Newcastle have struck a blow to Western United’s A-League finals hopes with a 1-0 win at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Andrew Durante is possibly one of the most iconic players in the early stage of the A-League, having spent ten years at the Wellington Phoenix.
He has played 305 A-League games and is still going strong at 38 years old. In this long-form interview, I spoke to Durante on a wide range of topics, varying from why he left Wellington, how he thinks the A-League is progressing and his future in football.
You moved from Sydney United to the Newcastle Jets in 2005 for the first season of the A-League. What kind of experience was that like for you?
Unfortunately in the first season I broke my leg in the pre-season, so I missed the first season of the A-League. My first season in the A-League was actually in 2006.
Apologies for that. What experience was it like for you then, playing in the 2006 A-League?
Yeah, it was good. To be part of the A-League when it started was really cool and I signed a three-year contract with Newcastle, so it was really exciting having a brand new league going from the old National Soccer League that I’d played in. Now it was all new, fewer teams with only one team per city. It was exciting and there was a really good buzz. Unfortunately, I got injured as I said for the first season, but I was still part of it and still around, and obviously making my debut was really cool after coming back from a long setback with a broken leg and to finally get playing in the new league.
Do you think it was a good idea to drop the NSL and start the A-League?
I think something needed to happen to freshen things up. I loved the NSL and I grew up watching it, and the people that I admired and watched growing up as a kid were NSL players. I enjoyed that every team had their own ethnic background. There were Greeks and Italians and Macedonians and Croatians, you know, and that kind of got taken away when the A-League started, and that was what brought a lot of passion and the really big derbies. It was a shame that that happened if I’m honest. There were many big clubs that didn’t survive it. Sydney Olympic, where I played, Sydney United, Marconi, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights. They, unfortunately, didn’t survive and the league got transformed into what it is now, the A-League. I think there was a really good buzz around the A-League start. I think it was marketed a lot better than the NSL. A lot of the NSL seasons weren’t even televised, only one game a week or two games a week were televised, so I think the exposure of football in the country grew. There was a lot more marketing, there were more sponsorship deals, there were better salaries for the players. In terms of that side of it, there was a big improvement but it was unfortunate that so many big clubs didn’t survive it. They still operate now but at a lower level.
What have been some of the best moments for you in your career?
In the A-League it would have to be winning the championship in 2007-08 with the Newcastle Jets and getting the Joe Marston Medal for player of the match. That was really special and I was coming back from a few bad injuries, two broken legs and then finally winning the A-League was an amazing feeling. I had lots of great moments at Wellington: sell-out crowds at Westpac Stadium, we had some really good times in the playoffs and were unfortunate not to go through in some of those seasons but I had some fantastic times with some brilliant memories at Wellington. Now, coming to Western United, starting a whole new adventure at a brand new club and creating new values and cultures for a team that didn’t exist two months ago is a really exciting challenge for me and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’d say the highlight in my A-League career is definitely winning the A-League championship.
As you said, you won the Joe Marston Medal for the best player in the 2008 grand final, an honour that only two other centre backs have won. How did you feel going into that F3 Derby grand final?
Yeah, it was a really big game. It was a big rivalry with Central Coast and Newcastle, and I broke my leg against Central Coast so it meant a little bit more for me than for some of the other players. I just remember on the day I was nervous but I was really focused on my job. We’d had a really good week of training and a really good game plan that Gary van Egmond had put together to try and beat them and on the day it worked perfectly. I thought the fans as well were magnificent. The Newcastle fans unloaded a big tifo before the game. I never went into the game hoping I’d get player of the match or the Joe Marston Medal, I just wanted to win the A-League championship and did that, and I guess winning the Joe Marston was an added bonus after all the setbacks I’d had. It was a really emotional day for myself and my family, but it was an amazing day and a moment that I can still remember vividly.
Who’s the best player you feel you’ve played with?
I’d probably say currently Alessandro Diamanti. Diamanti (came) to the A-League being an Italian national team player and an amazing character (with) footballing ability. He’s a great guy and has a great footballing brain as well, so to have him in the A-League and for me to be able to play alongside someone like him and become close friends with has been amazing for me to learn as well. I have to say in terms of the profile he’s probably the best and biggest player. Along my journey, Paul Ifill was someone that I really enjoyed playing with at Wellington. He was a fantastic player and he could win games on his own. Nicky Carle was another one that was fantastic to play with, Joel Griffiths, these guys were game-winners so it was a real pleasure to play with them. In the early years, having someone like Paul Okon come into the league in 2006 was amazing. He was my idol growing up and then being able to train with him every day and play with him was amazing and I was really honoured to be able to play alongside some of these fantastic players.
You were part of the squad in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup for New Zealand, playing in all three games. What kind of experience was that like for you?
It was probably my first major tournament, the Confederations Cup in Russia. We had Russia as the hosts in the first game and then we had Mexico and Portugal. It was an amazing tournament and we were so well looked after in these tournaments. Security-wise and hotels, everything was really professional and extremely well done. The stadiums you get to play at and the fans that were there were amazing so I was really lucky to be able to go over there. For me, the highlight was playing Portugal and playing against Pepe, (Ricardo) Quaresma, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, you know, a lot of amazing players. The Portuguese team was stacked against us as well, so for them to play their full team against us was really cool. To be able to play against Cristiano Ronaldo and come up against him one-on-one was amazing. I’ll look back on that and tell my grandkids that I got to play against arguably the world’s best player. It was a great experience but unfortunately, it happened so late in my career because I would have loved to play in another Confederations Cup or World Cup.
You spent 11 seasons at Wellington Phoenix before deciding to move to Western United last July. How hard of a decision was that to make?
It was an extremely hard decision. I love Wellington and spent the majority of my career there. Eleven years is a long time to stay at one football club and it probably doesn’t happen at all in this day and age. It’s very rare for someone to stay at a club and be the captain for so long. It was a hugely difficult decision to make but it came at a time where I felt I wanted to try something else before I retired. I’d given everything to Wellington, I’d given my heart and soul, I’d sacrificed so much to be there. We were away from family, my kids hardly saw their cousins and grandparents so now living back in Australia they get to do that. There were lots of reasons to come, but being able to build values and cultures at a start-up club was really exciting for me. I wanted to see if I could make an impact at a new club. I guess it was a little bit easier for me, after 11 years at Wellington to stamp my authority there but I wanted to see if I could change and influence a brand new start-up with brand new people. I wanted to see how good I could be on that side of it. I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve loved living in Melbourne close to family. Western United’s a great club and we’ve got some fantastic players here like I mentioned, Diamanti, (Panagiotis) Kone, (Besart) Berisha and we had Scott McDonald early on. A lot of really high-quality players came to the football club. It’s been amazing so far and I’ve definitely loved coming here as well.
You mentioned Scott McDonald there. It was reported that he left Western United because of a fallout with Mark Rudan. Do you know what happened there?
Scott (McDonald) just wanted a different role. He wanted to probably play a bit more than he was at the time, you know, he was getting substituted quite a bit and he felt he could contribute more at the time. After an offer came through from Brisbane Roar he wanted to play under someone like Robbie Fowler, he thought it would suit his game a little more than the style that we were playing. He probably thought he could have got more minutes at Brisbane as well. To be fair it’s worked out perfectly for him, he’s playing a lot more and contributing really well there so I think he’ll reflect on that as a really good move. I think he was really proud to be part of the process of starting up Western United. All of his family is here in Melbourne so it was close to home for him, but he wanted to test himself elsewhere and it’s been a really good move for him as well, so there’s no love lost between Scott and the club.
Western United have changed their centre backs excluding you quite a bit this season, with Ersun Gulum and Connor Chapman leaving and Aaron Calver and Brendan Hamill both getting injured quite early in the season. Was it hard for you on the field when you were sometimes playing with different centre backs each week?
Yeah, I thought we started the season really well with Ersun, Connor and myself at back. We were the back three for the first five, six or seven games and we were doing really well. We were in second or third place at the time and we had a really good understanding. But then Connor got an offer to go overseas so he left and Ersun got an offer to go back over to Turkey so he left and then Brendan and Aaron Calver stepped in and played really well and we were developing a good understanding, but then in the same game Brendan did his ACL and Calver broke a bone in his foot. All of a sudden we had gone from six centre backs to having two. We went through a difficult stage of the season, rotating centre backs, but towards the end of the season, we started playing well again. We signed Tomoki (Imai) and Tomislav Uskok from the state league. We also had Jonathan Aspropotamitis and Oskar Dillon from the Queensland state league. We started getting some centre backs back. Whenever a team changes a line-up in the back line there’s going to be challenges because one of the most important parts of the game is having consistency and when you don’t have that you struggle a bit, but the boys that have filled in alongside me have done really well.
I was amazed at Mark Rudan’s planning to have recruited six centre backs in the preseason, but it was astonishing how unlucky Western United were. Brendan Hamill and Aaron Calver even got injured in the same game!
Yeah, and Connor Chapman got sold around three days before that game as well, so we went from six defenders to two in the space of three of four days, so it was a pretty unique situation and it was pretty crazy at the time.
On November 4, 2016, you became the first outfield player to reach 250 A-League games, but a lot of players don’t actually seem to know when they reach these appearance records. Were you aware of it before the game?
Before the game, I was aware of it. You know you’re close or thereabouts but you don’t always know exactly how many games you’re on. However, people tend to remind you through social media or people at the club and I knew that I was coming up to my 250th A-League game. If I’m right, the people at the Wellington Phoenix did a really nice presentation before the game. They did a haka before the game for me and my family, and that was a really humbling and amazing experience. I don’t think we won that game so it wasn’t the best night but it was a really special night before the game.
Who do you reckon is the hardest current A-League forward to play against?
I’d probably say Jamie Maclaren. He went through a period of the season where every time he shot he scored a goal. He was so hard to play against. In the general play, he’s not someone who really gets the ball and tries to take you on but he’s really clever in the box and is fantastic at timing his runs into the box. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, so on the current form, he is probably the standout striker in the A-League.
Do you have to change your playing style based on who you have next to you in defence?
The passing and game plan are mostly dictated by the coach. If we have two ball-players then we’ll probably try and play out a little bit more but if it’s two other centre backs who maybe aren’t as comfortable on the ball then we might not play out as much and may go a little more direct. It all depends on what the coach wants. If he wants us to play out and try figure a way out then we’ll do that but a lot of the tactics and formations are based on the players we have. When you have a player like Diamanti in your team it’s basically doing what you can to get the ball to him and then make runs forward because he’s so creative and such an intelligent player and we’re so lucky to have a player like him on our team.
It’s been great to watch him, and I love how he argues with every decision and takes it to heart. Would you say he takes every decision to heart?
Yeah, he’s so passionate about the game. He’s 37 now but he loves the game. I’ve been training with him during this isolation and whenever I can we go for runs together. He knows how to physio himself, he knows how to train himself, he knows how to deal with injuries and he’s a really intelligent footballer in all aspects of the game. He’s been great, even for someone at my age to learn from and if the younger players are smart enough they would have learnt a hell of a lot from him.
You have a degree in sports management. How are you planning on using this in the future? Are you planning on becoming a manager or head coach?
I used to think I wanted to head down the path of coaching but the more I’ve dealt with coaches and have seen how difficult the coaching job is I’ve decided to stick away from that aspect of the game. I’m into more of the management side of the game, in terms of football operations, as a sports director type role. This would be in terms of recruitment, recruiting coaches and staff. I’ve got an opportunity here at Western United to move into a role whenever I decide to finish up, so that was one of the other reasons why I decided to come to Western United.
How do you feel the A-League has changed over time since your debut in 2006?
I think in the first few seasons, the A-League started getting better and better. It probably peaked when Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey came that year. For Australia to have someone like Del Piero and Heskey playing in the same year was massive and I’d probably say that the A-League probably hit its real heights then. TV viewings were huge and the crowds were huge back then. However, it’s not a sustainable way to run the league, paying millions of dollars to a few individuals to try and get bums on seats. A lot of teams have now scrapped that idea and a lot of teams are looking for the youth system to develop their players, which is great. It may take a bit longer to get fans to the games but the process is right. You’ve got to blood as many young players who are good enough into the system and push them into professional football. Last year was probably a bit of a low in terms of ratings, and having Western United in this year has probably sparked a little bit more interest in terms of the league and having Macarthur come in next year is a bonus as well. If we can keep expanding in the right places at the right time then it will be beneficial. I’d love to see some of those NSL clubs that I spoke about to enter at some stage because I know they’ve still got strong fan-bases and infrastructure. It’s a difficult process and it’s the not the number one sport here in this country, so it’s harder to grow the game but I know there’s a lot of interest in it and we just have to tap into the right rates to allow fans to come into the game.