In 2016, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made headlines when he became the first Indian to play in the Europa League, UEFA's continental tournament that pits some of the top clubs in European leagues against each other. Fast forward a year or two, and the imposing goalkeeper has upped sticks and moved on to keeping Bengaluru FC's sheets as clean as a whistle, picking up a couple of major trophies along the way.
The newest and perhaps most significant of the additions to Gurpreet's trophy cabinet is the 2018-19 Indian Super League title, with the shot-stopper playing a vital role in the Blues' victorious campaign. The 27-year-old cut an authoritative figure between the sticks in his second season at the club, shrewdly marshalling the Bengaluru defence and coming up with some big saves when it mattered most.
His exploits in goal also led to him winning the ISL Golden Glove, after picking up seven clean sheets and conceding just 19 goals in 20 matches. He managed to make a staggering 61 saves, coming second behind Mumbai's Amrinder Singh, who topped the list with 66. Gurpreet also recorded the most impressive minutes per goal ratio in the league, conceding a goal every 96.32 minutes.
His performances this season were key for Bengaluru, especially in the final, as they attempted to avoid the mistakes they made in last year's decider, which they lost 3-2 to Chennaiyin FC after being a goal ahead. Gurpreet, who was in goal on that fateful night one year ago, admitted that the prospect of faltering at the final hurdle for a second consecutive year would have been too much to bear.
"We knew that we wanted to win it because losing two finals in a row would have been absolutely devastating. We felt a lot more ready this time around, we really wanted to go for it. We just focussed on the fact that we were there for a reason, because we had to win it," Gurpreet told Firstpost over the phone.
This is because of you, for you and it’s a sign of belief that you, the fans, showed in me from my first day @bengalurufc. This is a promise that I will do everything I can, always, for this club and for you, in the stands. #SixInSix #LeagueHotiTohBhiYehiHota pic.twitter.com/m0hgC6PvD5
— Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (@GurpreetGK) March 18, 2019
This time around, however, Bengaluru fought hard to keep a clean sheet and hold on to a deserved lead, after going ahead in the 117th minute of the match against Goa. While Gurpreet was rarely tested, he put in an assured performance as Bengaluru ran out 1-0 winners and lifted their first-ever ISL trophy.
"We've worked hard on improving as a team this season. Everyone has been trying to do as much defensive work as possible. Last year, in the final, it was a couple of set-pieces that got us, so we've practised set-pieces over and over," he added.
Bengaluru's new-found resilience in defence has been one of the cornerstones of their bid for the title, and much of this can be attributed to the philosophy of their new head coach, Carles Cuadrat. The Spaniard, who was an assistant coach at the club last season, was promoted to his current position after the departure of Albert Roca, and according to Gurpreet, there was no-one better suited for the job.
"My experience while working with him (Cuadrat) when he was an assistant coach was good, we had a great working relationship. And when he came in as the head coach, I knew he was the right person, I knew he was the only one who could replace Roca because he knew how the club worked. He'd been here with us, he'd seen us train, and he got us to the title," Gurpreet said.
"Another thing that the manager did that was very beneficial was to make us play friendlies against a couple of Spanish sides," said Gurpreet, referencing a couple of pre-season friendlies that the Blues played against the reserve sides of Spanish clubs Barcelona and Villarreal. "Those friendlies gave us the experience of playing against a slightly different style, which could help us now that we're in the Asian Cup again," he added.
Bengaluru's return to the Asian Cup will see them attempt to pick up from where they left off — an excellent run to the 2016 final, which they lost to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq, was followed by some positive results. Another more immediate challenge that awaits Cuadrat and his squad is the Indian Super Cup, a tournament featuring all 20 teams from the ISL and the I-League whose knockout stage begins on 29 March. Bengaluru are the defending champions, and Gurpreet is confident that they can retain their title, saying, "the morale heading into the tournament is great and we really believe we can do it. This tournament is a great opportunity for us to test ourselves against I-League opposition, and we're backing ourselves to win our second title of the year. And now that we're back in continental tournaments, I think we can do well. We have a strong squad"
With the power of hindsight at our disposal, Gurpreet's decision to swap the frigid winters of Norway for the unpredictable climes of Bengaluru seems like an excellent career choice, as Bengaluru have gone from strength to strength since his arrival. However, when he returned to India in 2017, the club was standing at the precipice of the unknown, having made their move from the I-League to the ISL. No-one had expected Bengaluru to transition into life as an ISL club like a fish taking to water, and it would have been quite understandable if Gurpreet had had a few doubts before joining the team, but by his own account, the decision was a no-brainer.
"When I came back to India, I knew that it had to be Bengaluru. I've always wanted to challenge myself in my career, and I knew that I had to join this team if I wanted to improve as a footballer. I consider myself very lucky that I got the chance to go to Europe, but I've grown a lot since then and my plans have also changed. I wanted to play regularly and I wanted to play in the Asian Cup, and that's one of the main objectives of this team," said Gurpreet.
Having himself had an opportunity to play Europe, the goalkeeper is now attempting to improve the exposure of young athletes to global football, and is doing so in his capacity as a Red Bull athlete. "Working with Red Bull has been a dream of mine, and I'm really passionate about their 'Neymar Jr's 5' project, a five-a-side tournament aiming to unearth local talent and give them a platform," said Gurpreet.
"I think it's great that I went to Europe. I only wish I'd gone sooner, I went by the time I was 22 and maybe I couldn't get all the benefits that a younger player would have from a system like that. I think that if more young players from India went abroad to learn, we could really improve, you know. I hope someday it's an actual option for all the young footballers in the country," he concluded.
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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2019 12:51:19 IST