By: Daniel Cencic
History will be made this weekend as Upper Ferntree Gully’s Matt Lawson becomes just the fourth player in the club’s near 70-year history to play 300 games.
Lawson has known no different than to don the Kings’ red and blue stripes across the journey, beginning his footy career with St Johns/Bluebirds Football Club in the juniors for 157 games before carving out one of the senior club’s most celebrated careers.
To become just the fourth player behind Don Barton (1956-1974), Craig Marson (1964-1987) and Andy Lee (1993-2017) to reach the milestone, Lawson says although it’s been a long time coming, it has hit only hit home on the eve of the big day.
“It’s probably hit home a little bit over the last few days – throughout the year I knew it was coming up so now that it’s coming up, it’s pretty exciting,” he said.
Debuting in Round 17, 1999 after building form across the under-18s and reserves, Lawson doesn’t remember a great deal from his first senior match – a 24-point loss to Doncaster at Schramms Reserve – but believes it was the catalyst going forward which would result in his part in the 2002 reserves flag three years later.
“It (1999) was our first year up in second division,” he said.
“I don’t remember too much throughout the game but I know I hit the post with one of my very first kicks.”
As a sub-plot to the 2002 reserves grand final, Lawson would find himself with the bleach-blonde locks for the big occasion, in a bet that somewhat backfired for the Kings stalwart.
“I said if we’d made the grand final (in 2002), I said I’d do that hairstyle, just for the grand final,” he said.
“The old Brownlow Blonde they used to call it!”
“We played against Waverley Blues, we beat Wantirna South to get into the grand final and we hadn’t beaten them all year.
“We won pretty well in the end and it was at Boronia.
“It would have been the last time I ever bleached my hair, that’s for sure!”
While the wait for the ultimate – a senior premiership – would be quite a lengthy one for Lawson and the Kings, grand final appearances in 2006 (a 46-point loss to South Croydon) and 2009 (a 55-point loss to Mooroolbark) served as both jubilation and relief as the Kings stormed to their first flag in 12 years in 2010, defeating Doncaster.
“It was very special, especially losing one the year before,” Lawson said.
“When you lose a grand final, the first thoughts that go through your mind is are you ever going to get back there again?”
“They (Mooroolbark) were the best side in the competition (in 2009), but to go on the next year and to get another crack at it, it was a pretty special year.”
Sharing the moment with good mates and names such as Shannon Graham, Mathew Lizza, Tim Watts, Jay Sherlock, Matthew Petracca, Tate Hickleton and Tim Riseley is a memory Lawson cherishes most.
“It was a pretty special feeling and to play with a fair few guys that I’d played junior footy with and a lot that had been at the club for a long time,” he said.
“I’ve gone on to play a lot of footy with those guys.
“Those guys played a long time at our footy club and waited long enough to achieve the ultimate success and I think that made it a bit more special that a lot of those guys that had been at the club for a long time.
“The majority of the side was made up of (former) club juniors or had been there for a long time.”
Season 2016 would present a unique challenge for Lawson, with injuries and battle-weariness of playing in the backline would take its toll. While the Kings romped to an undefeated season, claiming the senior flag, Lawson played in the reserves grand final on a day the 35-year-old describes and remembers as ‘bittersweet’.
“That’s why you play footy, to win premierships. The senior ones hold a pretty special place, I had aspirations to try and get there again last year but injuries and form didn’t allow it,” Lawson said.
“A grand final’s a grand final and you want to win them, that’s for sure.
“(But) it was bittersweet.
“There might have been four or five of the boys that it was their second premiership. Also there were a couple of guys that I’d coached in the under-17s a couple of years before.
“It would have been nice to share that with those boys – bittersweet, yes, but a pretty proud moment to see guys experience what I’d done years ago and see my good mates be successful.”
While Lawson’s on and off-field persona has always typified an exceptional team and clubman, the myriad of individual honours achieved across 18 years of senior footy hold great significance.
Honours include the Dennis Callahan Best Under-21 Player in 2003, the Dave Baker Most Courageous Award in 2012, the Best Playing Clubman Award in 2013 along with life membership of the club in 2010.
The senior vice-captaincy is also an achievement the 300-gamer reflects fondly on.
“I hold them pretty dearly,” Lawson said.
“The people that were at our footy club long before us, there’s a bit of history attached to them and they mean a little bit more.
“To be recognised at your football club as a leader is pretty special, not only by your peers but the people around your football club.”
The burning desire to one day become a senior coach has also driven Lawson’s interests, venturing into the coaches’ box in 2012 where he took on the role of under-17s coach for five years. Leading the club to the under-17s flag in 2014 has led to Lawson being recognised as a nominee for Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015, also receiving the Junior Club Outstanding Services Award in 2016.
The move into coaching is one Lawson has enjoyed.
“The timing was right and I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
“To experience success and to see the guys go on to play senior footy – 12 of the boys I coached I got to play in the seniors with and a number of others across reserves.”
A dedicated family has ridden every high and low that comes with the game, especially 18 years of senior footy, with brother Jarrad playing 108 games with the club, including sharing in the 2002 reserves flag, brother Leigh (215 games) and parents Robyn and Wayne both heavily involved at the Kings.
Despite playing alongside both brothers at various times, the 300-gamer has one regret.
“Unfortunately the Lawson boys still haven’t managed to get all three in the one side,” he said.
“I reckon (my parents) have missed a handful of games over the journey – I don’t think they’ve missed too many. Mum’s been huge and they’re both life members – and always there for support for me and my two brothers.”
While the milestone may have seemed a bridge too far at one stage, the valiant Lawson has fought his way through injury and adversity to don the Kings’ guernsey for a 300th time, in a year which he believes may be the swansong to one of the club’s most celebrated careers.
“I reckon this is the last year, I’ve had pretty ordinary injuries at the start of this year and fortunately I’ve been able to get to the big 300.”