Joker At The Back


Inside Sport - - Contents - BY JOHN DAVID­SON

He’s good for a laugh, but the Socceroos will se­ri­ously need Trent Sains­bury at the World Cup.

Two mo­ments stand out clearly from Novem­ber 15, 2017 when Australia fi­nally booked its place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Socceroos had dom­i­nated Hon­duras in the sec­ond leg in Syd­ney be­fore a packed ANZ Sta­dium, and cel­e­brated a fourth suc­cess­ful World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion in a row. It hadn’t all gone to plan, with tense home-and-away play-offs against Syria and Los Ca­tra­chos, and later head coach Ange Postecoglou would bizarrely fall on his own sword with their place in Rus­sia se­cure.

But all that mat­tered was that the green and gold would be there. There wasn’t quite the out­pour­ing of emo­tion at the same arena that we saw in 2005, when 31 years of pain and hurt ended. But it was par­tic­u­larly spe­cial for Trent Sains­bury, who bolted into the stands once full-time was called. There, he em­braced his fa­ther Scott, a man who is his hero, role model and best mate all rolled into one.

The other side of Sains­bury’s char­ac­ter came via pic­tures of the Socceroos’ dress­ing room. Cham­pagne and beer flowed as the party kicked off. There, tele­vi­sion cam­eras picked up the cen­tral de­fender stripped down to his un­der­pants and skolling a beer from a foot­ball boot, a “Soc­cer-shoey”, be­fore tip­ping another beer on the head of Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Australia chair­man Stephen Lowy.

Later, the so­cial me­dia ac­count of Aus­tralian goal­keeper Mat Ryan would show Sains­bury try­ing to open a few stub­bies with his teeth. There was the 26-year-old’s char­ac­ter laid bare: larrikin, joker, a throw­back to the days of old – but also a bloody good foot­baller.

Two men have shaped Trent Sains­bury’s life more than any other. The first is no sur­prise – the per­son he de­scribed as his in­spi­ra­tion to a national news­pa­per in 2013: “I just wanted to fol­low in his foot­steps. In my eyes he was a great player and is a great dad, and if I can do any­thing to make him proud of me, then I will.” Scott Sains­bury was not a pro­fes­sional foot­baller, with a ca­reer con­tained to lo­cal Perth club Ar­madale. But he en­joys a strong bond with his son, one dif­fer­ent to the con­trol­ling and dom­i­neer­ing type of soc­cer-dad re­la­tion­ships. Soc­ceroo Bai­ley Wright ex­plains of his team-mate: “His dad’s al­ways been some­one push­ing for his ca­reer. You can see the emo­tion and why he does what he does and part of why he’s such a funny guy that he is. He loves a joke and a laugh, and he def­i­nitely gets that from his old man.”

Tony Ral­lis has man­aged Sains­bury since 2010, when he left the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport and linked up with A-League side Cen­tral Coast Mariners. Ral­lis, who has guided the ca­reers of sev­eral Socceroos, has built a strong bond with both his prized client and his fam­ily. He de­scribes Scott as “salt of the earth”.

“Both of Trent’s par­ents are beau­ti­ful peo­ple,” Ral­lis says. “They’re real, there’s noth­ing fake about them or con­tentious. They’re just nor­mal, down-to-earth hu­man be­ings. The Sains­burys played a sig­nif­i­cant part in Trent’s up­bring­ing. That’s a sig­nif­i­cant make-up of Trent’s DNA.”

The other fig­ure in Sains­bury’s life, who has helped guide him both on and off the field, is Gra­ham Arnold. Eight years ago, Arnold was the one who took a punt on a skinny 18-year-old from Western Australia. He signed Sains­bury, gave him his pro­fes­sional de­but in 2010, and helped de­velop his skills. It was Arnold who turned him from a tal­ented kid into one of Australia’s best de­fend­ers. That re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ues to this day and strength­ened sig­nif­i­cantly last year when Sains­bury mar­ried Arnold’s daugh­ter Elissa. It went from coach to player, from men­tor to pro­tege, now to fam­ily.

Daniel McBreen was part of that fa­mous Mariners team that won a premier­ship, a cham­pi­onship and reached two grand fi­nals in a three-year-pe­riod, and also launched the ca­reers of Sains­bury, Ryan, Mustafa Amini, Bernie Ibini-Isei, Oliver Bozanic and Anthony Cac­eres. McBreen says that to his play­ers, and to Sains­bury in par­tic­u­lar, Arnold was both con­fi­dant and coach all rolled into one.

“When you take to a young guy who’s moved away from home at the age of 15 and then go­ing straight into that en­vi­ron­ment, he’s al­ways go­ing to be… I’m not go­ing to say a fa­ther­fig­ure and take any­thing away from his own fa­ther, but a sec­ondary one who can ad­vise him and look af­ter him. I know his old man has mas­sive re­spect for Arnie and vice versa. They talk a lot about Trent and are there to guide some­one he has had a mas­sive ef­fect on, not just Trent, but all those young guys there.”

Be­fore Sains­bury landed on the Cen­tral Coast, he was a promis­ing young­ster who had rep­re­sented his coun­try at both the un­der-17 and un­der-20 level, and had gone through the AIS pro­gram. He had clear po­ten­tial, but few knew just how far he could go.

The newly formed Mel­bourne Heart club of­fered Sains­bury a measly youth team con­tract of just $5000, but he landed at the Mariners on a pro­fes­sional deal. The move was the right one and he was ac­cel­er­ated into the first team quickly. He had to bide his time, of­ten fea­tur­ing at right back, with vet­eran cen­tral de­fend­ers Alex Wilkin­son and Pa­trick Zwaan­swijk ahead of him. But Gos­ford proved to be the per­fect place to learn his craft. “They were two great play­ers who in their own right had tremen­dous ca­reers and done tremen­dous things,” McBreen says. “You couldn’t have two bet­ter pro­fes­sion­als in his po­si­tion teach­ing him all the facets of the game. When Trent fi­nally got his op­por­tu­nity in the first team, he had to play right back first and he didn’t like it. But he said if I have to get in the team that way, I’m happy to do it. And when he fi­nally did get that cen­tre back po­si­tion, you knew straight away that no one was go­ing to take it off him. I think with him and ‘Swanny’ as a cen­tre back pair­ing, I think they’re up there as one of the best cen­tre back pair­ings the A-League have ever seen.”

It was a fast rise for the surfer kid from WA. In three years, he es­tab­lished him­self as one of the elite de­fend­ers in the A-League and was win­ning personal and team ac­co­lades. Sains­bury was named in the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers As­so­ci­a­tion’s team of the sea­son in 2013 and was nom­i­nated for the NAB Young Foot­baller of the Year award. At 21, he was one of the sport’s hottest lo­cal prospects.

Soc­ceroo coach Hol­ger Osieck had no­ticed his stel­lar per­for­mances and he was called up in 2013 for a national team train­ing camp. He was se­lected for the EAFF East Asian Cup, but was the only player on that ex­per­i­men­tal squad not to fea­ture. It seemed like his national ca­reer was over be­fore it had even be­gun. It was later re­vealed that Sains­bury’s at­ti­tude

– or rather Osieck’s per­cep­tion of his laid­back per­sona – had cost him. The de­fender was viewed as too “re­laxed” and “lazy”, not the first time he has been mis­un­der­stood. A few months later, Osieck was sacked af­ter a string of 6-0 de­feats, just eight months be­fore the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In came Postecoglou, an ap­point­ment that would spell good news, not only for the Socceroos, but for Sains­bury. He was ear­marked by the


new coach to go to Brazil, but dis­as­ter struck af­ter his move to Dutch club PEC Zwolle went through. On his de­but for the Blauwvingers he suf­fered a freak in­jury af­ter fall­ing on a de­pressed sprin­kler dur­ing the game, breaking his kneecap and putting him out of ac­tion for six months. His World Cup hopes evap­o­rated in an in­stant.

The year ended bet­ter, with his first cap for the Socceroos com­ing in a 2-0 loss to Bel­gium. With the Asian Cup on home soil fast ap­proach­ing, Postecoglou quickly made him a main­stay of his first XI. The de­ci­sion paid off and then some – Sains­bury started ev­ery game as the Socceroos won their first-ever ma­jor tro­phy. With his first goal for his coun­try, in the semi-fi­nal win over the United Arab Emi­rates, and a man of the match dis­play in the 2-1 fi­nal win over South Korea, Sains­bury was se­lected in the team of the tour­na­ment. He had well and truly ar­rived as a Soc­ceroo.

Af­ter two up-and-down sea­sons in Hol­land, marred by in­jury, Sains­bury made the sur­prise de­ci­sion to head to China. The of­fer was a hugely lu­cra­tive one – a three-year-deal to Jiangu Sun­ing in a $1.5 mil­lion trans­fer which the then 24-year-old couldn’t pass up. He would later tell SBS: “The in­come side of the deal will al­low me to help my fam­ily and peo­ple clos­est to me.” Sains­bury was blasted by many fans – for sell­ing out, for not chas­ing a move to a big­ger Eu­ro­pean league like Eng­land or Spain, for tak­ing the money. Australia’s foot­ball fan base, filled with mem­o­ries of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell star­ring in the Premier League, wanted those days back. But the de­fender stuck to his guns.

McBreen, who also played in China, says it’s a unique op­por­tu­nity for a pro­fes­sional foot­baller. “I’m pretty sure he’s been look­ing af­ter his fam­ily in Perth,” he says. “You might never have that op­por­tu­nity again. You never know in foot­ball – you could be in­jured and gone, you never know. It was good that he was head­strong to do what was best for him­self and his fam­ily.” Sains­bury has never lacked men­tal strength or tough­ness. A de­sire to play with Europe’s elite re­mains. And that hap­pened last year when he spent six months on loan with Ital­ian gi­ant In­ter. While he only played one first-team game for the Mi­lan club, he made his­tory as the first Aus­tralian to do so, and got an in­sider’s ex­pe­ri­ence of how the best on the planet op­er­ate on a daily ba­sis. He has now moved on loan to Switzer­land with Zurich out­fit Grasshop­pers and is al­ready mak­ing an im­pact. A move back to Italy, or Ger­many’s Bun­desliga, af­ter the World Cup is likely if he can keep pro­duc­ing.

Talk to those who knew Trent Sains­bury, or “Sains”, and they speak of his fun-lov­ing side, his rogu­ish charm, his like­abil­ity. Cocky but not ar­ro­gant. Confident but not over the top. You could ar­gue he is more suited to the days of old, when pro­fes­sional sport was filled with char­ac­ters and lar­rikins, and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness was not at its peak. But to some, this part of his per­son­al­ity dis­guises a sen­si­tive soul who is in­cred­i­bly driven and fo­cused. An in­di­vid­ual who his both deter­mined and com­fort­able in his own skin.

“He’s a bril­liant player, ev­ery­one knows that,” team-mate Wright says. “He’s had his tough time with in­juries through­out his ca­reer, but I think it’s made him stronger men­tally and phys­i­cally. It still hasn’t hin­dered him from be­com­ing the player he is. Like any­one, he’s as hun­gry and wants to play games and get him­self to that high­est level.”

He may be the Socceroos’ class clown, a typ­i­cal dinky-di Aussie, but don’t be fooled – the 26-year-old is in­tel­li­gent and ar­tic­u­late. He is a strong believer in an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion and in pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. Sains­bury shuns most me­dia in­ter­views, and de­clined to speak to In­side Sport for this piece. He gen­er­ally prefers to let his foot­ball do his talk­ing, but he also is un­afraid to share his views. Last June he caused a mini-me­dia storm when spoke out about crit­i­cism aimed at the team, say­ing: “It would just be nice for the Aus­tralian pub­lic to be on our side for once”. Sains­bury also re­vealed in Novem­ber that he felt “let down” by Postecoglou’s res­ig­na­tion.

He might en­joy a joke, but when it comes to foot­ball, he is deadly se­ri­ous. That was com­pletely ev­i­dent in Australia’s bid for a berth in the 2018 World Cup. Through the qual­i­fi­ca­tion phase, Sains­bury was one of the first names of the Soc­ceroo teamsheet. And de­spite bat­tling the de­bil­i­tat­ing groin con­di­tion os­teitis pu­bis through 2017, which meant he only played six games of


club foot­ball through­out the cal­en­dar year, he al­ways put his hand up for his coun­try for ev­ery qual­i­fier.

Sains­bury was the glue that held Postecoglou’s con­tro­ver­sial back-three de­fence in­tact. He missed only one of Australia’s 13 matches last year and was a star per­former in the cru­cial fi­nal play-offs. His com­po­sure, his calm­ness un­der pres­sure and his abil­ity to ef­fort­lessly bring the ball out of de­fence was price­less. He emerged from that cam­paign with a ce­mented rep­u­ta­tion as Australia’s best de­fender.

That image hasn’t dimmed ei­ther, with the de­par­ture of Postecoglou and the short­term ap­point­ment of Bert van Mar­wijk. In the Dutch­man’s first game in charge, a friendly against lowly Nor­way in March, the Socceroos were thrashed 4-1. With­out Sains­bury, which moved Mark Mil­li­gan to cen­tre back and handed 22-year-old Alek­san­dar Sus­n­jar a de­but, the back­line looked weak and dis­or­gan­ised. Van Mar­wijk even named-dropped Sains­bury’s ab­sence as a rea­son why the team was so poor. He has fast be­come the ir­re­place­able Soc­ceroo.

With his fa­ther-in-law Arnold tak­ing over the national team job af­ter Rus­sia, Sains­bury’s in­flu­ence could only grow. But first there is a World Cup to nav­i­gate, another group of death fea­tur­ing France, Den­mark and Peru to sur­vive. Getting out of that would equal the his­toric feat of 2006. A fit and fir­ing Sains­bury is vi­tal to any chance of that hap­pen­ing. There is no ad­e­quate back-up, no like-for-like re­place­ment. For­get the age­ing Tim Cahill – the Perth prod­uct is in­dis­pens­able. If the World Cup goes bet­ter than ex­pected, Sains­bury’s ca­reer could go to the next level. Then we will re­ally find out just how good he is.

Sains­bury has gone head-to-head with the likes of Ger­many.  At the Con­fed Cup against Chile.  World Cup pas­sage se­cured.

Grand fi­nal glory with Daniel McBreen at Cen­tral Coast led to go­ing Dutch with Zwolle [ ], then lift­ing the Asian Cup [ ­].

Come Rus­sia, the Socceroos could use some hero­ics from Sains­bury.

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