‘It’s rough, mate’: Wanderers star uneasy over club versus country call

Mitch Duke is agonising at the thought of abandoning Western Sydney Wanderers during the A-League finals if he wins a Socceroos recall for their World Cup qualifying hub in June, saying players shouldn’t be forced to pick between club and country.

Duke, who captained the Wanderers last season, is relishing his return to the club on loan from Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Taawoun, having scored four goals in six appearances – including a brace against Perth Glory on Friday night.

Mitch Duke is on fire for the Wanderers, but his good form could see him taken away from the club during the A-League finals.Credit:Getty

But the 30-year-old is wary of an impending scheduling clash, with the A-League finals set to be run at the same time as the Australian national team returns from an 18-month hiatus.

The Socceroos are due to complete the second round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with their final four games in Group B to be played in a hub in Kuwait.

The A-League is not observing FIFA international breaks this season, due to the terms of its renegotiated broadcasting deal with Fox Sports and also the logistical challenges relating to the pandemic – meaning clubs could have their best players taken away at the most important part of the campaign.

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has already signalled his intent to select an enlarged 34-man squad for the fixtures against Kuwait, Chinese Taipei, Nepal and Jordan – which will all be played within a 12-day span in the peak of the Middle Eastern summer, with temperatures in Kuwait in June averaging between 33 and 40 degrees.

Duke is hopeful of earning a national team recall and adding to his six Socceroos caps, but doesn’t want it to come at the expense of an A-League championship bid with his hometown club.

“You don’t ever want to be in that position,” he told the Herald. “Unfortunately if that’s going to be the case, that’s just how things have played out, accepting everything that’s happened over the last year in the world.

“I’d think 99 per cent of players are choosing national team because I feel like there’s no greater honour. I can’t see any player saying no to the national team … you want to represent your country as many times as you can during your career.

“But then again if that’s going to play a part in you missing finals football, it’ll be very bittersweet, and if that was to affect your chances of winning a title or lifting a trophy, those are things you also look back on in your career, and what you do all that season’s hard work for. To not be able to do that last section … it’s rough, mate.”

Sources familiar with the Australian Professional Leagues’ broadcast plans have confirmed that as part of the A-League’s next TV deal – which could be wrapped up in the next month – breaks in the season schedule for international windows are a near-certainty to return, which would bring Australia back in line with every other major competition in the world.

But that comes as cold comfort to Duke and players like him around the A-League – like Sydney FC defender Rhyan Grant, and Melbourne City trio Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout and Curtis Good – who could find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place before then.

“You don’t want to be the minority in these situations – you want to be following suit with the best leagues in the world,” Duke said.

Mitch Duke fights for the ball against Japan’s Masato Ogihara during their men’s East Asian Cup match back in mid-2013.Credit:AHN YOUNG-JOON

“International breaks are just good in general for clubs to regroup, if they’re struggling throughout the season. It’s always good for clubs to have players go off for international duty because it looks good on the club as well. There’s so many benefits.

“At the moment you have to choose in Australia … it shouldn’t even be a discussion.”

Duke left the Wanderers in August last year, signing for Al-Taawoun when the future of the A-League and many clubs was in limbo because of the pandemic’s financial implications.

But he secured a loan move back to the club in February after growing frustrated with his role at the Saudi team, where he was being used as a winger instead of a striker.

Duke said he has been pleasantly surprised by the standard of the domestic competition this season, describing it as “entertainment value 100”, while he is also excited about how the Wanderers – who sit second on the ladder – are trending under coach Carl Robinson.

But Duke is contracted with Al-Taawoun until June 2022 and is unsure of what his future holds, especially with a new coaching staff in place at the club and no real certainty again over what the A-League will look like moving forward.

“It’s a tough one,” he said. “At the moment it’s that 50-50 chance of what’s going to be happening. Me doing well here will help open up other possibilities, but they have the final say. It’s going to be a massive discussion after this season’s finished to see which way I go.

“I wasn’t happy there, which is why I wanted to get out to come back here, and I wanted to prove a point to them, because they didn’t play me as a striker. I feel like I’m starting to do that and I’m hungry for more. I want to put myself out there – I am a striker, I’m not any other position, and that’s where you play me if you take me.”

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