“Son, you’re wasting your time here. I believe you should be playing outside this country and you should believe that too.”
These were the words former Manchester City goalkeeper John Burridge told Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, spotting him during an East Bengal training session in 2011 when the Englishman was working as an analyst in India. That was the moment when Sandhu, already playing for one of India’s biggest clubs, decided that he should move abroad.
After Burridge recommended Sandhu to various scouts across Europe, the Punjab goalkeeper finally earned a trial with Premier League club Wigan Athletic in 2012, where he impressed manager Roberto Martinez. However, talks of a permanent deal broke down due to his existing contract with East Bengal.
But years after failing to earn a move abroad, Sandhu got his big break in 2014 when he signed a three-year contract for Norwegian club Stabaek with assistance from Wigan’s Omani veteran Ali-Al Habsi. This was after he had made more than 100 appearances for East Bengal.
It was a landmark move for Indian football, with Sandhu becoming the first Indian in 79 years to sign for top division club in the European league. Previously, only Mohammed Salim had managed to do so when he joined Scottish club Celtic in 1936.
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At Stabaek, Sandhu was mainly an understudy to first-choice Ivorian keeper Sayouba Mande, only featuring in cup games and the reserve side during his first two seasons. Life in Europe was tough and it took him quite some time to adjust to the conditions.
“It’s quiet. It’s not masaledaar [noisy and vibrant]. The weather...I got used to it. I’m not doing a job there which every Indian can relate to. I’m not doing an IT job there. I’m a footballer and it was very hard to link to someone there,” he told Scroll.in in 2018.
The 6-foot-4-inch goalkeeper only made his first league start in May 2016, coming against IK Start in the Tippeligaen, the Norweigian top-tier league. Back then, no Indian had started in a top-tier European league game. And Sandhu didn’t disappoint, thwarting danger with some fine saves and registering a clean sheet in his side’s 5-0 victory. It was a sign of things to come.
Later that month, the Indian was chosen to start in Stabaek’s Europa League qualifier against Welsh club Connah’s Quay Nomads FC during an away match. Although the Europa League is a level below the Champions League, the continent’s top-tier competition, the then 24-year-old made history by becoming the first Indian to ever feature in a Uefa competition.
The away team started strong in that match, with Connah’s Quay Nomads coming close to breaking the deadlock but Sandhu pulled off few fine saves to keep his side in the game. The biggest match of his career, however, was curtailed by a hand injury suffered during the first-half as Mande was brought into action during the 28th minute.
But it was a feat that even two of India’s greatest footballers Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri could not achieve during their stints with Bury FC (England) and Sporting Lisbon B (Portugal) respectively.
Given what he achieved despite lack of playing time in Norway, it seemed as if there was more in store for Sandhu. But for the Chandigarh Football Academy product, it wasn’t meant to be. He had no choice but to leave Europe as he fell down the pecking order once Billy McKinglay replaced Bob Bradley as head coach in 2016.
That paved the way for his return to India, as the keeper joined Bengaluru in 2017 after three seasons with Stabaek. Sandhu has since gone on to establish himself as the first-choice goalkeeper for club Bengaluru FC and country.
“I didn’t want to leave [Stabaek] but it’s something that had to happen,” he recently said in an interview on the Indian Super League’s Instagram handle.
“I didn’t want to continue, I wasn’t getting game time under the new coach after Bradley left. When you know that coach doesn’t want to give you a chance and wants to go with an experienced guy, I knew this wasn’t the place for me. My first intention was to stay in Europe and I tried my best. There were one or two options but they were under the level which I was already at. So I didn’t want that. I would rather go back to India and be there,” Sandhu added.
His European stint may have not gone to plan but he entered uncharted territory by becoming the first Indian to feature in a Uefa competition – a proud achievement not only for him but also for Indian football.