22nd April 2015 was a red letter day in Indian Football as 23 year old goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu became the first Indian to play a competitive match for a top tier European club when he started for his Norwegian club Stabek FC in a Norwegian Cup game against Runar. Gurpreet kept a clean sheet in his debut match as his club defeated Runar 6-0 and is process Gurpreet became the most talked about name in Indian Football circuit.
What makes Gurpreet’ s move all the more incredible is that the lad from Mohali has played only one senior team match for India and by starting against Runar, he has overshadowed players the likes of Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri and Subrata Paul who have had stints in Europe before. Baichung Bhutia played for Bury FC and though he scored for his side in competitive games, Bury FC was primarily a third division club in England. Chhetri on the other hand had to warm the benches at Sporting Lisbon B which resulted in his poor form for the national team as well. Chhetri featured only in three matches and was frustrated by the lack of first team action. Gurpreet’ s senior and current Indian skipper Subrata Paul met with the similar fate at FC Vestsjaelland in Demark. Gurpreet on the other hand has regularly featured for the reserves team of Stabek and broke into the first team on bank of some impressive performances for the reserve team.
Born in Mohali, Gurpreet began his footballing career at St. Stephen’s Academy and broke into the state U-16 team on back of some impressive performances for his academy. Sandhu was picked up by East Bengal in 2009 and made five appearances for the club in the 2009-10 season after which he was loaned for a season to Pailan Arrows in a bid to get more playing time. The move didn’t materialize and after failing to earn a single cap for Arrows, Gurpreet was back with the Lal-Hould brigade at the start of 2011-12 season and he made his AFC debut that season against Al-Oruba. The most fond memory that the East Bengal fans will have of Gurpeet is his heroics in the 2013 IFA Shield final against arch rivals Mohun Bagan where he saved penalties from Odafa Okolie and Nirmal Chettri to send his team into the finals. Gurpreet’ s stock continued to rise with East Bengal and despite making some costly errors, he became one of the most highly rated goalkeepers in the country. At the national level, Gurpreet has represented India both at the U-19 and U-22 levels. Gurpreet made his debut for the India U19s against the Iraq U19s in the 2010 AFC U-19 Championship qualification but it was a string of impressive performances in the 2013 U-22 Championships qualification in Oman that caught the attention of fans across India. Gurpreet showed assured handling and effective ball distribution and it was these qualities that impressed famous English goalkeeper and Ten Sports commentator John Burridge. Burridge later went on to play an important role in securing a deal for Gupreet.
Height is one of the key ingredients of a goalkeeper and at 6 feet, 5 inches, Gurpreet certainly fits the bill well. Gurpreet uses his height well to his advantage to save spot kicks as he depicted several times in the I League and IFA Shield matches and is an imposing figure under the post. It was height coupled his composure that he displayed in the Kolkata derby at a young age and the AFC U-22 qualifiers that caught the eye of Ten Sports duo of Joe Morrison and John Burridge. John Burridge is widely renowned for shaping the career of Oman goalkeeper Al Habsi who is the only Asian goalkeeper to have played in the English Premier League. Burridge spotted the former Bolton and Wigan goalkeeper with the Oman U-17 team when he was a part of the Oman coaching staff and convinced by his abilities he helped him secure contracts first with Norewgian club Lyn Oslo and then with premier league clubs. Impressed by what he saw in Gurpreet, Burridge helped arrange a trial cum training week for Gurpreet at Wigan in July 2012 and though the trial didn’ t materialize, Gurpreet impressed everyone with his skills. It was almost a couple of years later and fittingly on the Independence day, that Gurpeet signed a three year deal with Stabek FC.
At Stabek FC, Gurpreet has played second fiddle to the highly rated 21 year old Ivory Coast goalkeeper Sayouba Mand who has represented his nation thrice. Playing mostly for the reserves, Gurpreet made his debut for the first team in January this year in a friendly match against Follo FK as Mande was away on national team duty. Gurpreet put in some impressive performances when Stabek FC went on a pre season tour to USA and also with the reserves team and this promoted coach Bob Bradley to hand him his first start against third division club Runar in the Norwegian Cup. Success for Gurpreet has not come without sacrifice as the lanky Punjbai goalkeeper missed the inaugral edition of the Indian Super League where most of his Indian team mates were seen in action. Despite being chased by several franchises, Gurpreet preferred to train in the chilly conditions in Norway with the club away from the glamour and glitz of the franchise league.
Following his debut, the former East Bengal custodian has announced his resolve of cementing his place in the first team and to start more regularly. With the exposure Gurpeet is gaining in Europe, the Mohali lad is surely going to be a valuable asset for the national team in times to come. With Subrata Paul not getting any younger, Gurpreet will surely be seen in action for the national team in times to come and his calm presence & patience will lend solidity at the back.
We leave you with a video of a couple of saves Gurpreet made against Vancouver Whitecaps in a pre seaon friendly earlier in the year.