Joker At The Back
THE SOCCEROOS’ RESIDENT LARRIKIN TRENT SAINSBURY IS NO LAUGHING MATTER. THE DEFENDER IS SHAPING UP TO BE AUSTRALIA’S SUPREME LINCHPIN IN RUSSIA AND BEYOND.
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
IT SEEMED LIKE HIS NATIONAL CAREER WAS OVER BEFORE IT HAD EVEN BEGUN … SAINSBURY’S ATTITUDE – OR RATHER OSIECK’S PERCEPTION OF HIS LAID-BACK PERSONA – HAD COST HIM.
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
SAINSBURY WAS THE GLUE THAT HELD POSTECOGLOU’S CONTROVERSIAL BACK-THREE DEFENCE INTACT … HE EMERGED FROM THAT CAMPAIGN WITH A CEMENTED REPUTATION AS AUSTRALIA’S BEST DEFENDER.
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.