Australian striker Mitchell Duke made one of the biggest decisions in his career when he left the Central Coast Mariners to join Shimizu S-Pulse of the J-League. The bustling forward joined the Gosford club in 2009 and became a fan favourite for his intense and hard working displays built on absolute fearlessness, an apt representation of the Mariners themselves.
However, when the opportunity for Duke to play in one of the premier Asian football competitions presented itself it was a chance too good to refuse for the twenty four year old. Shizuoka is often referred to as the home of football in Japan with the world game being ingrained in the region, unlike the rest of Japan which is still largely obsessed with baseball. The four time Socceroo admitted that the change of football environment has meant there has been a necessary transition period, one that has seen him have to work on certain things to fit in.
“It’s been a bit of a transition period to be fair,” Duke told Football Central.
“It’s a lot different. The A-League’s a lot more physical, this (the J-League) is a lot sharper and more intense so I’ve had to improve a couple of little things in my game, technique-wise as well.
“But it’s been good and I feel I held my own today where I was playing (in midfield). Hopefully I can keep building on that, the team as a unit too, and we can start getting better results.”
A common problem faced by many foreigners moving to Japan is language, and for a footballer it can cause a unique set of problems on and off the pitch. Duke told Japanese reporters on Saturday that his teammates have been helpful in transitioning to his new surroundings.
“I’m adapting well. The players have made it easy to adapt on the pitch,” said Duke at the Big Arch Stadium in Hiroshima, following his side’s 2-0 defeat to Sanfrecce.
“I know enough to do the basics on the pitch with the Japanese players.”
Another challenge for not just Duke but his new coach Katsumi Oenoki is the glut of forward options available at the club. S-Pulse have, in addition to the Australian, Nigerian Peter Utaka, current leading-scorer Genki Omae, Shun Nagasawa, and Kazuya Murata just to name a few. Oenoki still is yet to decide on his ideal combination.
The game against Sanfrecce Hiroshima this past weekend was the first time that Duke and Utaka have started together in the league, although Duke ended up playing deeper in a midfield position. It was Duke’s first J-League start (fourth overall) and his second full 90 minutes.
“This is my first ninety minutes in the J-League which is good for me,” said Duke post match.
“I need the minutes and regular football so I can keep providing for the team.
“We’ve been rotating quite a few options at the moment and for me at the start of the game (against Sanfrecce) I was playing midfield which is very new to me. I played a much more defensive role today.
“We do have a lot of attacking options so we definitely have to find that right combination and quickly.”
Duke believes it’s just a matter of putting away the chances and not switching off. He has no doubt in the system they’re playing under and is sure they’ll turn around their disappointing start to the season which sees them in sixteenth spot on the table, having suffered five straight league defeats.
“We try to mix it up. We try to play to one side and get it out to the space on the other side and get players in the box to finish it. We did that a couple of times today and it worked,” said Duke.
“The combinations are still working because we’re creating opportunities. We had two very good chances today that should’ve been goals.
“We’ve conceded some silly set pieces in the previous weeks and again today. We lose the ball with our back to goal and get punished.”
Duke’s former team the Mariners have this past season also struggled on and off the park but the forward has been encouraged by the signs since Tony Walmsley has taken over.
“I know Tony very well from the youth team. He’s a very good coach and he’ll bring the best out of the young boys and once he’s had a full preseason under his belt you’ll see a good team for next season.”
The Mariners season finished Sunday with a 3-1 loss away to Premiers Plate winners Melbourne Victory but for Duke and his teammates they’ll be hoping to turn their season around when Montedio Yamagata visit Wednesday afternoon.