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India ‘keeper Sandhu aims high after first in Norway

Gurpreet Sandhu, who became the first Indian football player to play in a top-division European club after his debut for Norway’s Stabaek on Sunday, sets bigger goals in the continent.

football Updated: May 31, 2016 21:05 IST
Gaurav Bhatt
Gaurav Bhatt
Hindustan Times
Gurpreet Sandhu,Norway,Stabaek FC
India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu became the first from the country to play in a top-flight European league when he kept a clean slate on debut for Norway’s Stabaek on Sunday.(HT Photo)

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is no stranger to ‘firsts’ and the headlines which follow. The first Indian to play for a top-division European club finally made his league debut on Sunday. For good measure, the national goalkeeper recorded a clean sheet as his team Stabaek FC defeated Idrettsklubben Kristiansand Start 5-0.

Cue a tweet and mass hysteria.

However, the 24-year-old — who had waited for the moment since signing a three-year deal with the Norwegian club in 2014 — was calm as he took the field.

“I was confident and didn’t really feel any nerves,” Sandhu told HT. “And having already faced a Tippeligaen (Norwegian premier league) team last week meant I was mentally a bit more comfortable,” Sandhu says.

Growing in confidence

The look-in was not fortuitous. The 6’5” shot-stopper has been putting in consistent performances for the reserves side but has battled for the first-team spot with Ivory Coast international Mande Sayouba. But it was the performance in last week’s Norwegian Cup tie against heavyweights Stromsgodset that brought him in first team contention. Though Stabaek were eliminated at the hands of last year’s league runner-ups, the 0-1 margin would have been wider if not for Sandhu.

Multiple saves at crucial junctures by Sandhu prompted Stabaek’s goalkeeping coach Espen Granli to say, “He is ready for the challenge, he showed that in the game against Stromsgodset. Sandhu has proven to us that right now there is not a clear first choice at this club, with two very good goalkeepers.”

More importantly, the performance assured Sandhu that he belonged at that level.

“Personally it has been a good experience to play against a team from the top division and a chance to show how my game has developed,” he said after the match.

Call of duty

Testament to his development, Sandhu — a regular for East Bengal before moving abroad — has put in strong performances for India, having replaced long time first-choice Subrata Pal; a situation Sandhu attributes to the experience with Stabaek.

“Being part of a top team has surely made me a different, much better player. The quality of players you face, the pitch, the climate, everything makes a huge difference,” Sandhu had told HT earlier. “The Tippeligaen experience helps when I am called up for the national team.”

Sandhu is back with the national squad already as India fly out to face Laos in the first leg of their 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification play-offs on June 2 in Vientiane. The return leg will be played in Guwahati on June 7.

But there is another date marked in his calendar, June 30, when Stabaek play their Europa League first round qualifier. If given a chance, Sandhu would notch up another first, the first Indian to play in the competition.

A move is not out of question either, with Granli admitting, “An option that we are considering is loaning him out to a club at a higher level.”

And while he jokes that Norway “is a nice place” even if he is “not interested in learning the language”, where would Sandhu want to go if a move beckons?

“Maybe, England. Any team in the Championship.”

First Published: May 31, 2016 21:05 IST