Dheeraj Singh: Ferrando’s presence has been a game changer for me
FC Goa custodian Dheeraj Singh had a terrific 2021 AFC Champions League campaign as he got the better of quite a few top goalkeepers in the West Region of the competition in terms of the number of saves. The 20-year-old, who joined the Gaurs in the January transfer window of the 2020-21 Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) from ATK Mohun Bagan, came up with a whopping 26 saves in just five matches and impressed one and all, even though Juan Ferrando’s men failed to progress to the Round of 16 after finishing third in Group E. After a fabulous campaign that also saw him earn two clean sheets, Dheeraj spoke to indiansuperleague.com in an exclusive interview and shared his experience of playing in the premier club competition in Asia. Here is the interview in full.
How has been the experience of playing in Asia’s biggest club competition?
It was a good experience, and I hope that this is the first of many times that Indian teams can participate in the AFC Champions League. The standard is very, very high and every match is a learning curve. I learnt a lot from this competition. It was a big exposure for me in my career.
You performed admirably in all the matches you played. How did you prepare in the lead-up to the competition? Any particular aspect of your game that you worked on…
The AFC Champions League was a very big tournament for us. We had a big responsibility since we were not just representing the club, we were also representing the nation. So, everyone was very focused. We knew that it was not going to be an easy task and we knew we had to go all out and give our 100%. The head coach had our back. He asked all the players not to take any kind of pressure and try to play our normal game. That’s how we prepared. I learnt a lot of things from every single game that I played. It was a very good experience for me and I enjoyed it.
How reassuring was the presence of James Donachie and Ivan Gonzalez ahead of you in the backline?
James and Ivan are great defenders and they are very experienced as well. Having them at the back was certainly something that helped us. Everyone knows that we like to build up the game and that we like to keep the ball on the ground. They are very comfortable with the ball. Also, they are very physical and they are very good at reading the game. They obviously made my job easier and helped me a lot to defend in goal.
You moved to FC Goa in January earlier this year. Tell us about your experience working with Ferrando so far.
As I have said before, I enjoy the playing style of FC Goa. It is very exciting football. But I know that I have to work on my footwork because Juan wants everyone to be good with the feet. He likes the build-up game, so for that I have to be very good with the feet. His presence has been a game changer for me. He has always had my back. He has given me confidence. I still remember that at the start of the Hero ISL, in a few games I was unable to reach my optimum level. But he gave me confidence and that is very important to me as a goalkeeper. So, I am very thankful to him for having faith in me.
Where do you think FC Goa could have done better? And how difficult was it playing every third day?
Overall, I think we did a great job in the AFC Champions League. It was the very first time that an Indian club participated in [the group stage of] the AFC Champions League. Before the competition, friends often asked me, ‘How many goals are you going to concede?’ This was the expectation from us. But we came out as a very strong team and it was not easy for any opponent to come and score against us because everyone has given their 100%, and everyone has taken the responsibility in a good way. We survived in the first and second games. I think that we surprised everyone.
Playing after 2-3 days is quite difficult for every player because we have a very short time to recover, both physically and mentally. So, it was a big challenge for us to play after two or three days. I think it was one of the biggest challenges that every player had. But we played some beautiful football, scored some beautiful goals, and it is a sweet memory.