If history is anything to go by, Australian players tend to do pretty well in English football.
There are a handful that can be considered Premier League greats; we’re talking Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer.
Six players from Graham Arnold’s most recent Socceroos squad ply their trade in the Sky Bet EFL – and perhaps the most exciting of the bunch is Portsmouth’s Kusini Yengi.
The 24-year-old striker joined Pompey from Western Sydney Wanderers in the summer, having started out in his home city at Adelaide United, and as such, is still something of an unknown entity.
But in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports – ahead of Portsmouth’s crunch clash with Bolton at Fratton Park on Monday, which is live on Sky Sports Football – he is only too happy to discuss his formative years in the game.
“It was great at Adelaide United,” he says. “I was playing in a professional environment with a lot of the kids I grew up playing with; we all progressed from the youth team into the first team quite quickly and that made for a wonderful experience.
“Cristiano Ronaldo was always my biggest idol. He made me fall in love with football. The first time I saw him was when he had just moved to Real Madrid and so I fell in love with them as well.
“I did have a few local idols, too. Fabio Ferreira – another Portuguese guy who played at Adelaide – was quite close to my step-father and so I used to spend quite a bit of time kicking around with him on his days off. Awer Mabil came through the Adelaide United youth team and is now playing for the Socceroos and doing crazy things.
“Moving to Western Sydney Wanderers was a change. It was my first time moving away from home, which was a challenge in itself. It was a new club, a new playing style, a new position – I played as a winger, whereas I’d mostly played as a striker throughout my career.
“It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it. I learned a lot and it helped me progress and make the transition to Portsmouth a lot easier.”
Yengi says he knew from an early age that he wanted to play abroad and that he had to exercise patience when injuries prevented him from coming to England earlier than he would have liked.
But he was in no doubt he made the correct decision in heading to the south coast, particularly having been encouraged by team-mates and opponents in the A-League alike.
“Two of my closest mates – [ex-Newcastle midfielder] Romain Amalfitano and [ex-QPR winger] Yeni Ngbakoto – spoke to me and said I was going to love it over here; you play so many games and the fans live and breathe football.”
Despite swapping the natural beauty of Sydney Harbour for Portsmouth Harbour, with its array of ferries and yachts – and, of course, the iconic Spinnaker Tower – Yengi has settled well on the other side of the world. “The team has been amazing,” he says.
That was illustrated best by the blistering start he made to life in blue.
He scored four goals in his first three games – two against Forest Green in the Carabao Cup and one each against Bristol Rovers and Leyton Orient in Sky Bet League One – and what made it all the more impressive was that he did it having played just 88 minutes across those games.
It was the dream start, but he was soon brought crashing down to Earth by an ankle injury that kept him out of action for the best part of two months.
“I didn’t play the night before [against Exeter on August 15] so I was involved in top-up the following day,” he explains.
“We were just doing some small-sided games and there was a 50/50. I went in, someone else went in and I came off worse; my ankle got twisted and I fell on it awkwardly. It was the first injury I’ve had like that in my career, so I was kind of in disbelief.
“I got back up and thought there was no way I was going to be out for a few weeks. The next day it started to feel worse and worse. It was a real kick and it screwed up the momentum a bit.”
Yengi chooses not to dwell on the conversation about the injury. “It’s in the past and I’m back now. I’m doing things to prevent injuries like that in the future. I try to take every situation in a positive way and learn.”
Ironically, it is an ankle injury to Pompey’s first-choice No 9 Colby Bishop that has presented Yengi with his latest chance in John Mousinho’s first team.
Portsmouth’s next five League One fixtures
- Bolton (h) – December 11, 8pm
- Shrewsbury (a) – December 16, 3pm
- Fleetwood (h) – December 23, 3pm
- Bristol Rovers (a) – December 26, 3pm
- Exeter (a) – December 29, 7.45pm
Bishop scored 20 goals in 46 League One games last season and picked up where he left off at the start of this term with 11 goals in 18 in the league, playing a key role in the club’s rise to the summit.
Mousinho has since confirmed the injury suffered in the 2-0 win over Burton on November 28 will keep the 27-year-old out of action for three to four weeks, meaning Yengi – who was handed his maiden league start in attack against Northampton on December 2 – is likely to deputise over the crucial Christmas period.
The chance, albeit having come at the expense of a team-mate, is one he is relishing.
“I came over here wanting for that to happen, to be the main No 9, but Colby’s been here and is doing really well,” he continues.
“We have a great friendship. Even in shooting drills he might give me a little tip here and there about my movements in the box or what’s worked well for him so far since he’s been banging in goals in League One. There’s tons of things I can learn from him. When he’s playing I try to give him confidence and he does the same for me.
“Unfortunately we’ve got a few injuries, so players are having to step up. It’s an opportunity for me to cement that spot in a way, score some goals and prove to the gaffer that, when Colby’s back fit and firing, I’m available as well and I can do the same job, if not better.”
Having caught the eye of aforementioned Socceroos boss Arnold, Yengi was handed his senior debut for Australia in the 7-0 win over Bangladesh in Melbourne last month.
“It was amazing,” he adds, beaming. “It was something I dreamed about since I was a kid and for the game to be in Australia, in front of my friends and family was something very special. We don’t play too many games at home because a lot of the players play abroad, so quite often games are overseas in smaller Asian countries.
“It was a great experience. Everyone welcomed me really well and I felt like I fitted in really well there. I’m looking forward to hopefully play for the Socceroos for many years to come.”
But if he does seize the chance presented to him at his club, it could bring with it a double-edged sword.
Australia will compete in the Asian Cup in Qatar in January and, if he were to be called up again, he could be out of domestic action for a month.
“It’s a tricky one, man!” Yengi says with a cautious smile.
“Of course I want to play for the Socceroos and I really want to be part of that; it’s a major international tournament, but it’s just unfortunate that it falls in-season, whereas something like the Euros doesn’t.
“I need to make the squad first, but things are going really well here at Pompey and we’re pushing for promotion. It’s a really difficult decision and I’m not sure who gets that make the final choice or what the final choice would be if I’m selected in the squad, but I wish I could do both!”
Whatever the outcome, the future looks bright for Pompey’s new Socceroo.