Football’s a big man’s game. They're the ones who excel. They're barrel-chested, occupy a key post, beat their opponent on strength and split packs at every contest. They’re the players fans flock to see.
But every now and then, a player, who at first glance lacks the physical attributes of senior footy, defies expectation. Michael de Fontenay could’ve hidden behind the point post when he made his senior debut in 2009. But that never concerned the thinly-built defender. Despite his shortcomings, he simply played to his strengths.
“I've played against stronger opponents my whole career, so I had to learn pretty quickly that I wasn't able to out-muscle them,” de Fontenay said.
“In one-on-one marking contests I made sure I didn’t engage in too much body work. I’d make the most of my endurance and big leap, making sure I had a clear run at the ball. I think my opponents would see me and underestimate me, so by going in a lot harder than them, more often, it would be a bit of a surprise.”
Diff has taken that never-say-die playbook to all of his 199 senior games. And as he embarks on the rare 200-game milestone against Ajax, not much will change. He’ll still be feirce, bold and play for the love of his club and teammates. It’s a strategy he’s implored since the under-9s in 1998.
Along the journey, there were three flags - under-16s (2005), the one-point senior C-grade triumph over Caulfield, and the reserves premiership in 2016. It’s an impressive CV for the fearlessly loyal clubman.
“Starting off in my first year of 19s, I didn't think I would get this far,” he said. “But once I ticked off the 100-game mark pretty quickly at an early age, I thought I might be a chance. “Playing 200 games seems a bit surreal. It's a lot of games, but looking back it seems to have gone so quickly.”
And Diff doesn't plan to pull the pin on his 21-year career at the Sharks soon, as he aspires to trouble club legend Mark Ensor's games record. “At the start of this year I wouldn't have thought I could get to another 200,” he said. “I wasn't feeling physically great but I've gradually come good, so I'm definitely aiming to take down Dougie Ensor's games record. “I have it on good authority he's getting a bit nervous.”
(Ed. The photo is of a young Diff going up to collect his Premiership medallion after playing in the 2010 Premiership team which defeated Caulfield by 1 point)