India number one Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is one of the few Indian players to have plied their trade in a European league. He was part of Norwegian outfit Stabaek for a period of three years from 2014 to 2017 before opting to return to India and join Bengaluru FC.
Gurpreet started his career with East Bengal in the I-League, however. In an Instagram chat on the Indian Super League (ISL) handle, he opened up on his time in Kolkata and detailed how he came to play in Norway and the challenges that came with it.
He also revealed that Hyderabad FC's veteran goalkeeper Subrata Paul was a huge factor behind him taking goalkeeping seriously, having not watched the domestic leagues with any seriousness before then.
"When I was playing football I didn't know much about the structure of Indian football. I was fortunate to get a call from India U16s and there in the camp in Goa I started watching I-League. That's when I decided to become a serious footballer watching Subrata Paul play," he said.
"Subrata Paul was the best in the country. He was great in one-on-one situations. Being a young keeper you idolise him and I wanted to replace him. I wanted to wear that India jersey and get out on the pitch."
The 28-year-old almost joined the famed Tata Football Academy (TFA) as a youngster before opting to go to Kolkata and join East Bengal.
"TFA was the place to be back then and in 2008 I went there. There was an East Bengal scout there. After watching me play, he came to my father and said that one day I will play for East Bengal. But a strange thing happened when I went back to Goa (India U16). Colin Toal was the coach and he asked me why I went to TFA when players from there are coming here? Then I did not join TFA. And in 2009, I signed for East Bengal."
"I chose East Bengal because of Atanu (Bhattacharya) da. I had offers from Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers as well. But I wanted to learn from the best and therefore, I joined East Bengal. Before that, I was training under Tanumoy Basu during my formative years," he added.
After surviving the testing atmosphere in Kolkata, a visit from former English goalkeeper John Burridge turned out to be a breakthrough for Gurpreet. However, he explains why he could not join Premier League outfit Wigan Athletic with whom Burridge had arranged a trial for Gurpreet.
"In 2010-11, John Burridge came to one of the East Bengal sessions. He was watching me play, he got excited. After the session, he told me that you are wasting your time here. You should go outside and play. That was the first time I thought about going out. Because of his help, I got a good seven day trial with Wigan Athletic. I got to understand the level of the Premier League. If I was a free agent, I could have signed for them. But due to contractual obligation I could not sign."
But former Wigan custodian Ali Al Habsi helped Gurpreet get a trial in Norway with Stabaek.
"I did not want to sign an extension with East Bengal. Thanks to Ali Al Habsi, I got an opportunity in Norway. They were looking for a good prospect. I went to Norway without expectations. Then I started training with them and a seven-day trial turned into a three-year contract."
He was initially on the fringes at Stabaek, getting occasional minutes during cup games but soon Gurpreet climbed up the ladder and became the first Indian to play in a Europa League game when he started for Stabaek in a qualifying fixture.
"I was training with Sayouba Mandé and I got better. But I had to surpass his level and get a chance in the team. It took me more than a season, but I became the number one," he added.
Gurpreet, who stands at 6'6", was sidelined soon after the club changed the head coach. Though he wanted to stay in Europe, Gurpreet ended up joining ISL outfit Bengaluru FC at the start of the 2017-18 season.
"I didn't want to leave (Stabaek) but I had to. I wasn't getting game time under the new coach. Then the contract expired. When you know that the coach is not expecting much from you it becomes difficult. My first intention was to stay in Europe and I tried my best. I had offers but they were from lower levels.
"I managed to talk to a club in Portugal first division. They had three keepers. They told me to join and spend one season loan and then join back. I accepted the offer. I found the loan option in ISL with Bengaluru. But we didn't hear from the Portugal club even on the transfer deadline day.
"That's when I decided to stay back with Bengaluru. It is an ambitious club. I am playing in Asia and then I tell them that I want to play for them for a long time. Then the five-year deal happens. But I told them that anything from Europe I will take into consideration."