U-23's Duncan's incredible story of resilience after 'heartbreaking', 'worst injury of career'

Having already fought off three broken ankles in his young career, Australia U-23's and AGF Aarhus midfielder Zach Duncan now faces the reality of another extended stint on the sidelines but if there is one thing he does not lack, it is resilience.

The 20-year-old was replaced by fellow countryman Mustafa Amini after he sustained the "worst injury of his career" just 23 minutes into AGF’s 1-1 draw with bitter rivals Randers FC.

He told Socceroos.com.au how excited he was to be named in the starting lineup after such a long absence from football and explained the details surrounding his latest setback.

"We were versing Randers; they are not a pretty team, it’s like a little derby for us and every time we play these guys it's just a scrap fest," Duncan said.

"The balls were flying everywhere and people were kicking each other.

"In the 20th minute, I went to press the centre-back, stepped on my right knee and it just collapsed.

"I heard the most disgusting noise that I think I’ve ever heard.

"It was heartbreaking because I knew straight away that it was going to be a long rehab."

It was Duncan’s first Danish Superliga appearance since December 2019, following a yellow card suspension and the COVID-19 halt.

Now he faces an even longer stint on the sidelines, with his official diagnosis a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus.

For any normal 20-year-old, sustaining an ACL injury just 12 months into a dream European adventure would be enough to break them. 

But Duncan is no stranger to resilience.

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He dropped out of school in year 11, broke his ankle three times and uprooted his life to move to Queensland in search of a youth team contract, knowing there was no guarantee of being signed.

After some time in the Sunshine State, Brisbane Roar noticed his determination and offered him the contract he had been searching for.

Duncan then had to split his time playing football with working in retail just to make ends meet and he admitted that it was tough.

"There were many times where I thought I wanted to give up but I've been playing football since I was five years old and I can’t really see myself doing anything else," he said.

"I had to keep going until I got told to get a proper job and that was my mindset."

At the end of the 2018/19 A-League season, he was handed his Roar senior debut in round 22 against Melbourne Victory.

He took his opportunity with both hands and went on to play the remaining three games of the season before going on trial with AGF in Denmark.

When he arrived in Denmark, he knew he only had 10 days try to earn a contract.

Duncan scored in a reserve team match, but much like the rest of his career, the 10 days did not come without its challenges.

"I picked up a hip flexor injury in the trial game, it turned out to be nothing serious but obviously, when you are only there for ten days it's pretty serious," he recalled.

Following the trial, Duncan returned to Sydney where he had signed with Marconi Stallions FC for the impending NPL NSW season because he thought AGF would not want him.

But they did.

In June 2019, he was signed a four-year contract with Aarhus.

After all the times during his journey that he thought about giving up, he admitted that signing a four-year deal with Aarhus made it all worth it.

Duncan now has his sights set on a Tokyo Olympics return, which has been deferred until mid-2021.

He was an integral member of Graham Arnold’s Australia U-23's squad during the qualification process and he hopes to pick up where he left off.

In the meantime, Duncan now has plenty of things to do to keep him occupied after his AGF teammates surprised him with a PlayStation 4 following his injury.

"My teammates have been unbelievable," he said.

"All the boys have been messaging me and when I went into training two days after it happened, they bought me a PS4 so I can play with them.

"It's been good that they also just talk to me about normal things and not just about the injury.

"That sort of stuff is nice because I can get my head off it and just feel like I'm a part of the group."

But the support did not end there.

Australian teammates Alex Gersbach and Amini – who play alongside Duncan at the third-placed Aarhus – also threw a surprise birthday party for him days after his injury.

"I was just expecting it to be me, Musti and one of the other boys and when I walked in there was like eight of my teammates and their girlfriends.

"It was a really nice surprise and obviously, it was just good way to get my mind off my knee also."

Duncan is expected to be sidelined for up to 10 months, but do not be surprised if you see him sooner.