Moving from Western Australia to to the gloomy Lancastrian mill town of Blackburn via stints in Barcelona and Liverpool is not exactly a well-travelled path.
For Zak Gilsenan however, it has been a journey that has moulded him into one of the most promising footballers born Down Under.
Born in Perth to Irish parents, Gilsenan found his calling early in life, gravitating to football from a young age.
“I was probably about four or five when I started playing indoor football,” said Gilsenan when speaking to Kick360.
“I ended up signing for Carramar Cougars in Perth and from there, I went on a trial at ECU [Joondalup] and they didn’t accept me, I was only about five or six. From then, I ended up going to Sorrento where I properly fell in love with football. I ended up watching lots of videos of Neymar skills and all sorts, just obsessed with it really. From Sorrento, I ended up playing for Perth Glory and then that was it really.”
After plying his trade with the Glory youth sides, a rapid rise to stardom followed whilst on a training camp associated with Premier League powerhouse Tottenham Hotspur, where he was scouted by Spanish giants Barcelona.
“I was on a two-week training camp in Australia to do with Tottenham, and from that I won the player of the two weeks award, and they offered me a two-week trial over at Tottenham in London. From then, Barcelona scouts were there and they offered me a trial in Barcelona, which is something you can’t really turn down as a young kid.
“I was only young but the culture definitely, learning a new culture at such a young age and the language. My fondest memory is probably playing street football and cage football, because everywhere you look there is just kids kicking a ball in a park somewhere, and that’s probably what has helped me be a player today with technicality and stuff like that really.
“I’m privileged that I got that opportunity really, and the facilities in Barcelona at La Masia, playing in Australia can’t really compare to that.”
From there, he swapped one former European champion for another, crossing from La Masia to Melwood to join Liverpool after impressing there on trial.
“Probably the main reason is when I was playing for Barcelona, there was a tournament that Liverpool went to. I could speak English and so could all the Liverpool kids, so I was translating.
“I sort of knew all of the kids already and in the first session I think they offered me a contract after the first hour of the session and from there it felt right to sign for Liverpool at the time.”
Across the two European juggernauts, he held his own alongside some of football’s brightest young talents, starring alongside youngsters who are already embedding themselves as household names across the globe.
“You get a lot of good players really, some of the names would be like Tyler Morton, who is starting to play for Liverpool now, probably Xavi Simmons at Barça, but there are some players at that age that were a lot better but probably didn’t reach their potential when they were little kids or whatever, so it’s always hard when you are young to comment on players.”
After leaving Liverpool as a 16-year-old, he made the short journey north to sign for Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers. While ostensibly a move that many would turn their nose up at, Gilsenan has thrived so far at Brockhall, in amongst an academy that has produced nine of the 25 players to feature for the club competitively this campaign at the time of writing.
“It’s been amazing to be honest, the whole place I just love really. I signed as a sixteen [year-old], when I first came in it felt right for me. As a sixteen, I played a few games for the eighteens, then got my scholar and had my two years there, which helped me a lot as a player but also as a person growing up. Obviously living in The Lodge just helps you with all the other lads.”
After making four appearances for Rovers’ Under-18’s in the 2018-19 season, he came into his own the following season. Playing a starring role in the Lancashire outfit’s run to the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup, including a goal at Ewood Park against Preston North End in a 4-2 triumph in the Round of 16, he was becoming the name on everyone’s lips.
After continuing to impress the following year, with eight goals in 21 appearances at Under-18 level, he signed his professional contract in May this year, which has led to a multitude of opportunities to train with Blackburn’s first-team.
“Getting offered a pro was an unbelievable moment for me really, and my family, and then now as a pro it’s just unbelievable, being able to see the first-team environment.
“As a 23, there’s plenty of opportunities through the academy to train with the first-team and it’s really good for that and opportunities always come about. If they need a player to go up training, especially because the first-team facilities are so close, you can just go up whenever, it’s where you can make your mark really.
“For me as a player, in the first-team, I idolise quite a few players and I try taking things from many players’ games. Joe Rothwell, I love how he can run with the ball, you’ve got all different sorts of players like [Ben] Brereton Diaz and Tyrhys Dolan, how he came in at such a young age and broke into the first-team.”
In July, he made his debut for Blackburn’s first-team, coming on as a second-half substitute for England U-20 World Cup winner Harry Chapman in a 2-0 defeat away at League Two outfit Bradford City, impressing in a fifteen-minute cameo.
“That was a special moment to be honest coming on against Bradford, I sort of just went out and when I was on the bench just watching everyone playing, there was fast there and it’s just so different. I thought I did okay when I came on, it’s just that I want more of it, I just want to experience it more.”
It looked set to be a breakout year for the midfielder but in October, tragedy struck. After making two appearances for Rovers’ Under-23’s, he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury likely to keep him out for the best part of a year.
“I had my operation on Tuesday [7th December], been waiting a while for that, about five weeks ago now so that was quite tough waiting but finally done it and just starting to recover. It’s been a tough few days but it’s getting easier.
“Currently the goal with the ACL is just to get a bit stronger so I can deal with the physicality of the men’s game. From then when I get stronger, I can hopefully play as much first-team as I can, get first-team minutes under my belt because that’s what I want really at the end of the day.”
As well as taking club football by storm, Gilsenan has also featured at international level, wearing both the green of the Republic of Ireland and the green and gold of Australia at various youth levels, featuring for Ireland Under-19’s in September.
“It’s an honour to play international football, especially being able to do it for two countries. Playing against different countries, seeing their style of play, playing against probably the best players of your age in different countries, it’s unbelievable really.
“You just get to bring different stuff back to club football, new things that you learn and tactical stuff, it’s good.”
Regardless of the nation Zak Gilsenan elects to represent at international level following the injury setback, he will go down as one of the best players to come from Australian shores if he can reach his burgeoning potential. Strap yourselves in, because if there’s one thing to know about the Blackburn starlet, it’s that he’ll give it everything he’s got.