I was born to be a full-back. That may sound weird, and many over the years have told me that I’m crazy to enjoy playing in the toughest position on the field.
But I’ve always been this way.
For some reason, I thrived on the pressure of being the last man standing, locked arm-in-arm with my opponent.
The bottom line is I hate losing.
I can’t stand it. I don’t accept it.
As long as I can remember, with anything, all I’ve wanted to do is win.
I can’t even let my daughter win at ten-pin bowling because it doesn’t sit well with me.
There are so many stories of me as a kid tormenting my mates at footy or cricket because I would never give an inch.
It was everything. It consumed me. And that was what drove me in my football career. Every marking contest, every scrap for the ball – even if it was at training – I had to win. I was obsessed with winning. I still am.
FOOTY WITH MY MATES
‘You have to stay down there and not go after the ball.’ The words from my U/11 football coach didn’t make a lot of sense.
I’d been made to play full-back which I didn’t want to do, and because the ball hadn’t come down there I’d chased it up the other end and kicked a goal.
Then I’d been taken off. Now, they didn’t want me to go near the ball.
I was only a few games into my football career with the Bears in the YMCA Little League in Geelong.
I’d started playing later than most, although I was always having a kick in our street with my two best mates: Trent Perrett, who lived across the road, and Luke Trevaskis, whose parents were best friends with mine and who lived just around the corner.
It was actually Luke who got me into the Bears. He’d started going to training, and one day I decided to tag along. Then the coach, Trevor Whitten, coaxed me into it.
So, at the age of nine, I was a footballer. I loved it straight away and found it easy. Too easy, it seemed, for the administrators.
The boss of the league approached Trevor and voiced some concerns from the umpires. Initially, they’d requested the move to the backline. Then they’d wanted to get me off the ground, when they suggested the ‘stay away from the ball’ rule.
I got really angry, because I hated not being out there. There was even a suggestion that I should miss a game or two to try to even up the competition. I wouldn’t have a bar of it, as clearly the competitive juices that would be a feature of my adult life were starting to flow.
My father, John, intervened at the end of the season, and my stint with the Bears was over. He moved me to the Geelong Football League club St Joseph’s, which was linked to the Catholic secondary school of the same name, where the standard was a lot higher.
Sport had always been a big part of our family. My mother, Glenyce, was a very good netballer, as were my sisters, while I’d also shown a liking for the game as a youngster. Dad was the famous footballer, having played for Geelong and South Melbourne. He was midway through his final season in the Victorian Football League (VFL), as it was back then, when I arrived on the scene on 5 June 1979. My earliest memory of him as a footballer was when he played locally in Geelong for Newtown. I loved hanging out in the change rooms every Saturday, and I remember Dad kicking a lot of goals and carrying on, as they had a successful era back then, winning a few premierships.
It might surprise people but, early days, footy wasn’t a priority. Dolls were. Let’s just say my sisters enjoyed having a little brother. ‘Exploited’ having a little brother might be a more appropriate way of putting it. Sarah and Emma would treat me as their plaything. They would constantly have me wearing dresses and make-up while we all played with Barbie dolls and Pound Puppies. I was a very shy and timid kid, so my sisters looked after me. Part of that bargain was obviously to be treated like the other sister they never had. It got to the point where Mum got me my own Michael Jackson doll because she wanted to bring some male influence into the equation. An interesting choice in hindsight!
Mum was very protective of her only boy, and I was clearly the golden child. My sisters still take great delight in telling the story about how she eventually allowed me to get a skateboard – a long time after most of my friends – but on the condition that I only ride it down our carpeted passageway with a stack hat on.
The girls would get jealous of the way Mum looked after me. She would always start the shower for me – they say until I was about 16, but I say more like ten – and would have my clothes out ready, warming on the clothes horse. Sarah and Emma would have to get their own clothes.
It took me a while to emerge from the cotton wool of Mum and the sisters’ Barbie shows. Playing footy helped, but, just as that started, my life changed dramatically in two ways. Both were significant – and unexpected – but on very different levels.
The serious event was my parents separating. Kids never see what problems their parents are having, and it hit me out of the blue. I was devastated, and it certainly knocked all of us around for a little while. I stayed with Mum and the girls at home, while Dad moved out and initially stayed at my cousin’s house. The less serious turning point – but equally confusing for many – was my decision to become an Essendon supporter.
It came out of nowhere. I used to go and watch Geelong every week with Dad. It was during one of these visits to the Cats’ home ground of Kardinia Park that I was seduced by the red and black. Essendon were smashing Geelong on this day, and suddenly I decided I was a Bomber. To his credit, Dad didn’t try to talk me out of it, and soon he was driving me to Windy Hill each week to watch my new team play at home.
I became a member and a fanatical one. I loved Simon Madden and the hard blokes such as Billy Duck-worth, Kevin Walsh, Mark Harvey, Gary O’Donnell and Mark Thompson. One of my early favourites was Greg Anderson, a left-footed wingman from South Australia who had a cracking blond mullet. I actually wore No. 11 because of Anderson in my first year in the U/13s at St Joseph’s. Sean Denham, the hard-nosed tagger, also became a bit of a favourite, and I was regularly writing letters to him.
But the one who took over from all of them was Gavin Wanganeen. I had a life-size poster of Wanga in my bedroom and changed numbers at St Joseph’s to No. 4 out of respect for him. I made this huge flag with his name on it that I’d take to games, and I flew it proudly at the 1993 Grand Final, where I saw my boys smash Carlton.
Before AFL football even started to appear on the horizon, I believed I was destined to play in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA). Well, that’s what I continually told the knuckleheads from Corio, whom I played against in a team with my cousin Jeff Morgan. That might sound innocent enough – a bit of lively banter on the basketball court – but it’s not when you’re 12 and the opponents are at least ten years older than you and can best be described as steroid-fuelled bodybuilders from the wrong side of town. But that didn’t stop me as I hit three-pointer after three-pointer in their faces, much to the angst of my cousin.
Despite an eight-year age gap, I was very close to Jeff. After my parents split, I spent a lot of time playing hoops in his backyard in Belmont. In many ways, he helped mould me into the person I am today and was certainly the one responsible for stoking my competitive fire. Any time of the day or night, there would be a game of one-on-one happening at his house, and I would be in the thick of it with him and his mates.
Despite being obviously smaller and a lot lighter than Jeff, I would keep fronting up, trying to beat him, even when he would regularly belt the crap out of me. They had a nine-foot ring attached to their garage – regulation height is ten foot – and he would try to dunk on me, so I resorted to standing on a pile of bricks against the fence and jumping off them to block his lay-up attempt.
I loved the game and the contest. That went up a level when I joined Jeff’s team in the weekly competition, where the teams couldn’t have anyone over six-foot tall and it was played on courts with nine-foot rings. Jeff always used to get frustrated because my stirring of the Corio boys would inevitably lead to a fight. Even they wouldn’t have a go at a 12-year-old, so my teammates would have to step in and fly the flag. Importantly, it did show me the advantages of getting inside the mind of an opponent – something I would enjoy doing later in life.
I was constantly working on this tactic, particularly with my best mate Luke in our daily battles, whether it be footy, backyard cricket or on the Nintendo. We went to different primary schools, but as soon as the clock hit 3.30 pm we’d both rush home and start a game of something. Cricket always became fiery. A snick behind was an automatic wicket and we would blue for ages if one of us didn’t walk. Sometimes, we seriously wouldn’t talk to each other for a couple of days because of a dispute over someone’s – usually my – refusal to admit he had hit it. Computer games were also always interesting, and I may have gone through five or six controllers on the Nintendo, as I developed a habit of throwing them against the wall if I lost.
One year, for his birthday, Luke got a pair of boxing gloves. That spelt trouble. One night after school, he put the left one on, I had the right, and, for more than an hour, we proceeded to belt the suitcase out of each other.
This hatred of losing flowed onto the football field. I was a wingman early in my career at St Joseph’s, where Dad coached us in the U/13s and U/15s. He was pretty fit for his age, and his idea of training was match practice, in which he’d always join in. He never put any pressure on me, even though there was an expectation for sons of AFL footballers to follow in their father’s footsteps. The father–son drafting rule meant that the children of players who had played more than a hundred games at one particular club could be preferentially drafted by that club. A lot of people at school talked about what a great player my father had been – he wore the blue and white hoops in 183 games from 1967 to 1977 – but to me he was just my old man, and it didn’t have a great effect on our relationship. Dad was more interested in winning premierships, and we managed to win the flag in the U/15s, where I played more as a forward and kicked a few goals. It wasn’t until the U/18s that I first played as a defender. Like every kid when I was younger it had been all about chasing the ball, getting as many kicks as possible and kicking goals. The older you got and the better the standard, everyone started to find a niche and it came as no surprise that I found mine as a defender given my father had made a name for himself in the VFL at full-back. What I instantly loved about the position was the challenge of beating your man.
The pathway for junior footballers who had dreams of one day playing in the AFL was through the Geelong Falcons in the TAC Cup U/18 competition. The best kids from around Geelong and the western district, stretching as far as Warrnambool, were invited to be part of a summer squad, from which a list was selected for the season. The Falcons also had an U/16 squad, and I was invited to go down for a try-out. It was way too serious for me, and I figured I’d blown my shot when I missed the bus to a pre-season game because I was out having fun with my mates. That was basically all I cared about – playing footy with my mates at St Joseph’s – and at that stage I had no aspirations to play in the AFL.
Former Geelong great Michael Turner, who played with my dad, was the boss of the Falcons, and he was regularly in contact, trying to get me down there. It wasn’t until the urging of my U/18s coach at St Joseph’s, John Fitzgerald, that I finally agreed to do it. ‘Just go and give it a shot,’ Fitzgerald would keep saying. ‘Good things can happen if things work out.’
There was nothing good about the training, slogging it out at the Highton Oval in summer while my mates were out having fun. The professionalism shocked me and I struggled. I’d never really done anything resembling pre-season training before. I’d just been going down for a kick with my mates, but the Falcons was something completely different and I took a long time to adjust. There were plenty of times over that summer, especially during the intense running sessions, when I felt like walking away. Then when the season started I found the difference in the standard alarming. I was constantly questioning myself but Turner and the coach, former Footscray player Brian Cordy, helped keep me involved. They kept saying that I would improve by playing in the Falcons system and eventually I started to feel that.
By this stage, I’d finished school at St Joseph’s College. It’s fair to say the less said about my education the better. The one thing I’m proud of is my attendance record. I think I wagged once and got caught, so that was the end of that. My score for Year 12 was 16 out of 100, which says a lot. School for me was all about hanging out and kicking the footy or having a game of cricket at lunchtime.
My first foray into the workforce had been as a car-park attendant at the Arena, the local basketball stadium where National Basketball League team the Geelong Supercats played their games. It was the dream job, because I was already a season-ticket holder and would go to every game. When my next-door neighbour became the general manager of the team, he got me the gig, so I got to get up close and personal to superstars such as point guard Shane Heal, who would go on to play in the NBA.
Once school had finished, I started helping out at Dad’s security business, messing around with electronics and installing alarms. It was a means to an end and enabled me to get enough money to buy my first car: a little black Mitsubishi Magna.
At this stage, I had no idea what the future held. The 1997 National U/18 championships changed all that.
Emma Scarlett (sister):
When Matt was younger, he was very shy and timid, and he always hid behind me and my older sister.
He would play Barbies with us, and Mum bought him a Michael Jackson doll because she didn’t want him to play with the blonde one that we had. We would often dress him up like a girl, put dresses and make-up on him – which my kids still do to him now, mind you.
My mum was very protective, and he was always a bit of a sooky little thing really as a young boy.
His middle name is Vaughan, which is after my grandfather. He hated it. Everyone would ask him what his middle name was and he would change it all the time because he hated it so much. So whatever friend he was hanging with at school became his middle name, and I think it was Matthew Anthony for quite some time.
When Mum and Dad separated, Matt was young, and I know everyone automatically goes to Dad because of the father–son and blah blah, but I think it would be fair to say Mum was much more influential than Dad ever was in our lives.
One funny story I remember was when he was about six, he came out of the shower and we were all looking at him thinking ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’. He’d shaved his eyebrows off. Mum had left a razor in the shower and he shaved off his eyebrows. I’m convinced that’s why he has such big bushy eyebrows now.
Even when he got a bit older, he was a real timid sort of a kid. When it was my 16th birthday, we had a party and some gatecrashers turned up. Mum was inside and she could hear Matthew snib his bedroom door because he was scared. Mum went out, then the police came and it was all sorted. Once everyone had gone, that was when he came out, and he was like, ‘You should have let me know, I would have sorted it out.’ Mind you, he’s locked away in the bedroom.
Jeff Morgan (cousin):
Matt and I were very close growing up, even though I’m eight years older than him. He spent a lot of time hanging out with me and my mates, playing basketball. We played together in a team when he was probably 12, and I’d say that’s where he really learnt how to trash talk. He’s a big fan of the NBA and American sports, so he really loved it.
He had no fear, and it certainly instilled in him that confidence. I think from a physical point of view playing basketball taught him a lot, like boxing out. When you saw him later in his football career, he was obviously so good against even bigger guys as he would just plant those feet and use the hips. He had a low centre of gravity and I think his basketball background really helped for sure.
I used to ride a motorbike back then, so I’d be taking him on the back, this little kid with the helmet on, cruising around to the basketball. He thought that was pretty good.
He always played a bit of footy when he was younger, but it was never serious and he was never an outstanding talent. Back then, when he was probably 12 to 14, basketball was what he was really good at. Everyone thought he was really good. He was a little bit taller than the average at that age and he was a good shooter.
He could have gone on with it, but it was probably when he was 15 that footy started a bit more. He started getting good at it.
He always looked like he was going to be a good sportsman at whatever he chose to do. I remember, in his first year at Geelong, I was saying to my mates, ‘He’ll be an All-Australian, without a doubt. I guarantee it.’
There was always just something about him.
Luke Trevaskis (best friend):
Our parents were best friends, so we grew up together and pretty much lived in each other’s pocket as kids. He was super competitive and, while we went to different schools as kids, we’d come home from school and straight away we’d be kicking the footy for hours or playing backyard cricket, and if we weren’t doing that it was computer games.
He initially wasn’t super keen to play at the Falcons and he had to pretty much be dragged down there. But once he got there, he dominated, and because I saw how competitive he was early, I knew he’d make it. There wouldn’t have been many times that I beat him at cricket or footy. I wasn’t as competitive as him and I’d be more like ‘Stuff it’, but he was just relentless.
I kind of had an inkling in the back of my mind that he was going to be successful.
Trevor Whitten (first coach):
I lived in the same street as John and Glenyce. I had a couple of kids too and we got involved with the YMCA in the U/11s. Before you knew it, Matthew was up there, and then we started playing and Phil Bainbridge, he used to run the YMCA, he came over and said, ‘Look, the umpires aren’t too happy with this guy you have here Scarlett.’
He was dominating everything, so they wanted us to move him down to the backline. We tried that, but he kept running down and still kicking goals from the backline. He would kick eight or nine goals a game. The other kids couldn’t get near it.
He was just ten, and then at the end of the season Bainbridge said, ‘I don’t think we can continue on with him.’ He was virtually saying he was too dominant for it.
His old man, John, got wind of it and dragged him out and took him up to St Joseph’s, and he played underage up there. We only had him for the one season.
It’s funny because Richard Holz, the president of South Barwon, and I still reminisce about the U/11 Bears and still picture him getting told off and being so dominant.
He was just a competitive young lad. Even at ten years old, and then when he was 15 or 16, he had this sort of look in his eye like that’s all he was living for.
He was a bloody good kid to handle, not cheeky or anything. The fortunate thing with him is he would listen to you, even if he might go away and perhaps do it the way he thought. He was always very well mannered.
The beauty of Matthew is he has never been an ‘I am’ sort of bloke.
Excerpted from Hold the Line by Matthew Scarlett. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Scarlett.
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