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Former Mariner Mitch Duke embracing J.League challenge

The Duke of Gosford, now tearing down the wing in the J.League. (Photo: Peter McAlpine)
Expert
18th June, 2015
9
1160 Reads

The relative safety of the Central Coast, or a fresh start in Shizuoka? The familiarity of the A-League, or a new challenge in the land of the rising sun?

Former Mariners attacker Mitchell Duke was given just a couple of days to make an undoubtedly life-jolting, yet potentially career-making decision in February this year when Japanese top flight club Shimizu S-Pulse made a swift, and in some respects surprising contract offer to the four-time Socceroo having sent scouts to Gosford to see him aim up against Adelaide United.

Before Duke, S-Pulse – one of only four clubs to have never been relegated from J.League 1 – had had two Australians on its books.

One was current Sydney FC skipper Alex Brosque.

Fortuitously, it just so happened that the other, Eddy Bosnar, was a then teammate of the man known to most simply as ‘Dukey’, meaning sage counsel on the side from the foot of Mount Fuji was only a short walk in the idyllic seaside town of Terrigal – home to many Mariners – away.

“I had a couple of really good chats with Eddy about it, and he had nothing but good things to say about the club,” Duke told The Roar from Japan.

“It was really good to have that first person experience of a player actually being at the same team that I was going to.

“That was really refreshing and put me in a really good space to go over to Japan with a nice open mind and not be too worried about what I might experience.

“Here at the club they have nothing but good things to say about Eddy and Alex … they love their Australians and both boys are very well respected.”

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Respect is a theme that Duke says he’s been thinking about quite a bit since arriving at the side from the 20,339 capacity Nihondaira Stadium.

Certainly, Japanese culture stresses the virtue, but, impressively, it’s also not been lost on the 24-year-old that he is in fact the only Australian player to be plying his trade in nation’s top flight this year.

Following in the footsteps of an esteemed line of Australians to have contributed positively to clubs in Japan, Duke says he feels a responsibility to honour his predecessors and maintain the good reputations of Australian footballers in what is Asia’s premier domestic competition.

Moreover, he is determined to ‘pay back’ S-Pulse’s staff and supporters – people he says have bent over backwards to make he and his partner Charlotte’s adjustment to club and country as seamless as possible.

“It’s a bit weird, but it’s pretty cool at the same time to know that I am the only Australian in the league,” he says. “Mitch Nichols is in J, but the vast majority of foreigners in J1 are from Brazil and Korea.

“I feel privileged that I am sort of representing Australia in a way in the J.League, and hopefully I can keep a good reputation for Aussies in Japan.

“My coach [former Japanese international Katsumi Oenoki] says that I am earning a good reputation in the J.League at the moment with my power and speed and strength.

“And while the lifestyle and culture are very different to what I am used to, the team, Shimizu S-Pulse, has been very welcoming. Everyone is friendly, polite, and goes out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Now it’s up to me to pay them back in the football aspect.”

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Regular watchers of the A-League and most certainly Central Coast Mariners fans may be surprised that the name that Duke is carving for himself in Japan is not necessarily from the front third.

In fact, since swapping the yellow of Central Coast for the orange of Shimizu, Duke has found himself being deployed regularly in a role more akin to Mariners stalwart Josh Rose or gifted prospect Mickey Neill, rather than in his old position as an out and out attacker.

“I am like a wingback at the moment, so that’s quite interesting,” he says. “Obviously I have a lot more defensive duties to do because we are playing a 3-4-2-1.

“I can definitely respect Josh Rose a lot more with some of the running that you have to do in that position. I have been averaging almost 12 kilometres a game, so that’s a lot more running and a lot more defensive running.

“But I am happy and I am actually really proud of myself that I have done well in the position, and that I have proved my versatility.

“In our last game [away to Urawa Reds in front of 44,424 vociferous fans] he [coach Oenoki] threw me back up front because we were trailing the game 1-0. So the coach hasn’t forgotten that I am a striker. He says I will get my chances again up front depending on how results are going in each game.”

Positive results are something that Duke’s S-Pulse side have struggled to come by so far this campaign, and with the J.League’s mid-season break approaching the team is currently second from bottom and in the dreaded drop zone.

Still, such are the J.League standings right now that just a few wins would see Shimizu rocket up the ladder and into a position Duke believes is more befitting of his side’s ability.

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“I think we had a good turning point with a 5-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale a few weeks ago, and following that we did well against Urawa Reds who are the unbeaten team of the league,” he says.

“We’re doing everything we can in our power to lift our spirits and to lift our performances to make sure we get the results and get out of where we are at the moment.

“I think we are going to finish this season half of the season strong. We have full faith in the club, the coach and what he is doing.

“I am very positive that we will be able to turn our season around, get out of the relegation zone, and even climb higher into the top half.”

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