Nix' Durante to notch 150 games

Just 21 players have played 150 A-League games. Only seven have done it for one club.

Just 21 players have played 150 A-League games. Only seven have done it for one club. On Sunday, Andrew Durante will become the first to reach the milestone for the Wellington Phoenix, and there-s no more appropriate player to break that new ground than the man who has worn the captain-s armband since he arrived at the club six years ago.

Eyebrows were raised in Australian football circles when just four days after winning the Joe Marston Medal for man-of-the-match in the 2007/08 Grand Final, Durante announced he-d be leaving his championship-winning Newcastle Jets side to join the A-League-s wooden-spooners. He-d been lured to Wellington to shore up a defence that had leaked 37 goals in the club-s first season and was handed the club captaincy shortly after he arrived.

Durante now admits that when he signed, he wasn-t even sure he-d want to stay or even if he-d like New Zealand. He thought he might be in Wellington for a couple of seasons before returning home to Australia. But three months into his second season, Durante signed a three-year extension; a sign of his growing affinity with the football club and the city of Wellington. Another three-year contract was inked early in 2012 which will keep him at the club until the end of the 2014/15 A-League season. There seems little doubt now that the man known to practically everyone simply as “Dura” will see out his professional career at Wellington Phoenix FC and eventually play for the club for close to a decade.

It almost seems redundant to say this but Durante is a quite exceptional defender. He mixes perfectly-timed tackles with a finely-tuned game-sense that allows him to intervene at crucial moments, just as a killer pass is about to be made. He gives away a few inches to many centre-forwards but is rarely beaten in the air and his composure with the ball at feet is the equal of any central defender in the A-League. A trademark move and perfect demonstration of his poise is the common occurrence of him shepherding a ball back towards his own goal-line with an opponent touch-tight, before a shift of body position and quick feet see him able to turn away, lose his marker and find a team-mate with a crisp pass upfield.

The skipper's nickname is more than just the shortened version of his surname; it's also the first syllable in a word that defines him brilliantly - “durable”. Consider this: Wellington Phoenix have played 160 games during Durante's time at the club and he's only missed 11 of them, a quite astonishing display of resilience and consistency. In one particularly memorable period, Durante 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. Once you add his 40 games for the Jets, there are just three players - Matt Thompson, Danny Vukovic and John Hutchinson - who have played more A-League games than Durante has.

The first time Durante found the back of the net for the Phoenix was the perfect example of his leadership and came in the dramatic win over Perth Glory in the first round of the 2009/10 play-offs. With the sides locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes of football, the time came for players to step forward and volunteer for the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Some who had taken penalties earlier in the season were conspicuous by their absence. But not the skipper. “I-ll take one”, he said. It was his 84th A-League match. He-d never scored.

Durante watched Perth-s Steven McGarry and the Phoenix-s Paul Ifill slot their penalties before Perth-s Naum Sekulovski had his superbly saved by Liam Reddy. Durante strode forward and with all the composure of a seasoned striker, side-footed the ball high and to the goalkeeper-s left. It was a great spotty and launched his side into the next round of the playoffs.

Three weeks later his first official goal came in the Preliminary Final against Sydney FC when he headed in a Leo Bertos corner to draw his side level at 1-1, only to see them eventually lose 4-2. He subsequently scored close-range goals in a 2-0 home win over Gold Coast United in March 2012 and the 1-all draw with Perth Glory in Christchurch earlier this season. That third goal took him ahead of his great mate Manny Muscat, a fact he constantly reminds him of.

A long-time team-mate of Durante's recently told me the skipper's influence at the Phoenix goes far, far beyond what happens on the field. He is across the entire football strategy at the club and is consulted on a wide variety of issues that will affect his team's performance, from travel to nutrition, training times to triallists. He is the heartbeat of the Phoenix and easily its most influential figure.

Last year, Durante went from being an honorary kiwi to becoming an official one when he gained New Zealand citizenship with the aim of playing international football for the All Whites. With his eligibility in doubt because of ambiguity around FIFA-s rules, he wasn-t risked in the crucial clash against New Caledonia in Dunedin because a successful protest against his participation could have seen New Zealand lose precious World Cup points. Once victory - and passage to the final stage of World Cup qualification - was secured, the last group match against the Solomon Islands became a dead rubber, opening the way for him to debut. On a sweltering Tuesday in the inauspicious surroundings of Honiara-s Lawson Tama Stadium, Durante finally became an international footballer. Marshalling the defence in typically impressive fashion, he played a key role in a solid 2-0 victory.

Durante-s participation in that game forced FIFA to open an investigation into his eligibility. There followed an agonizing wait for the final tick of approval, which finally came almost six months after that game in Honiara. FIFA-s decision, delivered via fax on September 11 meant Durante was free to play for New Zealand, a country with which he now feels true affinity.

As is natural, Durante is starting to think about life after football. A position within the football club - in whatever form that might take - seems like a natural fit. He also has a hankering for business management and once sat alongside me in the radio commentary box for an international between New Zealand and Australia during which his observations were incisive and astute; hardly surprising from a man who can read the game of football better than the vast majority of his counterparts. While returning to Australia is an option, it-s obvious Wellington is now home for Durante. His daughters Adalyn and Milana were both born here, he and wife Sarah are settled in the capital and own property in New Zealand.

As brilliant a footballer and inspirational a leader as he is, to fully understand Andrew Durante, you need to watch the way he conducts himself off the field. He never refuses an autograph, a photo with a fan or a media interview. He-s been the driving force behind the players- involvement in charity activities such as Mo-vember, head-shaving for child cancer and many more. At a recent awards function for the Wellington Down Syndrome Association at Government House, he was the special guest speaker and afterwards chatted freely with the children who were honoured and their families, as well as the Governor General and his wife. The queue for photos with him was long, and he obliged happily with each one.

There are very few Australian sportspeople who are universally accepted on this side of the Tasman but Andrew Durante certainly makes the list. On the eve of his ground-breaking milestone, it-s impossible to think of the Phoenix without thinking of its on-field leader. He is not only synonymous with the club; he is the true embodiment of what it stands for - excellence, resilience, togetherness and community spirit. It-s only fitting that Andrew Durante-s now famous number 22 Wellington Phoenix shirt will be the first to be worn 150 times.

THE NUMBERS

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: 28 appearances (28 starts), 1 goal 2012/13: 26 appearances (26 starts), 0 goals 2013/14: 21 appearances (21 starts), 1 goal

TOTAL: 149 appearances (147 starts), 3 goals