Friday, 28 September 2012

Matthew Scarlett

My younger colleagues have recently become devoted to a game they call "making Michael feel really, really old". Tactics include asking me to reminisce about particular events or objects, such as when the GST was introduced, or cassette tapes, or car windows that you had to crank with a handle, before saying "you know I wasn't even born then?".

Well, the joke's on you, kids. Because I wouldn't swap the chance to grow up with an iPod and electric car windows if it meant missing out on the 1989 VFL Grand Final.

The greatest game of all time

I was twelve. My mum, my dad, my bro and I were driving home after a game of tee-ball, listening to the radio in our station wagon, when the opening bounce first hit the turf. Dad was doing his best Ayrton Senna impersonation. Mum was sitting in the front seat in her customary position of highly strung watchfulness (on the look out for police and pedestrians). As we sped home, the first quarter captured my imagination like no other football game had in my previous twelve years. Maybe it was the adrenalin produced by travelling at the speed of light, maybe it was all of the injuries being vividly described on the radio.

The first quarter was a twelve year old's delight. It felt like someone was getting knocked out every couple of minutes. Lots of spewing. There were descriptions of broken ribs straining against bruised skin, punctured lungs and bloodied noses. When we got home, I suggested to my sweetly unsuspecting younger brother that he play Dermot Brereton to my Mark Yeates. Unfortunately Mum must have seen me eyeing my brother with a gleam in my eye and quickly yanked him into the house before he could be enticed out into the backyard.

A classic image from the 1989 Grand Final - Hawthorn premiership hero Dermot Brereton after he got knocked out by Geelong's Mark Yeates

We arrived home in time to watch the dramatic last half as Gary Ablett singlehandedly put the game tantalisingly, but ultimately fruitlessly, within Geelong's grasp. It was the greatest game of all time. A combined forty two goals were kicked by both teams, with only six points separating them by the end of the game.

Afterwards, I resolved to make the most important decision a twelve year old boy can. I trudged into the kitchen and firmly declared to all and sundry (my mum) that the Geelong Cats were now my team. (I also delicately enquired as to whether or not Dad could pick me up from school from now on - I knew that a good getaway driver could come in handy.) And so began a long and winding journey, full of ups and downs.

Scarlett leading the way

Fast forward to 1997 when the player who arguably became responsible for the vast majority of those ups - Matthew Scarlett - was drafted by the Cats. That year was yet another in a long line (1991, 1992, 1994 and 1995) of seasons in which the Cats contrived to get frustratingly close to achieving premiership glory.  Ten years later, Scarlett led the Cats to the premiership. And not just any old premiership - the Cats' first in forty four years.

The Cats' breaking of their premiership drought in '07 had implications far beyond making me extremely happy. The mid 2000s of the AFL represented the dark ages of the game in terms of playing styles. It was a time of mind numbing, watching-the-grass-grow type football. Teams that mastered the ability to lull their opposition into a long stupor would ultimately prevail. The nadir of this tactic was when a bedgraggled Richmond outfit managed to defeat a powerful Adelaide Crows unit by playing piggy in the middle in their own back line, for what seemed the entire game.

During 2007, I would watch game after game not quite believing what I was seeing. The Cats had somehow transformed into a gallant freeflowing attacking force of nature. Scarlett inevitably led the charge from his customary position in the backline. It seemed to me that in game after game he was everywhere, launching audacious forward charges at break neck pace, one after the other. Scarlett was the spiritual leader of one of the great teams of all time. He was at his counter-attacking best when the Cats pulverised the Power in the 2007 Grand Final. (That season, football, led by the all out attack of the Cats, once again became a great spectacle.)

Scarlett also appeared as if from nowhere during the final seconds of the 2009 Grand Final to famously save the day with his toe poke to Gary Ablett Junior.

Scarlett materialising as if from nowhere to toe poke the ball in the dying minutes of the 2009 Grand Final via
A close up view of Scarlett's toe poke via

I'll never forget the image of Scarlett escorting the little champ as he sprinted through the middle of the MCG before launching the kick that would eventually lead to Chapman kicking the winning goal. Scarlett has also been credited with backing the tweaks to the Cats playing style that eventually contributed to another premiership in 2011.

My three favourite things about Scarlett

Scarlett recently retired as the greatest fullback in history and an all-time great of the Geelong Football Club. Besides being a supremely awesome player, what made Scarlett stand apart from the average footy player of the last decade? For me it was three things: his loyalty, his curmugeonly streak, and the fact that he was not a media darling.

1. His loyalty

In 1999, the Cats were stuffed. Our coach left and so did our captain. It turned out that the club had been run like a small African country for the best part of the preceding decade. We were in a lot of debt - a lot of debt. I was sincerely worried about the club's future.

Scarlett hung around. Watching him on the field, I got the feeling that here was a person who had intense loyalty, if you earnt his trust. I liked that as Scarlett became a bigger and bigger star, he was never embroiled in protracted contract sagas with the club.

2. His curmugeonly streak

During the summer of 2006 the Cats embarked on an intensive leadership programme. A component of this programme included players sittng in the centre of a circle and facing some hard truths from their teammates. The exact wording doesn't spring immediately to mind, but I've read that Scarlett summed up his own experience being grilled by his teamates along these lines:

"It was tough being told by your teammates how much of a wanker I could be."

Scarlett sure appeared curmugeonly on the field. I liked that he was a real character. He probably didn't intend to be portrayed in that manner, although I doubt if he cared either way, but in an era of automatrons (both in politics and in sports) his curmugeonly streak was refreshing. Besides, you can't help but like a player who freely admits to intending to whack Hayden Ballantyne.

3. He was who he was

If Paul Keating could describe Peter Costello as "being all tip and no iceberg", then I would describe Matthew Scarlett as being all iceberg.

I found it refreshing that Scarlett was a footy player that played footy. Nothing else. He wasn't a media darling. He didn't go on footy shows to accept a good natured ribbing from commentators. He didn't go in for the latest, trendiest hair style.

Thinking about it, I liked the fact that I barely knew about him as a person. For me it portrayed a human being with substance.

From one person who feels like he shoud be retiring to another who actually is: I wish Scarlett all the best. He'll be missed.

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