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Matt de Boer is like no one I’ve ever been around

Ahead of Matt de Boer’s 150th game at the top level, his close friend and former teammate, Michael Barlow, provides a poignant insight into the consummate clubman.

By the time I got to Fremantle, Matt de Boer was in the leadership group which gives you an understanding about the regard he was held in.

Coming off a rookie list at 19 and then to eventually be in the leadership group was a fair effort. He became a mainstay there until his time at the club came to an end.

His strength has always been his ability to lead and to challenge others. He won’t mind me saying that at Fremantle he was always the 40th best footballer on the list based on talent and it’s probably similar at GWS, but I’ve never been surprised that he has played regularly.

He is integral to their team and their finals aspirations because of his leadership and his ruthless nature.

Matty is someone that will make more of a crust outside of the game, which is the opposite to a lot of footballers.

Back when he first started out, he could have been drafted a year earlier but decided to start university and saw the opportunity to get a chunk of his studies done first — he’s unique in the way he’s approached his career — he hasn’t been dictated to by the norm.

Even last year when he got the opportunity at GWS, he was second-guessing it because he was thinking about kick-starting his business life.

Through some advice from some people close to him, he decided to grab the opportunity knowing that his other work would always be there.

Honestly, he is like no one I’ve ever been around at a football club — his ability to professionally challenge individuals but also maintain a personal relationship with them is incredible.

Whether it be Matthew Pavlich or a first-year player, he was never daunted at the prospect of making others better and putting the hard word on them.

Through our Fremantle years when we were up and going and playing finals, a real strength of our group was to be able to challenge each other.

If Matthew Pavlich didn’t go hard enough, Matt de Boer would put that on the agenda and everyone would be able to accept the feedback.

He’s one of those guys that you walk taller playing with because you know how hard he is and that he’ll do everything in his power to protect you.

Last year was really tough for the likes of myself, Matt de Boer, Tendai Mzungu and Alex Silvagni.

We were players that had been around for a while but were on the outer. The writing was on the wall.

I envied the way Matt and Tendai handled themselves in the latter half of the year.

It was about Round 4 when both of them were dropped — and they’re best mates those two — and 90 percent of footballers would begrudge the system and the club because they were being squeezed out, even though they may have been in our best 22 if we were in finals contention.

The club needed to go down a youthful path and they were the ones who suffered. I envied him because I let myself down in that area, but watching them go about their business knowing there wasn’t a future for them was unbelievable.

They took their time at Peel Thunder very seriously and won a premiership which they valued. A lot of AFL players, when they see their career potentially coming to an end, will throw the baby out with the bath water.

That was a huge part of them being identified by GWS as high-end characters.

I spoke before about his initial trepidation with regards to the GWS opportunity. During that time, he called me and let me know about the chance that was presented to him.

The year he had at Fremantle in 2016 meant that he had to be as mentally tough as possible, and he probably wasn’t sure if it was worth going through that again at another club.

I had been up north for about a week and felt completely revitalised and I let him know that a change in environment can freshen you up.

You’re perceived in a different way from coaches and players and you lose the restrictions that you may have had in the past. That was my feedback to him.

Clearly, the proof is in the pudding that he has made the right decision, and I’m a strong advocate that if they’re going to go a long way in the finals, he’ll be in their best 22 because of the character he possesses.

Because he is a close mate of mine, the easy answer is to say that I’m not surprised that he has featured so much for GWS.

I use him as a strong example to our younger players at the Gold Coast. He has gone to an environment where he is surrounded by talented kids who were early draft picks and it’s similar here on the Gold Coast.

What separates genuine AFL players from those who might be a flash in the pan is the mental side of the game. I know his strengths and the way he harnesses those things above the shoulders — he has one of the biggest heads you’ll see anyway — so there must be plenty of footy knowledge in there and mental resilience.

I haven’t been surprised in the slightest, and if he hadn’t done a hammy in the pre-season he may have played close to every game.

GWS are the team I’ve watched the most outside of the Suns, so I’ll definitely keep an eye on his 150th game this weekend. I’m ecstatic for him that he’ll be playing finals this year.

You get jealous of others at this time of the year when finals are on the agenda. For Matty to go from thinking, ‘where am I going to work in business next year?’ 12 months ago to being where he is, you could write a book about it!

If he was able to win a premiership, I’d be very emotional and excited for him. If we went back to last year’s Grand Final, he would have been a million-to-one chance to be out there the next year.

I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but that’s a fairy tale.