Each week during the AFL shutdown period, aflplayers.com.au will bring to light the perspective of someone at the heart of a memorable moment from a game played between two sides that would have been fixtured to play in the upcoming round. This week, we look at former Geelong full back Matthew Scarlett’s debut game against Essendon in Round 22, 1998.
With finals out of the question for Geelong, the Gary Ayres-coached side made a number of changes at the selection table ahead of their final game for the season against Essendon.
Ayres selected father-son selection Matthew Scarlett to make his senior-level debut in the final round of the home-and-away season.
Scarlett, the son of 212-game champion John Scarlett, had spent his first season playing as a back pocket in the Cats’ reserve side, but would line up against Essendon full forward and club-leading goal-kicker Matthew Lloyd.
Growing up an avid Bombers supporter, and even remaining a member of Essendon until he was a couple of seasons into his career at Geelong, the opportunity to debut against his childhood heroes was a dream come true.
“Walking out of the race and onto the ground before the game, hearing the roar of the crowd… that feeling was extraordinary,” Scarlett told aflplayers.com.au.
“To finally make my debut and for it to be against the team that I barracked for was an unbelievable feeling.”
Scarlett said finding out he was debuting was much less of a fanfare than it is today, with the triple-premiership player saying he was watching the news when he heard.
“I actually found out I was in the team watching Today Tonight, which was a nightly program and they’d announce the weekend teams during sport,” he said.
For Essendon, it was a do-or-die clash with the side needing to win to ensure a spot in the finals.
It started well for the Bombers with Lloyd kicking three first-quarter goals and giving the club a narrow, but handy, lead at the first break.
The start of the game wasn’t to be for Scarlett, with the young defender spending the first quarter on the bench watching on and “star-gazing” at the likes of Lloyd, James Hird and Gary O’Donnell.
After all, he couldn’t believe that he was playing against his childhood team on the MCG when, only 12 months earlier, he had been cheering them on every weekend.
Scarlett said he was “in awe” for the entirety of the game.
“I was wide-eyed and thinking to myself, ‘How am I out on the ground with all of these players?'”
At quarter-time Scarlett’s chance would come, with Ayres lining him up against Lloyd for the remaining three quarters.
Despite Lloyd finishing the game with six goals and Scarlett collecting six disposals and taking two marks, he said it was an important experience for his own game to play on someone of Lloyd’s calibre.
“I knew how much more work was required of me to catch up to those standards of being an elite player,” Scarlett said.
With the game now 22 years ago, Scarlett’s memory is hazy but one thing that is clear in his mind is his first disposal.
Defender Leigh Colbert took a mark before quickly handballing to Scarlett.
From there, the 18-year-old defender was off and out in space but it wasn’t to be.
“I kicked it ordinarily and straight back to Gary O’Donnell,” he said.
Although Scarlett had his work cut out for him against Lloyd and Essendon’s strong line-up, a heroic performance from Geelong forward Paul Lynch secured the come-from-behind victory for the Cats.
Lynch, who played 62 games for the Cats from 1993-2000, kicked five goals to end his side’s season on a high with a 19.13 (127) victory over the Bombers 18.9 (117), who scraped into the finals on percentage.
Scarlett did not play again until midway through the following season (1999), his second game also coming against Essendon and matching up on Matthew Lloyd.
But that first taste of senior footy was enough to ignite the fire despite the early challenges.
“I felt great because I’d played senior footy and felt a part of the club and the team,” he said.
“When you’re playing in the reserves all year you don’t really feel part of the group… but after that game I felt like I was one of the boys.”