We know him as “The Wall” of the Indian football team. He is India’s numero uno in goalkeeping. He is one of the few Indian players to have played in Europe. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been in the news for his consistent performances for India and Bengaluru FC.
“In the off-season, I would go to the gym and work on my physicality. This scenario has given me the gift of time. I can use the pitch and do those passing drills with Erik Paartalu, I am trying to work on that, I am not the best at it. I try to work on my left foot. I have to work on my left foot, Roy Krishna took the advantage of it in the game,”, referring to Roy Krishna’s goal against Bengaluru FC in the second leg of Hero Indian Super League 2019-20. Gurpreet is in Sydney and is training with his Bengaluru FC teammate Erik Paartalu.
“I never watched football until 2006-07. My dad is a cricket-loving guy, he wanted to be a cricketer. Even I love cricket. The love for sports started there. It’s just that I found football, I never watched it, never heard about it. There was an academy in my school. I won a 100 m race. That was the first race I won in my life, and that’s how I got recruited in the academy.”, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu recalled the beginning of his journey.
Gurpreet then opened up about how he became a goalkeeper, “In the first year, it was about learning how to kick a ball, how to juggle. I never had a choice just because of my frame. They thought I would be better in the goal. I was not gifted with the talent with the ball and that was one of the reasons I was in the goal.”
On how he decided to join the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur, the Indian goalkeeper stated, “When I was 13-14, I didn’t know much about the concept and the structure of Indian football. I was fortunate enough to get a call-up from the U-16 National team and to get trained there. That’s where I watched football. We were training in Goa and that’s where I watched the I-league games in Fatorda. I was like people get paid to play football. That’s when I felt that this is the thing for me. I saw Subroto Paul, Abhijit Mondal and I wanted to be like them.
“In 2008, after doing a lot of research and asking the fellow players who were in the National U-16 team, most of them were from TFA and Tata Football Academy back then was the platform for a player to get a club. All the big clubs East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, they got their players from TFA. I thought even I should join TFA so I too can be picked by one of the clubs. I told my father, and he agreed.
“We went there for the trials, we played a game and there was finishing training of all the players around 2-3 goalkeepers and I was one of them. There were 50 people taking shots at me, I was flying and saving all the balls that came towards me. On the side of Tata Football Academy’s pitch, there were chairs and some people were sitting and one of them was an East Bengal scout. After training, he came to my dad and told him ‘Your son shall play for East Bengal, I don’t know his name yet but he will play for East Bengal.’ We didn’t take it seriously. We came back. I didn’t join TFA after that was fortunate enough to get a couple of offers by the end of 2009 and chose East Bengal.”
“I chose East Bengal because of Atanu (Bhattacharya) da. I had offers from Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers. But I wanted to learn from the best and therefore, I joined East Bengal. I was training under Tanumoy Basu in my formative years,” he added.
John Burridge, the English goalkeeper’s visit to Kolkata brought a very interesting turn of events in Gurpreet’s footballing career. He then explained why he could not join the Premier League outfit Wigan Athletic with whom Burridge had arranged a trial for Gurpreet.
“In 2010-11, Joh Burridge came to one of the East Bengal sessions. He was watching me play and got excited. After the session, he told me you are wasting your time here. You should go outside and play. That was the first time I thought about going out. Because of his help, I got a good seven-day trial with Wigan Athletic. I got to understand the level of the Premier League. If I was a free agent, I could have signed for them. But because of a contractual obligation, I couldn’t sign.”
However, former Wigan custodian Ali Al Habsi helped Gurpreet get a trial in Norway with Stabaek. “I did not want to sign an extension with East Bengal. Thanks to Ali Al Habsi, I got an opportunity in Norway. They were looking for a good prospect. I went to Norway without expectations. Then I started training with them and a seven-day trial turned into a three-year contract.”
Initially, Gurpreet didn’t get much playing time for Stabaek during cup games but soon became the first Indian to play in a Europa League game when he started in a qualifying fixture.
“I was training with Sayouba Mandé and that helped me to get better. I had to surpass his level and then only I could get a chance in the team. It took me more than a season, but I became the number one.”