Since the days of the National Soccer League, it has been very common for established professionals to move to Europe from Australia’s top league.
While most players' first moves to a European club marks the beginning of a dream come true, they can come with a baptism of fire: higher training standards, faster and stronger opponents, and more intense expectations from teammates, coaching staff, and fans.
While it can be a culture shock, players often work through the challenges with consistent training, forcing themselves into the first team and eventually letting their football establish their reputation amongst their team.
For Trent Sainsbury, his baptism of fire was completely different. Devoid of a chance to play or train, he needed to find a support network outside of the playing group.
Speaking on the Aussies Abroad Podcast, Sainsbury discusses his initial journey in Europe and why he was desperate to depart the A-League Men’s in the first place.
Having recently won the Championship, Sainsbury began to feel the Central Coast Mariners had no more to offer him in terms of development and frustration began to set in: affecting not just himself, but those around him.
“It got to a stage at the Mariners where we won the title and I was getting frustrated in training because I felt like I couldn't progress any further, and I felt like I stalled a little bit,” explained Sainsbury.
“I got a little bit angry with myself and the people around me because I wanted to get out. The club and the staff knew.”
That frustration began to grow and it was obvious to everyone close to Sainsbury that he needed to get out. The best solution for all parties would be to find a transfer to an overseas club.
“When the opportunity arose I honestly didn't think about any big clubs, I was just taking the first club that came up and it happened to be PEC Zwolle.
“I didn't care which club it was or what paycheck I was getting, it was just all about getting over into Europe and trying to pit myself against the Europeans. PEC Zwolle was the first club that came up and I started the journey into Europe.”
Getting to Europe is one thing but establishing yourself in Europe is another thing entirely. The perfect scenario is to join a club, participate in a full pre-season and slowly ease yourself into match fitness and into the team.
But the timing of the transfer meant this was impossible for Sainsbury.
“I had a day and a half before my first game with the team because there they were two centre backs light at the time, so I didn't know my teammates’ names.
“I was doing alright but around the 70th minute I went to use my knee as an anchor and lunge onto the ground and I basically split a piece of my kneecap. It was so cold at the time that I didn’t really notice it, and then I went to play the ball and just collapsed on the floor.”
Without being able to surround himself with teammates and prove himself to them on the training paddock, Sainsbury looked closer to home to get him through this unfortunate injury situation.
“It wasn't the greatest start to my European career as I was out for nine months which was really, really difficult.
“I'm so lucky that I had my [now] wife there at the time, because if I didn't have her there… well, people talk about going into depression and that sort of stuff, but I really was in a bad way.”
Getting through that was difficult enough but on his return, Sainsbury had another baptism of fire – this time in a completely different way.
“Nine months later I came back and played my first game with the second team and I got dragged at halftime. The coach of the second team didn't know it was my first game back after nine months and he gave me the biggest tongue lashing in the change room in front of all the young boys.
“He said that it was the worst half of football he's ever seen, and I was devastated. I was ready to quit right then and there and just head back home to Australia.
But head home he did not. After regaining fitness, Sainsbury solidified a position in the first team, eventually playing three seasons for the Dutch club before earning a big-money move to China.
“It wasn't the greatest start to my European career but I'm glad I stuck it out.”
It was this tough start, self-doubt, and unfortunate injuries that meant that Sainsbury’s future achievements meant so much to him.
Having to miss out on the 2014 World Cup, coupled with the ongoing club issues at the time meant that the centre back truly thought his career was over.
To go on from that and star in a 2018 World Cup, amass more than 50 caps for the Socceroos, and to play for genuine giants in Inter Milan and PSV Eindhoven is a true testament to Sainsbury’s hard work and never-say-die attitude.