the Cats to win.  I happened to be at the game, which was the first VFL/AFL match I attended interstate, and the gargantuan frame of John Ironmonger filled a seat or two in the row in front of us!

McCrabb played for the Fitzroy Under 19s in 1983-1984 before returning to Colac in 1985.  A broken arm put paid to his 1985 season.  After plying his trade in the Reserves and playing some early matches at senior level, Gary Ablett spotted him at training one night and, in his inimitable style, asked Tim Darcy “Who is this bloke?”  McCrabb was a character at the club and anecdotes about him abound, some of which are covered in Geoff Davie’s humorous book Cats on the Prowl.  McCrabb had a liking for long bicycle rides, including one memorable journey from Colac to Perth to Darwin.  On this trek, McCrabb hung a spare tyre around his neck and suffered a puncture approximately 500 km from Perth.  At that moment, he realised that the spare was the wrong size.  Undaunted by this misfortune, McCrabb left his bike behind a tree and hitchhiked to the nearest town.  The town’s bike shop did not have his tyre size, so McCrabb caught a tour bus back to the area, asking the driver to stop because “I think this is my tree”.  McCrabb alighted the bus and repaired his tyre, something he could have done in the first place!

McCrabb was an old-fashioned footballer who played mainly as a dour defender, with some stints in the midfield or on the forward line.  He played 36 games for the Cats from 1987 to 1991.  His career highlight was against Carlton in round 5, 1991 where he played against key forward Jon Dorotich at Kardinia Park.  McCrabb kept Dorotich goalless and restricted his influence on the game greatly, as well as providing some drive from half-back.  McCrabb was awarded with three Brownlow Votes for this game, which prompted hearty laughs from Paul Couch and a few others at the Geelong table at the 1991 Brownlow count.  McCrabb’s undoubted lowlight came in Geelong’s inglorious loss to Hawthorn in round 14, 1990 at Waverley Park.  McCrabb broke a team rule in the first term and kicked across goal, which led to a Hawthorn major and subsequent avalanche.  Coach Malcolm Blight was incensed with McCrabb’s error and excluded him from the quarter-time huddle.  Poor old Austin was left standing on his own in the middle of VFL Park, while Blight gave his charges one of his famous sprays and fired off long distance bakes to the banished McCrabb.

After finishing his time at Geelong in 1991, McCrabb was drafted by Hawthorn where he added 9 games in the number 38 guernsey, including a homecoming at Kardinia Park in round 16 when the Hawks (yet again in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s) proved too strong for the Cats.

McCrabb, who boasted a superb moustache at some stages during his time at Geelong, was a much loved clubman by teammates and supporters alike.  At a gathering of past Geelong players in 2009 to celebrate their time under Blight, McCrabb was given a standing ovation by his former colleagues when he approached the lectern to deliver a speech of dry wit and great humour.

A Geelong supporter may readily associate the number 22 with Mark Neeld, although it’s worth noting that Neeld started out at senior level in the number 55 jumper.

A mid-sized utility, who played roles in both defence and attack, Neeld was another St Joseph’s recruit who worked his way up through the Geelong Under 19s and Reserves.  He wore 55 on his debut against North Melbourne at Kardinia Park in round 17, 1990, aged 19, and continued in that guernsey in all six games of his debut season, which resulted in only one Geelong win.  After being allocated the number 22 for the 1991 season, Neeld was a senior regular in 1991, playing in 21 matches in Geelong’s solid season that yielded a 3rd place finish.  Neeld impressed in Geelong’s Second Semi-Final loss to Hawthorn, contributing three goals and providing a lively option up forward.  Neeld was sometimes used as a key defender, including a pre-season cup match against West Coast in 1992 at Waverley Park which resulted in Peter Sumich punching Neeld in the head, knocking him out cold.  Neeld found the going more difficult in 1992 and 1993 and he was a fringe player in those seasons, managing 21 games across the two seasons.  After 48 matches for Geelong, Neeld was traded to Richmond following the 1993 season, where he added 26 games in the number 19 from 1994 to 1996.

Although he was not a star player, Neeld managed to play a reasonable number of games for the Cats while they were a strong side at stages in the early 1990s.  He showed versatility, although he often seemed hurried in his disposal and decision making.

After he finished his university studies, Neeld combined top flight football with his work as a teacher.  After his AFL career ended, Neeld became the coach of Ocean Grove in the Bellarine Football League, piloting the club to four successive flags from 2000 to 2003.  Neeld then worked as the senior coach of the Western Jets in the TAC Cup for three seasons.  He continued his progress through the coaching ranks, serving as Collingwood’s defensive coach in 2008-2009 and being in charge of the team’s midfield in 2010-2011.  In the week leading up to the 2011 Preliminary Finals, Neeld was appointed coach of Melbourne.  Although it is early days in his time at the Demons, Neeld has been an eloquent communicator and straight shooter during difficult times.

Players from other clubs to wear the numbers 54 and 55

Fitzroy –  Durable veteran John Blakey (359 games over 18 seasons) wore 54 in season 1985.

Gold Coast – After an absence from AFL ranks of nearly four years, Nathan Ablett made his long-awaited return in 2011 with the Suns in the number 55.

Hawthorn – Premiership midfielder Peter Schwab sported 54 in 1980. Glenn Nugent wore 55 in 1990 before taking over 21 in 1991.

Melbourne – 250 game veteran and GWS recruit James McDonald began with the Demons in number 54 in 1997.  Small forward Brent Heaver wore 54 in 1990, his first season at Melbourne, including kicking five goals on debut against Carlton.

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