I was whacked three times, says Scotland

Heath Scotland, a 250-gamer. Photo: Wayne TaylorWhen Mick Malthouse consented to the trading of Heath Scotland from Collingwood, he had played 53 games in five years. Despite two grand final appearances, he was discarded for Carlton’s third-round pick, which Collingwood had hoped would be part of a swap for Port Adelaide’s homecoming midfielder Nick Stevens, who would join the Blues and become fast friends with Scotland.

Scotland walked down the musty corridors of the Carlton Football Club – then still unreconstructed in every way – and took note of the great names on the wall who had played 200 games. He did not imagine then that he would ever be on that wall, or that would reach 250 games in aggregate.

”God no, no. Not at all,” said Scotland, to the question of whether 250 games were conceivable then. ”No, I’d played 53 for Collingwood, been playing for five years, no. I remember walking down the corridor … looking at the 200 club players at Carlton, the pictures on the wall, thinking, ‘Geez, what an achievement and it would be fantastic to get close to that.’ But I didn’t think I’d be playing 200 games … even in total.”

Late last year, Scotland was reunited with the coach who had, if not pushed him, then certainly allowed him to leave. Superficially, this was an echo of Corey McKernan, traded away from his tough taskmaster Denis Pagan and North, only to find the coach joining him.

Actually, Scotland’s scenario is quite different – a decade of water has passed under that black-and-white bridge. But the wizened, wiser Scotland acknowledged that he had not been entirely sure where he stood with his old coach when Malthouse turned Blue, while insisting their relationship had been fine at Collingwood.

”I was a little bit unsure and I wasn’t contracted until after the [2012] season – I didn’t sign a contract. I wasn’t sure how things were going to pan out. But the relationship with Mick was always fine, even when I was playing. I got along with Mick really well. For me it was an opportunity to come to a club and get more of an opportunity to play football. So there was no animosity between the two of us.”

Malthouse had rated him sufficiently well, he said, to select him in two grand finals as a young player. Yes, the coach had marked Heath hard, ”but he marks everyone hard and he brings the best out of footballers and there’s no doubt that lessons I think I learnt from him early on he held me in good stead to be able to stay in the game as long as I have.”

”I am an experienced player now,” he said, explaining how he and Malthouse were dealing with each other on different terms. ”I suppose there’s a bit more level of confidence or trust in me.

”Over 10 years, he has seen me play enough football to know, OK, he knows what I can and can’t do.”

What he can’t do: accelerate like Chris Yarran. What he can do: win the ball and use it by foot, his family friend from the western suburbs and hero Dougie Hawkins having inspired him to be dual sided. Those assets – plus his durable body – have helped him reach an improbable 250 games.

Scotland has played his best football in what is usually a player’s dotage, winning his only best and fairest last year, aged 32. Today, only 10 active AFL players have been alive longer, and just 13 have played more games. Most of them – Dustin Fletcher, Brent Harvey, Adam Goodes, Lenny Hayes, Simon Black, Stephen Milne, Chad Cornes, Jude Bolton – are famous, Scotland is merely well known. Regrettably, he has received maximum notoriety for an incident in which he hit a man at a Mulwala pub and consequently, in his words, was whacked three times.

”Media cracked me, AFL cracked me, football club cracked me,” said Scotland of the incident, from January 2012, in which he eventually – after the NSW Director of Public Prosecution successfully appealed for a less-lenient outcome – recorded a conviction for assault and received a bond. Scotland’s version was that he came to the defence of his beleaguered brother Brett and hit the man (who would also record a conviction, along with Brett Scotland).

”There’s no doubt I let people down and it was a time in my career, you know, my life, that I don’t look fondly on. I was there helping my brother. Whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent doesn’t matter. Fact of it is I let people down and I’ve paid a price for it.

”And it’s been a tough time. It was a year and a half ago and we’re still talking about it. You know, to play all of last season with it and go to court at the end of the season and then front up again after the first result and go back again.”

The DPP was successful in obtaining a conviction in February, arguing that Scotland, who had pleaded guilty back in October, was not entitled to be treated as ”of good character” since he faced court on an assault charge in 2005, for which he was placed in diversion, without conviction.

Carlton, under AFL pressure, suspended Scotland for two matches in late January.

Did the forthright Scotland view the suspension as fair? ”Of course I’d like to say no. I felt like I had three whacks for it – you know, I got slammed in the media, unmercifully. I got smashed by the court system, obviously – you know, not the first time, but we go back. Basically I get convictions, I get fines, I got a bond, I ended up getting a bond.

”The worst part about it … at the end of the day, we play the first two games against Richmond and Collingwood, I’m unavailable for two matches. I feel that a year and a bit later I’ve let them down. We lose two games.

”I let people down regardless of whether I believe I did the right thing or I believe I done the wrong thing … there’s going to be some people out there say ‘I would have done the same thing’, there’s going to be some that say ‘he’s a no-good bloke’. That doesn’t worry me, people’s opinion. At the end of the day, the consequences of my actions there let a lot of people down.”

As one whose path wasn’t smooth, Scotland has learnt to not look too far ahead. ”You really do play every one like it could be your last. So if I do go on next year, it would be great. If not, well …” The sentence didn’t need completion.

Malthouse’s homily, ”Don’t count your games, make your games count,” has stayed with Scotland for a decade. His career has been a gradual climb from fringe player to best and fairest destined for Carlton’s wall, if not its Hall of Fame.

Scotland’s incremental progress mirrors that of the Blues, who were so broke and broken when he arrived they could not afford footballs. ”There was one pre-season we all got slugged with $120 to buy our own footies to train with,” he recalled.

Today, Scotland is Carlton’s most seasoned player and, in a sign of the club’s evolution from the dark age, his 250th game will also be the 150th for Marc Murphy and Andrew Walker, players gained from prized picks during those hard times.

”For me, I suppose it’s a nice one to realise I’ve hung in the system quite a little bit of time and I’ve been reasonably durable,” Scotland said.

Teammates have taken to calling the sweeping midfielder/half-back ”Fossil” and ”Poppy”. But, as a best and fairest at 32, Scotland reckons he is still improving, having the good fortune to have avoided major injuries. He is noticeably leaner, at 79-80 kilograms, rather than last year’s 82-83, following an ankle operation in January.

”I’m 32 and I’ll be 33 in July. But the body’s sound, it has been pretty good … I still feel like I’m continuing to improve. I’m not feeling like I’m slowing up. I don’t feel like I’m getting caught out through lack of leg speed and power. I don’t see why I can’t continue.”

Scotland attributes his late blooming in part to his previous coach’s whip-cracking. ”I think Ratts [Brett Ratten] took me to the next level again, you know. He really challenged my professionalism a bit. Just the little things, that tend to add up. It’s probably a coincidence too, with age as well. My change in lifestyle. And I probably played my best football to date under Ratts.”

One of those steps was reduced drinking for Scotland, whose closest Carlton friendships have been with ”lads” such as Nick Stevens, Lance Whitnall and the trouble-prone Brendan Fevola. ”No doubt, I used to like going out and having a beer, you know, as did most players. If you’re honest, you look back five-10 years ago, 15 years ago, most players were going out every weekend. That did take an adjustment. And that’s probably one of the areas where I probably completely changed under Ratts. Like I used to semi-regularly go out and have a beer.”

As a father with two young sons, Scotland found that ”your lifestyle changes. I still like to have a beer. I haven’t had one for a while, to be honest.”

And how would he like to be remembered?

As a player who ”could be trusted” and gave ”everything” to teammates and club, he said. An old-school footballer, with old fashioned mores. ”Remembered as someone who played for the jumper, I suppose.”

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