Mitch Duke was a boy living the dream when he left the Hyundai A-League for Japan in 2015.
Today, the new Western Sydney Wanderers captain is a man carrying the hopes and expectations of his boyhood club on his shoulders.
It is only fitting that Liverpool-born Duke, who grew up only 20km away from the club’s spiritual Parramatta home, has been chosen to lead the Wanderers in their homecoming season.
It took just 21 seconds for the former Championship-wining Central Coast Mariner to endear himself to the Wanderers faithful after returning to Australia from J-League outfit Shimizu S-Pulse in February, scoring with his first touch in a Red & Black jersey.
Duke scored three more goals in his next 10 appearances, and while his introduction sharpened a Wanderers team lacking a killer in the final third, it was his ability to instantly galvanise a young side down on confidence that helped Markus Babbel’s side end a gloomy campaign on a mild high.
Although always an enthusiastic trier under Graham Arnold’s Mariners, leadership was not necessarily a quality attributed to Duke during his fledgling years in Gosford.
It is rather something that emerged over the course of four seasons in the J-League, one of the most technically challenging and physically demanding competitions in Asia.
“When I left for Japan, I was a younger boy,” Duke told www.aleague.com.
“I never really had that leadership role, I guess.
"Now coming back... I'm 28 years old and i'm ready to be a leader.
“I believe I’ve got quite a lot of experience in the game now, coming back home to Australia after playing four years in Japan. You pick up on certain things on what it takes to win games, what it takes to be a professional footballer.
“And with that added experience, I feel like I can be one of the main leaders at the Wanderers. We do have quite a young team, so to help guide those young boys and help them become better footballers and better people off the field as well is quite a role I’d like to take anyway, regardless of whether I had the armband or not.”
Duke was a 73rd minute substitute for Mile Sterjovski when Central Coast crushed the Wanderers hopes of clinching an incredible Grand Final win at the first attempt back in 2013.
The Wanderers have slowly come down from the astonishing high of three Grand Finals in four seasons of existence – and an AFC Champions League win in 2014.
The club have spent the last three seasons in the wilderness – but a return to Parramatta, at the new Bankwest Stadium, has brought with it a feeling that the Wanderers of old are back.
And Duke will be the man who leads the Red & Black into this new era – starting with a Round 1 battle against former club Mariners.
“It definitely feels like going home,” he said.
“This pre-season has already been a massive upgrade from last year. We’ve got no excuses for any poor results or poor performances or anything like that. We’ve got it all given to us now. It’s for us to take it to the next level and get the club back to where they were at the beginning when they first started with all the success.”
There is also a sense that the Wanderers will be wiser from a 2018/19 campaign that produced ecstasy in parts but often hovered on the brink of disaster.
And perhaps no one will have gained more insight than coach Markus Babbel, whose maiden year in Australia was nothing if not a learning curve.
At times the former Liverpool and Bayern Munich man was left lost for words as experienced players dropped like flies, made inexplicable errors and continued conceding heart-breaking late goals.
Duke says the German has strolled about pre-season training with a composure and sureness that may have been absent last campaign.
“He’s definitely a lot more positive in the sense that he’s having a full pre-season under his belt,” Duke said.
“He feels a lot more in control and you can sense that. He’s creating such a good atmosphere during this pre-season; all the boys are loving it.
“Pre-season is supposed to be the hardest time and most hated time of the season and we’re all just gelling together, it’s bringing us closer and we’re all just having a good time and he’s created that atmosphere for us.
“He sets a standard which is awesome, and he puts you on edge pretty much saying you’ve got to perform in training every day every single day and he want consistency and quality.”
The overseas signings Babbel has brought to Sydney’s west have added another layer of optimism.
Swiss midfielder Pirmin Schwegler has made over 250 appearances in the Bundesliga, and compatriot Daniel Lopar looks a safe pair of hands in between the sticks.
Meanwhile, Polish dynamo Radoslaw Majewski, a former favourite at Nottingham Forest, has the potential to replicate the impact countryman Adrian Majewski had for the club’s cross-city rivals.
“Schwegler, he’s really impressed me,” Duke said. “He’s just an absolute solider in the midfield. With his experience as well, with how many years in the Bundesliga, it’s something you want in any team.
“Raddy [Majewski] is quality. He pulls the strings in the attacking midfield role. That’s going to be quite an exciting mixture, and I think we’re going to gel and have a really big year ahead.”