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The Roar


How Zak Gilsenan – the 'Irish Messi' – slipped through Australia's fingers

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Roar Guru
7th December, 2021

One of the most difficult decisions a young talented player has to make is choosing which national team to play for. Zak Gilsenan has chosen to represent Ireland rather than the country of his birth, Australia.

Gilsenan seemed destined to play in one of the top leagues until recent tragedy struck.

Having represented Australia at U17 level, it was assumed Gilsenan wanted to play for the green and gold. However, Tom Mohan called up Gilsenan – who is affectionately known as the ‘Irish Messi’ – to the Irish under-19s’ recent training camp.

Gilsenan was born in Perth and played his junior football with Sorrento FC.

Perth Glory enrolled the talented child in their developmental academy, where he played in holiday clinics and on the field at halftime during Glory matches.

His technique at such a young age drew a host of big European club scouts to Western Australia.

Tottenham offered a trial and the Gilsenan family had their bags already packed for England – but then an even bigger team came calling, one hailing from Catalonia.

The fabled ‘La Masia’ academy at Barcelona is one of the finest in youth production in the world; not many Australians have stepped through those famous gates

Zak was one of a few hundred kids trialling for several positions with the 2003 group and he did not disappoint, scoring seven goals in the last match, seeing Barcelona immediately sign him.


He was progressing nicely in Barcelona’s youth team, playing across the front third in attack, and had even captained the team before his parents made the decision to relocate to England.

England’s elite clubs all had shown interest in Gilsenan, but his parents ultimately decided to settle for another well-run academy side: Liverpool.

Liverpool coaches knew the talent was there, but the player had a run of injuries that ultimately led to his contract not being renewed.

Interest was still sky high in England for the now 16-year-old and the family made the decision to join Blackburn Rovers, over much more fancied Premier League sides.

Blackburn have been languishing in the championship for quite some time, but their academy teams are one of the most underrated in England.

While Gilsenan was a mainstay in the U18s, he was still being used semi-regularly in Rovers’ U23 squad – even scoring a second-half hat-trick against Manchester United.

As Zak’s scholarship deal with Blackburn was nearing its end, several premiership clubs registered their interest in signing him.

In a surprising move, Zak showed loyalty to Blackburn and signed the first professional deal of his career. However, his time with Rovers’ under-23 team this season has been frustrating due to injuries and fitness, culminating in an unfortunate ACL injury in October.


How he recovers from this 12-month setback is anyone’s guess, but he is still young enough to come back successfully.

Zak may never live up to the wonderful promise he showed during his junior days with Sorrento – prodigies making it as professional players are few and far between.

As for Australia, they may have lost Zak Gilsenan, but there are a lot more talents who can represent the green and gold.