Meet the former A-League keeper on a Spanish adventure

Source: Getty Images

From the A-League to the English Premier League and now in the Spanish fourth division – Australian goalkeeper Sebastian Usai has packed a lot into his 10-year professional career.

In January Usai swapped Swedish fourth tier side Friska Viljor FC for Spain’s Club Deportivo Robres, which plays in the Tercera Division. It’s the latest stop for the well-travelled keeper, which has included spells in England, Scotland and in the A-League.

At 30 Usai’s career has been a series of highs and lows, both at home and abroad, that started back at Brisbane City as a teenager.

“I’m so lucky to get to do it,” he told The World Game.

“I joke with my friends that they have their jobs and they have to pay to go around the world, I’m very fortunate that some silly buggers pay me to go round and experience new places and have some new experiences.

“I’m very lucky, it’s probably a little bit unique, the lower-league football tour of the world, but it is great.”

Usai has signed with CD Robres, the reserve team of third division club CD Ebro, for the rest of the 2019-2020 season as they fight relegation. The Aussie has already played a handful of games for his new side.

“It’s great. I’ve enjoyed it,” he said.

“It’s a lower-league small football club that comes with all the challenges that come with that. But they’ve looked after me. We’re in a relegation battle so there hasn’t been a lot of time for settling here and being a tourist.

“I’m here to a job with the reserves and at the same time hopefully pick up a contract with the big boys. I train with Ebro three mornings a week and then two to three afternoons with my team.

“It’s all good. I’m enjoying not doing pre-season in minus 20 in northern Sweden. I’m with the reserves, they’re a smaller club. They’re based 30 minutes outside of Zaragoza.”

Brisbane-born and bred, Usai came through the ranks of Brisbane City and Brisbane Strikers and then joined North Queensland Fury in 2010, in its final A-League campaign, before the club folded. He made four appearances in the A-League for the now defunct Fury.

Usai admits it was a weird introduction to the perils of professional football.

“I wasn’t really in any of the traditional pathways growing up,” he said.

“I was looked after quite well by the Brisbane Roar, I was in and around their youth team. I was with the Strikers and then ended up moving up to North Queensland for their final season before they went into administration.

“That was sort of my introduction to professional football. It was definitely crazy. I saw all the bad bits in my first year.”

After the Fury went under a twist of fate saw head to England and ended up signing for Blackburn Rovers, who were then in the Premier League. Usai was just 21 at the time.

“I didn’t initially go over to trial with them, it was Gareth Edds who had been at Fury who sent me over to Tranmere Rovers,” he admits.

“Gareth was a legend at Tranmere. I did pre-season with them and had actually just been offered a contract by them and Blackburn contacted me, and then did some sort of deal with Tranmere and I ended up at Blackburn for a two-week trial.

“And then ended up staying with them for the next couple of years. That was a dream come true. They were in the Premier League then.

“It was a really nice moment [when I signed]. I still remember calling mum and day and telling them I’d been offered a contract, and that being really special.

“At the same time I’m honestly not a huge football fan so I didn’t know a lot of the players. A spent a lot of time on Google trying to work out who they were!

“But that actually served me well probably as I wasn’t overawed. They were just other people kicking balls around. It was an experience.”

2011-2012 was Blackburn’s final season in the top flight before being relegated to the Championship. At that point the club was managed by Steve Kean and its squad included English international Paul Robinson, Argentine midfielder Mauro Formico, Nigerian striker Yakubu, French international Steven Nzonzi and Socceroo Vince Grella.

Signed as Rovers’ fourth-choice keeper, Usai never made an appearance in the Premier League but did sit on the bench in their final match of the season in a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea.

“That was my first game in the first-team squad,” he said.

“It was towards the end of the season, we’d just been relegated and it was one where they’d offered me a new deal because of my performances in the reserves and that was just a bit of a bonus for me, to be involved in the first-team squad in a Premier League game.

“That was cool. The following year I was lucky enough to be on the bench in a big Cup run and in the Championship a lot, but never got the chance to make my debut in a league or FA Cup game, which was a bit disappointing.”

Usai spent two years with Blackburn before departing to join Swedish second-tier club AFC Eskilstuna. In 2014 he then moved on to Scottish side Cowdenbeath, where his career hit a bump.

“When I left Black burn I got an opportunity to go to AFC Eskilstuna, which is a medium-sized club over there,” the 30-year-old explained.

“It was guaranteed game-time, which was great. It was a great experience. It was really cool to see a new culture, a new country and just actually start playing some first-team football.

“It felt like it had been a long-time. Then I went to Scotland for six months and broke my wrist quite badly. It was a culture-shock.

“I hadn’t even seen lower league English football at that point, I’d been very sheltered at a big club. I got this opportunity in Scotland and saw it as my pathway back to a bigger club in England if I was playing well.

“And it was very rough and tumble, and horrific pitches and horrific weather. I got injured to top it off and that set me back quite a bit. It took me at least a year to recover as I kept playing with the broken wrist because it was misdiagnosed.

“A couple of operations later and after a lengthy recovery time I went back to England, I went to Southport. But my wrist wasn’t quite there yet.

“It was probably the wrong move to go to lower league football, especially when you haven’t been playing a lot. I hardly played for six months and then came home, signed with the Strikers and played a season there.”

Usai returned home in 2016 and played in the NPL Queensland. He started studying at university, beginning a degree in economics.

At the end of that season Sweden came calling again and a chance to play for Friska Viljor FC materialised. The shot-stopper took it and played more than 80 first-team matches over a three-year period for the Viljan.

“It was a golden opportunity,” Usai said.

“Somewhere in there I had stopped taking playing football for granted, as you do when you get injured and you realize that life is tough and footballers are very sheltered.

“So I jumped at it and I’ve been lucky enough to have nearly three and half years of consistent contracts and consistent game-time. I was very fortunate.

“It was a really positive time. It suited me and my style. I had fantastic coaches and facilities, so it was an easy environment to perform well in.”

Usai is currently preparing for life after football and is completing a masters in financial engineering. But he is not ready to call time on his life between the posts just yet.

“I’ve option for next season in my contract, but my current deal runs until June and then we’ll see what happens,” he said.

“I’m just taking it as it comes. If I can keep playing football at a good level then it’s certainly something I want to do.

“If I’m not lucky enough to be able to do that, then fortunately other people in my life have got me going on to study and train, and hopefully I will be able to find other work that I find satisfying if I need to. I’ve had a good run, I haven’t had an injury for four years.

“The football is definitely the best in Spain. The top clubs are churning out good young players that trickle down to the lower leagues here. The weather’s probably the best too.

“I definitely enjoyed Sweden the most, I was very settled, I like their culture. They’re not particularly emotional people, they’re more like me, a bit calm an analytical.

“The world’s never ending and you’re never the best player in the world or the worst player in the world. I found that helped me. But everywhere’s different. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”