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Can Gurpreet Sandhu emulate Sangram Mukherjee to become India’s new penalty specialist?

Gurpreet Sandhu

Mohun Bagan skipper Odafa Okolie’s failure to convert from the spot in the penalty shootout against East Bengal on Sunday shocked many inside the Salt Lake Stadium, especially the green-and-maroon brigade. “How could the highest paid footballer buckle under pressure?” was the recurring thought among the Mohun Bagan faithful.

But in all fairness, Odafa was up against one of the most talent goalkeepers in the country who is quickly building a reputation of becoming a penalty specialist. 21-year-old Gurpreet Singh Sandhu won his third straight shootout as an East Bengal player and with Sunday’s match being a derby, it would certainly go down as the best of the three.

The Punjabi youngster has already played in plenty of high-pressure matches for East Bengal with his derby debut coming at the age of 19 and he managed to keep a clean sheet in that game also. Although he is yet to make his international debut, Gurpreet actually made it to India’s 2011 Asian Cup squad as a teenager which showed the kind of confidence ex-national Bob Houghton had in him.

You wouldn’t find a goalkeeper with a larger physique in the country than the 6 feet 5 inches tall Gurpreet. So far in his career, he has already shown maturity beyond his age. The Manchester United and Edwin van der Sar fan even had a trial at Wigan Athletic last year and there is no doubt that he has a bright future ahead for club and country.

But it’s never easy for youngsters at big Kolkata clubs because the spotlight is always on them, so they are treated as demigods for every success and heavily scrutinized for any small error.

More than a year ago, Gurpreet got a taste of what can happen when things don’t go your way. The youngster, like most goalkeepers around the world, pushed up for a corner in stoppage time with his team desperate for a winner against Prayag United. The corner was not well taken which allowed Prayag to counter attack through Kayne Vincent who ran almost 60 yards before finding the back of the net with Gurpreet helplessly chasing back. The red-and-gold brigade lost that game and Gurpreet became villain number one among the East Bengal faithful.

Gurpreet made amends less than two months later by saving two penalties in the IFA Shield final against the same opponents and became the darling of East Bengal fans. His other penalty shootout success came in the Super Cup win over Karim Bencherifa’s Salgaocar in October 2011.

Goalkeepers don’t often get the chance to catch the attention but spot kicks in a game and penalty shootouts in knockout matches certainly give them that chance. Gurpreet has some excellent examples to follow even among the current crop of goalkeepers.

Who could forget Subrata Pal’s heroics in the 2009 Nehru Cup final win over Syria and what about the brilliance of Arindam Bhattacharya against Maldives in the 2009 SAFF Cup final? At club level, current Dempo man Subhashish Roychowdhury had a reputation at Mahindra United for coming on just before shootouts and pulling off saves to win several knockout ties for the Mumbai club. Last season’s best goalkeeper, Karanjit Singh saved three penalties for Salgaocar in the I-League.

India's best and World's best - Sangram Mukherjee with Oliver Khan before the latter's farewell match in Kolkata in May 2008

India’s best and World’s best – Sangram Mukherjee with Oliver Kahn before the latter’s farewell match in Kolkata in May 2008.

But it’s veteran Sangram Mukherjee whom Gurpreet should try to emulate and even go past. Before joining Prayag United this season, Sangram had a highly successful spell with Mohun Bagan were he was famous for winning shootout after shootout for the green-and-maroon brigade.

Sangram’s heroics helped Mohun Bagan win the IFA Shield in 2003 and beat East Bengal to reach the final in 2004. But it was the 2006 Federation Cup where Sangram was literally the driving force behind Mohun Bagan’s triumph. The former TFA product helped Mohun Bagan win shootouts in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, showing some great reflexes and anticipation.

Even during the reign of Karim Bencherifa between 2008 and 2010, Sangram maintained his reputation of being a shootout specialist. By the 2009-10 season, Sangram had lost his place in the staring eleven to Shilton Paul but in the 2009 IFA Shield semifinal against United Sports Club (now Prayag United), Sangram was brought on just before the penalties and he made the difference as he saved Jayanta Sen’s spot-kick to take Mohun Bagan to another final.

The same substitution was carried out by the then Mohun Bagan coach Stanley Rozario in the 2010 Federation Cup semifinal against Dempo and once again Sangram was the hero for the Mariners.

Sangram will be Gurpreet’s opposite number in Wednesday’s final as the 31-year-old is currently preferred over Subrata by Prayag United coach Eelco Schattorie. Of course, Gurpreet wouldn’t want to be stereotyped as just a penalty specialist but would certainly crave to emulate the success rate of Sangram in shootouts.

It would be interesting to see which goalkeeper comes out on top if the 117th IFA Shield final does go to penalties and the baton of being India’s best penalty specialist might well be passed from Sangram to Gurpreet if the youngster maintains his 100 percent record in shootouts. But even if it that doesn’t happen on Wednesday, Gurpreet has plenty of time in his career to become India’s numero uno in penalty shootouts.

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