Phil Gould often makes me think of that famous (mis)quote from Mark Twain about dads.
Given the great American writer didn’t actually pen it, I’ll just give the version with which I’m most familiar.
When I was seven, I thought my father knew everything.
When I was 14, my father was the most ignorant man I knew.
When I was 21, I was amazed at how much my father had learnt in seven years.
My first introduction to Gould was as NSW coach in the early ’90s when the Blues were in something of a golden period, earning him legendary status in my eyes.
That he was one of the faces of the ARL during the Super League war only served to grow my love and respect for the man, because Newcastle was a particularly brutal battleground, and my mates and I had pretty firm opinions regarding where Rupert Murdoch and his manufactured competition could go (as kids in Year 5 are wont to do).
Top it off with his weekly segment on The Footy Show, ‘The Gould, the bad and the ugly’ – which was a blunt, no-holds-barred minute of pure Gus – and I came to see him as perhaps the wisest man in rugby league.
I couldn’t say that there was a distinct moment when that changed, but I suspect my shift in opinion came about as a result of familiarity breeding contempt.
As his presence on air with Channel Nine went from sparing bits of colour commentary to twice-weekly calling of entire games, his schtick grew thin.
If I may quote from Gould’s Wikipedia entry, under the segment ‘Football commentator’:
“Many of his repetitious commentary catchphrases are used to criticise refereeing decisions: they include ‘dear oh dear oh dear’, ‘no no no no no’, ‘that’s ridiculous, that is ridiculous’ and ‘modern day gladiators’. Phil is renowned for repeating his point over and over again, e.g. ‘that’s a try, that’s a try, that’s a try, that’s a try, that’s a try.'”
Honestly, I kind of like the quintuple negative, which became the dissenting rugby league equivalent Mark Holden’s “touchdown” on Australian Idol – “Is he going to say it? He’s going to say it!”
But the constant repetition of bloody everything else and Gus’ inability to let go of a play that happened ten minutes ago became grating.
As did his myopia toward the Sydney Roosters and the Maroons – we get it, you’re best mates with Nick Politis and Queensland are heaps better at footy than the Blues, but maybe try occasionally singing a different tune when those teams play?
By the time the noughties ticked over into whatever we’re calling this decade – the teenies? – I was convinced that Gus had joined the band of over-the-hill former players and coaches whose opinions had ceased to be relevant.
Then, in 2011, he took that fateful call from the Panthers.
The club where he had etched his name into legend as both captain – in just his second full game of first grade, no less – and maiden premiership-winning coach was in trouble.
Like, big trouble.
So Gould headed to Penrith to take up the newly created role of general manager of rugby league.
I won’t rehash the last eight or so years at the foot of the mountains – although I will note that in 2017, Gould described talk of his feted five-year plan as being “media gibberish” – but a few points stand out.
Firstly, a bloke Gould sacked in 2015 is back in charge of first grade – on significantly more money – three years later.
Depending on whether you believe Nine Media or News Limited, Gus is either still mates with Ivan Cleary, or the two don’t even talk. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
But having Cleary back in charge so soon after Gus gave him the boot is a black eye to the GM, one which undoubtedly contributed to his decision to leave.
Secondly, the first-grade side hasn’t so much as made a grand final. Winning a comp is the ultimate metric of success for a team and, on that count, you could say Gus’ time has been a failure.
Except that Gould hasn’t been the general manager of a team, he’s been running an entire organisation – and that brings me to the third and most important takeaway from the last eight years in Penrith.
The Panthers have gone from being a basket case to one of the best-run and well-resourced clubs in the country.
Between what’s on the record and Gould’s own account – taken from this week’s Six Tackles with Gus podcast – his achievements as unofficial boss include securing a $10 million loan from James Packer to ensure financial solvency at a critical time, opening a $22 million training facility, and growing the club’s full-time staff from 11 to “about 56”.
Then there’s what’s on the horizon for the Panthers group, which includes a 350-apartment aged-care facility and having secured $24 million in government funding to build an accommodation and conference centre.
Gould deflects credit for this progress to the team of people working with him at Panthers – and he’s right to do so, because no one man can get all that boxed off.
But without one man in particular, none of it would have been done.
While he is still a magnet for controversy and criticism, Gould’s nous, drive and list of contacts have been central to taking a club that could barely crawl and teaching them how to walk – and now run.
So whether you believe it as the reason he’s leaving or not, Gus has the Panthers in a position of such strength that his position should be redundant – with decent management, Penrith are set to continue as a powerhouse club for years to come.
I’m sure, like all dads, Gus will continue to be a phone call away for Penrith, always there to offer sage advice – and no one will be prouder when they next bring home the Provan-Summons trophy.
But it’s time for the club to show they can make it on their own. And for that, Phil Gould can hold his head high.
Well done, Gus. It’s amazing how much you’ve learnt in eight years.