When it comes to the world’s biggest clubs, there are only a handful of Australian men who have played for Europe’s traditional heavyweights.
The likes of Harry Kewell and Craig Johnston with Liverpool, Mark Bosnich with Manchester United, and Zeljko Kalac at AC Milan come to mind.
With Johnston as the trailblazer, all the other players mentioned followed his path: gaining a foothold in Europe at a smaller club, proving themselves capable and then transferring directly to a big club.
One of the most recent Socceroos to play for a traditional powerhouse is Trent Sainsbury, but his pathway to Inter Milan was far from normal: instead moving from a coastal Chinese province to one of the biggest cities in football.
Speaking to the Aussies Abroad podcast, Sainsbury discussed the move to China and how he ended up making his debut in Milan.
It all began with a big-money offer from Jiangsu Suning, a now-defunct club that had giant ambitions going into the 2017 season. Despite not knowing much about the league or the club, the former Central Coast Mariner signed on the dotted line.
“I have no regrets whatsoever moving to Jiangsu Suning. I was coming off a pretty decent Asian Cup performance, I had a lot of issues with my body at the time and I was still young. When you get an offer that sets up your future, you don't really want to say no to it,” said Sainsbury.
“I took the plunge into the deep end: I didn't even know what city it was and I’d never heard of the club. I basically went blindfolded and it worked out amazing, the city was really nice and my teammates were amazing.”
Initially it appeared that Sainsbury’s move was a dream come true with the centre back making 41 appearances in his first season with the Chinese Super League club. They were not insignificant matches either, with the league at the height of its big-money era.
“I had Ramires from Chelsea as my roommate and we had big signings such as €50 million Alex Teixeira, big Jô [Alves], and other good players that came in. It was a difficult league at the time and a massive learning experience playing against these big strikers every week.”
Sainsbury is adamant that he has no regrets about moving to China and strongly believes his experience there made him a better player. But as so often happens in football, the dream did not last.
“A new coach came in at Jiangsu Suning and there were a few difficulties, namely didn't want me at the club. He was South Korea and he wanted to bring a South Korea centre back in, so I was getting pushed to the outer.
“Every player that's been in that situation knows it's not nice: you can work your ass off but it doesn't matter what you do, it's inevitable that they're going to let you go.
“At that stage it was just about trying to find the best solution and Inter Milan was one of the first clubs that came up so I jumped at the chance. They’re one of the biggest clubs in the world so as soon as that contract came up, I was signing, no ifs or buts about it.”
Sainsbury was not the first Australian to join Inter Milan with fellow Socceroos Nathan Coe and Carl Valeri both spending time there – but no Australian had ever played a first team match for I Nerazzurri.
It’s one thing to sign for one of the biggest clubs in world football, it’s another thing to be able to pull on the jersey and represent them on the pitch. And when it came to impressing the coaching staff enough for them to select him, Sainsbury was already on the back foot.
With the Chinese Super League starting in March, Sainsbury was well short of match fitness. Not an ideal scenario when you consider March is a key period in Serie A.
“The problem was I went from having eight weeks off in Australia and having just three days of training in China before I went to Milan. Inter were in mid-season and while I was in okay shape, I was not anywhere near mid-season shape.
“When I arrived I had one gym session and one running session by myself and then the next day I was with the team. We did a gym session in the morning and my legs were like jelly – they were wobbling all over the place – I couldn't feel them.
“We then went into this 2v2 training and I was just I was nowhere near the standard needed. I was way off the mark: balls were going under my feet and at one stage I even just fell flat on my face.”
It could have been very easy for Sainsbury’s Inter journey to end right there. It would not have been a surprise for the coaching staff to disregard the young Australia centre back after a first impression like that, just as it could have been easy for Sainsbury to lose all hope and drop his motivation.
But with a crucial component, communication, a plan was put in place for Sainsbury to gain the required fitness and play a part in the squad.
“The coaching staff came up to me and asked, ‘what's going on?’ I explained that I needed to tier into this and that I couldn’t just go flat out and they understood straight away. They were great staff for me.
“Once I got going and got my head down and got myself in shape it was an unbelievable experience for me. I learned so much there in my time there, it was incredible, especially for a defender.”
While Sainsbury’s time with Inter Milan was not a long one – he was only there on a loan deal from Jiangsu Suning – it did have a happy ending.
On 28 May 2017, Trent Sainsbury became the first Australian to play for Inter Milan when he came off the bench in the 71st minute in a 5-2 victory over Udinese Calcio.
His debut was at the San Siro, one of the most famous stadiums in all of world sport.
From the beaches of Central Coast to the hallowed turf of the San Siro – via a coastal Chinese city – Sainsbury’s route to one of Europe’s top clubs may not have been traditional, but it is becoming more commonplace in modern football.
Sainsbury’s modern journey may yet even inspire future players, just like Craig Johnston did when he was the first Australian to use the traditional route to stardom in the 1970s.
Certainly, Sainsbury is already recognised and celebrated at his first club, Central Coast Mariners, where a larger-than-life image of his debut for Inter Milan adorns the wall in the club’s player lounge – inspiring and encouraging a brand new generation of Australian players.