From marking Mbappé to his biggest regret: Trent Sainsbury's rollercoaster 2018
In June 2018 Trent Sainsbury’s stock rose as high as it had ever been.
Vintage performances against France and Denmark in the FIFA World Cup had taken Australia – and a lot of the footballing world – by storm.
Here was an Australia footballer, in his mid-twenties, showing composed and assured performances in the centre of defence against world class attackers such as Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann.
Pundits praised his ability, fans debated about the potential of a big club picking him up, and teammates had a rock in the backline they could rely on.
What wasn’t known at the time was all that Sainsbury had to go through to get to that point, the genuine highs and lows during the World Cup itself, and that the biggest regret of his career which was going to immediately follow the tournament.
Speaking on the Aussie’s Abroad Podcast, Sainsbury discusses the 2018 World Cup, the lead-in to the tournament, and the biggest regret of his career.
So first, let’s rewind to November 2017. Having placed third in their AFC World Cup Qualifying group, the Socceroos had already defeated Syria over two legs (3-2 after extra time) to book a place in the CONCACAF–AFC play-off against Honduras.
It was a winner takes all tie, with the victors guaranteeing their place in the 2018 World Cup and the losers having to wait another four years. After a 0-0 result in the away leg, it all came down to a single game at Stadium Australia five days later.
Famously, a Mile Jedinak hat-trick led the Socceroos to a 3-1 win and a place at the FIFA World Cup, but one of the most iconic images of that match was an emotional Sainsbury in tears.
“For about six months before the match I was getting injections fortnightly on both sides of my groin just to try and get through games,” explained Sainsbury.
“It wasn't an easy period emotionally; it was chaos for me. I couldn't sneeze, I couldn't laugh, I couldn't roll over in bed at night – it was super painful. Anyone that has had hernias will know that it’s not a pretty thing. To try and play with it and train with it, it took a big toll and you can see it.”
Knowing the background and understanding that Sainsbury was not only playing through pain, but he was living through pain – just so that Australia had a shot at World Cup qualification – gives the photograph genuine context.
“There was a picture of me and Mat Ryan after full time of the Honduras match and I think most people thought I was crying because we qualified. I was crying because I knew I could finally get surgery!
“That was a big thing for me to try and finally get fit and get healthy again. It took its toll, that's for sure.”
Thankfully for Sainsbury and the Socceroos, the centre back was able to correct his body to be fit and ready for selection in all three of the national team’s matches in Russia the following year.
And while his body was good to go, this time there were some emotional roller-coasters ready to play their part.
“It was a crazy World Cup. Two days before the opening game my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child, so I was on a massive high for the France game and played really well.
“Then the day before the Denmark game I got told that dog, Zizou, died so I was in pieces the day before that game. I was absolutely shattered.”
Despite the emotional level being on opposite ends of the scale, for Sainsbury the result was the same in both games with tremendous individual performances. A one goal loss against future World Champions, France, followed by a draw against Denmark gave the Socceroos a chance to qualify for the Round of 16 in their final group stage game.
A win (coupled with a Denmark loss) would have seen Australia go into the knockout rounds for the first time since 2006, but in the end, Australia lost 2-0 while Denmark won a point against France.
“We played okay against Denmark but going into the third game, we didn't really handle it well emotionally as a team. We were spent, we needed to change it up but didn't happen.
“But you know, the World Cup is the World Cup it's such an amazing experience so there's always going to be ups and downs. It's an experience one that I'm never going to forget.”
Sainsbury’s form in the tournament did not go unnoticed in Europe, and as a reward he soon signed a contract for defending Eredivisie champions, PSV Eindhoven. He would be joined there by Socceroos teammate Aziz Behich and it was seen as a perfect platform for Sainsbury to launch the next stage of his career.
“I'm glad I went to PSV for the fact that I did get to play at a big club and play UEFA Champions League but it's probably one of those decisions that I do regret making in my career.
“In my mind I was going there to play under Bert van Marwijk but I went there and things didn't pan out the way it was going to pan out.
“Mark van Bommel was the coach and I when I was injured straightaway that didn't help things: I just couldn't find a rhythm at all and lost confidence in training.
“Everyone kind of looked at me and van Bommel as boys because he brought me in from the national team. A few words got thrown at training and the relationship was gone from there, so I knew I had to get out of there.”
While the decision to sign with PSV did end with regret, there were still some career highlights for Sainsbury and some experiences he was grateful for.
“The Champions League games salvaged that whole experience for me: the one against Tottenham was probably not the greatest Champions League debut with an own goal but there nothing I could do about it.
“Going back to play in my old haunt, Inter Milan, in front of the San Siro was incredible.”