The Blue Tigers custodian spoke about his move to the Norwegian club and his experience there.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, one of the poster-boys of the Indian football team, was the sixth guest on Khel Now’s Beyond The Scores podcast with Ashish Negi. He spoke about his journey to becoming a professional player, stints overseas and more.
The Arjuna Award recipient is one and the only Indian male footballer to have played in the top tier of a European league and also the first Indian to play in the UEFA Europa League as well as captain a European team. He achieved the feats during his time at Stabaek FC in Norway.
The current Bengaluru FC star went for trials at the then Premier League side Wigan Athletic. He revealed how renowned broadcaster Joe Morrison and former Liverpool goalkeeper John Burridge, who were on microphone duty during the Kolkata Derby in 2010-11, spotted his talent and proposed him a trial at Wigan. “They approached me and talked to me the day before the game in training. Burridge was standing behind the goalpost and was impressed by my training.
He called out Joe Morrison and said, ‘Look at this kid, he is so fast and so agile and I can do so much with him.’ After the training session got over and everybody had left, I was talking with Burridge for 15-20 minutes. He told me, ‘Son, you are wasting your time here, you should be playing in Europe and I want to help you with that. I’ve helped (Ali) Al-Habsi and I’m willing to do the same with you.’ That’s what happened before the derby.”
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu went to Wigan Athletic in 2012 after Burridge pulled strings via Al-Habsi and even talked to current Belgium boss Roberto Martinez, who was then at the Premier League side and they were more than happy to welcome him. They offered him a 6-7 month trial and were even ready to sign the shot-stopper, with a view to loaning him to a club elsewhere in Europe.
However, in the year 2011, Sandhu signed a new deal with East Bengal and they weren’t ready to let him leave for free. “We tried to persuade the club, but I was contractually obligated and with a heavy heart, I left that topic,” recalls Sandhu. Yet, he went on to add that he does not regret signing the contract extension with East Bengal. For a kid, a big club like East Bengal showing faith in you is a huge motivation and confidence. That’s where I saw my future.”
After spending a further two years with the Red and Gold, the young goalkeeper decided to move to Europe in 2014 and this was the same time the Indian Super League was launched. Initially, the tournament grabbed eyeballs, as a number of decorated European players like Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, John Arne Riise made their way to India. Moreover, Indian players were also paid bette in the ISL as compared to the I-League.
However, this didn’t prompt Sandhu to stay, despite multiple attempts to sign him for the cash-rich league. “I was offered to sign up multiple times, but I made it clear to clubs and the ISL. ISL was just proposed that year and no-one knew how it will pan out. I had a shot of playing in Europe and the worst case scenario was I can come back and play.”
Further, speaking about the Stabaek opportunity, he quoted, “When the trial offer came, I had not heard of Stabaek. I had to Google it and see who their coach was. The point of link was their goalkeeping coach, who trained Al-Habsi and he had played at the club. Apart from that, I didn’t know anything.”
The former St. Stephens Academy graduate went in May for trials at the Norwegian club and was continuously practicing for three months. He shared his initial struggles saying, “For a week, I stayed in the hotel, then I went to some player’s apartment and I also spent days at a club official’s apartment. I was having blisters in my leg left and right and my parents told me to come back. But, I was adamant. In August, when the transfer window started, they offered a three-year contract and I happily agreed.”
The then youngster had a difficult start to life in Norway, as he was competing with Ivory Coast international Sayouba Mandé, who was also part of their 2014 FIFA World Cup squad. In the first season, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu only played a handful of first-team games and appeared in almost all the reserve league matches. “(In India) People were saying that I was not playing enough, but people don’t know that I played 65-70 reserve league games, which were very demanding. We faced experienced players, travelling to all the different parts of Norway.”
The former East Bengal player made his first-team debut during a Norwegian Cup game and he went on to describe the moment saying, “During the matchday, we used to have lunch and we would have the game at 4:30 pm in the evening. That day, after lunch, the coach told me I was starting and said I worked hard enough, I deserve a chance and to do my thing.”
The next big feat for the India international was the historic league debut, which he achieved in May 2016 under a new coach. Sandhu described the feeling as ‘surreal’ and said, “I had the same feeling when I made my national team debut and the game was very good. We won that game and I kept a clean-sheet.”
Two months after the remarkable achievement, the India No. 1 reached yet another milestone by starting a UEFA Europa League game. However, he had to be replaced around the half hour mark due to a thumb injury. He reflected on that bittersweet moment saying, “By that time, it was decided that I was the No. 1 player at Stabaek, but unfortunately during the Europa League, I went into a challenge with a striker in the 7th or 8thminute and I injured my thumb.
After some minutes, I felt the pain, so I told the goalkeeping coach and the physio I was feeling the pain. When a ball came at me I felt terrible pain and I understood that I won’t be able to continue. After that game the coach changed and he choose Sayouba as No. 1. My contract too was ending and so I decided to move out.”
“After that season, we were talking with a Portuguese first division club, but they told us we need to look elsewhere for one season, as they had three goalkeepers and all of them had one-year contracts left. So, we decided that they would loan me to somewhere (Bengaluru FC) for one season. But, on the deadline day, the contracts weren’t made and there wasn’t time to sign and then loan me. So, I ended up at Bengaluru FC,” explained Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.