From ‘hopeless’ to the Hall of Fame
MATTHEW Scarlett remembers the game as if it was yesterday.
It was a reserves match for Geelong against Richmond at Punt Rd Oval. It was about two degrees and he was sitting on the bench after barely getting near the ball when he'd been on the ground.
"I thought, 'I'm hopeless'," Scarlett explains. "I was sitting on the bench thinking I'm done. I'm no good, I'm just not up to it.
"I finished the second half on the bench, I'd hardly touched the ball and I was thinking I am so far from being able to compete here."
Scarlett had come to the Cats as a father-son selection in the 1997 draft - his dad John played 183 games in the blue and white hoops - with the skinny teenager taking a long time to come to grips with league football.
He credits veteran defender Tim McGrath, who was in the twilight of his career when Scarlett arrived, with helping him through the growing pains of his early days when Gary Ayres was Geelong's coach.
"I sort of stuck at it and I had Tim McGrath back then looking after me, he kept trying to give me a bit of confidence to just hang in there, as things can turn around," he said.
"I played one game in my first year and then five in my second. I remember a game in my second year I came on for five minutes and didn't touch the ball so Ayresy dragged me and I sat on the bench for three-and-a-half quarters.
"I was dropped the next week so it's fair to say I had some ordinary early moments, that's for sure."
The arrival of Mark Thompson as coach and Brendan McCartney as an assistant in 2000 was a turning point for Scarlett.
"Bomber (Thompson) came in 2000 and I played the whole year but I was still finding my way and didn't feel very confident," he said.
"Then the first game of my fourth season was against West Coast at home, I started to get a bit of confidence and from then on I started to feel pretty good."
That might be an understatement, with Scarlett winning Geelong's best and fairest award in 2003 and gaining the first of his six All-Australian selections.
As Geelong grew as a team, the defender wearing No.30 was in the process of transforming the position of fullback.
In 2006, he had a career-high 34 possessions against the Western Bulldogs as Scarlett turned himself into an offensive weapon.
"I was very dour at the start, I just wanted to beat my opponent," he explains.
"That is what I wanted to build my game on and then I was being more encouraged by Macca and Bomber to be more attacking and not so dour.
"Again, having good teammates was crucial. There were plenty of times where I would run off and make the wrong decision but Dasher (Darren Milburn), Boris (Corey Enright) and Harls (Tom Harley) just cover for you.
"I was lucky to have those guys around me. In a s--t defence I don't think I would have been able to do that.
"I had great players around me which allowed me to play my game, and once I started getting confident the attacking side came out. But it was always on the back of being good defensively."
When the conversation turns to the three premierships in 2007, 2009 and 2011, Scarlett immediately thinks about the 2008 Grand Final loss to Hawthorn.
"I think about that losing Grand Final more than the wins, it was the one that got away," he says.
"We were the best team easily until the day that counted. It still hurts and I think about it a lot."
His reflections of each premiership are very different. An enormous amount of pressure is how he remembers 2007 because of the club's long premiership drought.
"The whole town was waiting for us to stuff it up. There was high pressure going into that finals series and there was a bit of the unknown about it all but in the end it was an unbelievable feeling."
Scarlett remembers the three-quarter time huddle in the 2009 Grand Final against St Kilda where the Cats found themselves behind by seven points.
"That last quarter is probably the most enjoyable footy I ever played," he says. "In the three-quarter time huddle we just said we're not going to let each other down.
"We just had absolute faith that we were going to get the job done."
In that last quarter, Scarlett produced a famous piece of play that set up the winning goal for Geelong through Paul Chapman.
His toe-poke to Gary Ablett in the middle of the MCG is the most asked question he receives, even to this day.
"The story gets better with age. A lot of people bring it up and want me to talk about it and I still say I don't know why I did it.
"That is the one thing a lot of people talk about, even my kids are now watching it and talking about it.
"I don't actually know (why I did it). The ball gets to Gaz, who gets it down to Chappy, they're a couple of bloody good players to finish off the toe-poke. Again, I was just probably lucky in a way."
The 2011 victory was fuelled by the doubters who had written off the Cats after the departure of Thompson, McCartney and Ablett.
"I remember walking off after that preliminary final when Collingwood spanked us in 2010 and thinking, even before I was off the ground, thinking about how we could improve and how we could get back.
"We had a really driven group and again we weren't easily satisfied. There was an amazing amount of competitive mongrels in that group at the one time.
"I don't know if you will ever see that again. Just animals who loved to win and did it in a good way."
Scarlett, 38, played on for one more season before bringing an end to his 284-game career. At that stage, coaching wasn't on his radar.
Now he's Chris Scott's right-hand man in the Geelong coaches' box, running the defence and he is as surprised as anyone.
"Even in my last year of playing I was no chance of coaching," he says. "The more I've done it, the more I've enjoyed working with young guys and working with a team and trying to get them all on the one page.
"You still get a little bit of that competitive hit on game day but it's not the same sitting in the box."
Does he have senior coaching aspirations?
"At the moment, I don't think so but five years ago if you had said I would be an assistant I would have said 'no way'.
"I'll try to be a good assistant and do that for a long time and then sum it up. I'm still a fair way off being a good assistant but I'll keep trying to improve."
MATTHEW SCARLETT ON …
BEST PLAYED WITH: COREY ENRIGHT
"I'm not just saying this because he's one of my best mates. He was a spud when he got to the club, he couldn't kick, he couldn't mark and he turned himself into the best half-back flanker the game has ever seen. He was so selfless, he won two best and fairests in premiership years. He was a great decision maker, he'd come off at the right time and help his mates. He was the best."
BEST PLAYED AGAINST: MATTHEW LLOYD
"He was a pure full-forward, just so smart and never fumbled it. He would mark everything and I didn't even have to watch the kick because he would make it nine out of 10 times. It took me a couple of years to even think I was a chance to beat him and he would towel me up early days. I did start to get more competitive, more confident and cocky that I turned the tables eventually but it was probably even overall."
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