Captain Fantastic Brings Up Number 100

Imagine you've just won the A-League championship and picked up the Joe Marston medal for man-of-the-match in the Grand Final. What's your next move?

Imagine you've just won the A-League championship and picked up the Joe Marston medal for man-of-the-match in the Grand Final. What's your next move?

Most wouldn't choose a transfer to the side that's just finished bottom of the league while you've just won it, but that's exactly what Andrew Durante elected to do in mid-2008. Just four days after lifting the trophy with Newcastle, he signed a deal to cross the Tasman. This weekend, the Wellington Phoenix's talismanic skipper brings up 100 games for the football club.

It's hard to over-state the impact the man universally know as "Dura" has had on the Wellington Phoenix. His unique combination of lion-hearted defending, cool-headed leadership, footballing intelligence and eloquent off-field manner quite simply set him apart. The club's had some good players in their five seasons, but Andrew Durante is the single most inspirational figure in the Phoenix's five-year history, bar none.

His core task of defending the Phoenix-s goal is one he performs with distinction week after week. His defensive awareness, faultless positioning, timing in the tackle and organisational ability mark him out as one of the outstanding centre-backs in A-League history. Time and again Durante makes perfectly-timed, yet crucial interventions to snuff out attacking movements. He-s rarely beaten in the air, even by taller strikers, is quicker than he appears across the grass and uses subtle shifts in body position with the ball at his feet to shake off would-be tacklers and bring the ball out from the back. A good indicator of a player-s ability is asking which of the other A-League teams would include him in their starting elevens. In Durante-s case, the answer is all of them.

Durante becomes the Phoenix-s fourth centurion, and the first who wasn-t a foundation player. That he-s reached 100 games so quickly is testimony to his incredible consistency and resilience. The Phoenix have played 87 matches in the last three seasons; Durante has played 83 of them.

In one particularly memorable streak, he played seventy-six hours of consecutive A-League football (fifty straight matches plus a couple of periods of extra-time in the 2009/10 finals) during which time he wasn-t substituted, injured, suspended, sent off or dropped. The captain perhaps gets a little more licence in the last of these than other players. If fit and available, you-d expect your skipper to play, unless he undergoes a fairly catastrophic drop in form. For Durante, that-s never been in question. He-s remained largely injury-free and while it-s common during games for defenders to make way for attacking players when they find themselves behind, Durante never has to look towards the touchline to see his number on the fourth official-s board.

Other A-League clubs have constantly sniffed around, looking to lure Durante to supposedly greener pastures. He spent time at Sydney FC during their 2010/11 ACL campaign and Vitezslav Lavicka tried very hard to convince him to make the stay a permanent one. It must have been attractive with Durante's parents in Sydney and a new baby on the way. But instead, he signed a new long-term deal with the Phoenix which'll keep him at the club until at least the end of the 2014/15 season.

Durante-s leadership has been vital in his time with the club, both on and off the field. He's hugely influential among his team-mates; where he goes, others usually follow. When Manny Muscat was being courted by up to six other football clubs earlier this season, Durante-s decision to re-sign with Wellington and no doubt some carefully chosen words over a coffee or two at Café Lafarre were big factors in his great mate Muscat also staying put. Paul Ifill and Chris Greenacre are others who are very tight with their skipper, forming an extremely influential and united core of experienced players.

In post-match media conferences, Durante is typically calm and measured, regardless of the result. The one notable exception was the loss to Brisbane last month during which he received a yellow card which led to a one-game suspension. His face was black as thunder as he contemplated a week sitting in the stands, something no player enjoys, least of all the skipper.

The ownership dramas of 2011 took a huge toll on Durante. As skipper, he met regularly with Terry Serepisos to get the lie of the land and attempt to gain some assurances on behalf of his uncertain team-mates. He was also asked to front the media on numerous occasions. But during this enormously tumultuous time, he always presented a positive front in the face of massive instability behind the scenes. An intensely loyal man, Durante was clearly torn between wanting to support his owner and needing some certainty for his own and his team-mates- footballing futures. When Welnix took over, the weight was lifted, but Durante was still of sufficient moral character to publicly acknowledge and thank Serepisos for what he-d done for the Wellington Phoenix.

Goals haven-t exactly flowed from the boot, or head of Durante. In fact, when he stepped up to take the second penalty in the sudden-death shoot-out against Perth Glory in the 2009/10 playoffs, he-d still never scored an A-League goal. His assured finish from the spot belied his 84 goal-less A-League games up to that point.

Two weeks later he finally broke his duck, ghosting in at the far post in the Preliminary Final away at Sydney FC to nod home a goal which squared the ledger at 1-1. While the goal meant little in an eventual 4-2 loss, it got Durante off the mark in his 86th A-League match. He doubled his tally earlier this season, again stealing in at the far post, this time to tap in a Ben Sigmund header against Gold Coast United. He-d also point to the goal he scored in the pre-season clash against Boca Juniors in 2010, although the trainspotters will also remember that he also put one past his own ‘keeper late in the same game.

Durante's continual omission from Socceroos squads is utterly baffling, particularly given the players who have been named ahead of him. Two of the defenders in the most recent Australian squad were the A-League's Michael Thwaite from Gold Coast United and Michael Marrone from the Melbourne Heart. Are they really better than Durante? Former Phoenix defenders Jon McKain and Jade North have also featured regularly; again, they're solid enough players, but it's generally accepted that Durante was - and is - a more accomplished centre-back than both of them.

In fact, he's been one of the best defenders in the A-League for several seasons now and apart from being picked for a wider Socceroos training squad a couple of years back, he's never got a look-in. Conspiracy theorists might say it's because he's playing for the Phoenix, rather than one of the Australian A-League sides. I hope that's not true, but in the absence of any other explanation, it makes you wonder. But while there might be doubt in the mind of Holger Osieck and his predecessors, there-s never been any for Ricki Herbert or the Phoenix-s fan-base. Durante is the first name on the team-sheet and not just because he-s skipper.

And so, on the occasion of his one-hundredth appearance for the club he has come to define, Andrew Durante deserves all the plaudits which will flow in his direction. When the history of Wellington Phoenix Football Club is written years from now, I hope it-ll include the eventual retirement of the number 22 jersey. After what-s likely to be close to 200 games with that number on his back, no-one else could come close to doing justice to the jersey he has worn - and will continue to wear - with utter distinction and aplomb.


2008/09: 16 appearances (15 starts), 0 goals 2009/10: 30 appearances (30 starts), 1 goal 2010/11: 28 appearances (27 starts), 0 goals 2011/12: 25 appearances (25 starts), 1 goal TOTAL: 99 appearances (97 starts), 2 goals