When he left these shores in search of greener pastures in Europe two years ago, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu wouldn’t have thought he would play the most significant match of his career so far in a tiny Welsh county. Perhaps he wouldn’t even have heard of Flintshire and its team Connah’s Quay Nomads FC.
But on a typically British, rainy and windy, night in the small town bordering Wales and England, the Indian goalkeeper took another giant step towards establishing himself as Stabaek’s first choice custodian after he was named in the starting XI in his club’s Europa League qualifier against Nomads, which was to kick off late Thursday night India time.
With a capacity of just 1,500, the Deeside Stadium may not be the biggest stage. But that will hardly bother Sandhu, who became the first Indian footballer to play in the Europa League, a rung below the Champions League. Sandhu was named ahead of Ivory Coast’s Sayouba Mande for the crucial encounter, and is also an indication of the faith Stabaek coach Billy McKinlay has in the Indian’s abilities. Sandhu did not feature in a single league match for Stabaek during the whole of last season, occasionally playing the Cup games.
However, since McKinlay took over from American Bob Bradley at the start of this season, Sandhu has been given more opportunities. In May, the 24-year-old made his league debut for the Norwegian side against FC Start after a series of notable performances in the Cup. His performance in Stabaek’s 1-0 defeat against Stromsgodset in the pre-quarterfinals of the Cup, however, was the turning point. McKinlay, who was David Moyes’ assistant at Real Sociedad before moving to Stabaek, was impressed and preferred the Indian over the much-experienced Ivory Coast shot-stopper.
Since joining Stabaek in 2014, Sandhu has played second-fiddle to Mande but the team’s goalkeeping coach Espen Granli was impressed with the progress he has made. Despite assuring words from Granli, Sandhu was frustrated as he could not get enough playing time, a fact that even national team coach Stephen Constantine constantly reminded him of.
Gradually running out of patience, Sandhu was reconsidering his future at Stabaek when he finally managed to break through into the starting XI for a league match. He was confident on debut, keeping a clean sheet in a must-win match for his side. Knowing his side was to feature in the Europa League, Sandhu knew the possibilities in front of him were endless.
And he will hope this will be the first of many European nights for him. After facing the Nomads on Thursday, Stabaek will host them next week. The winner of the two-legged clash will next take on either Bokelj of Montenegro or Serbia’s Vojvodina in the next round. The team that will cross this hurdle will take on big guns like West Ham United, Lille and Hertha Berlin.