‘We feel like little kids again’

Breakfast, Playtime, And Then Laughs Over Coffee – Holed Up In Sydney, Erik Paartalu and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu Have Made The Most Of A Catastrophe To Strengthen An Already Solid Bond – On The Pitch, And Away From It Too…

When India – and the world – was inching towards an unprecedented lockdown prompting people to scamper back to base, Erik Paartalu and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had booked themselves to the same destination – Sydney. And it’s a decision that turned into a gift they both cannot get enough of.

Over the course of the last month and more, having found a patch of grass that falls between their homes in North Rocks and Liverpool, the two have been training together, keeping themselves fit and sharp for the season to come. For Erik, who finds himself back at the home he grew up in, ‘lucky’ is a word he runs to often in the conversation.

“I had been to Goa at the end of the season and had a text from my old man asking me to think about getting home. I had plans for another holiday, but he talked me into coming back and I’m lucky I listened to him. Gurpreet had reached Sydney before me, and I was sitting at the airport in Bangalore when he texted me saying I’d be lucky to get in. The truth is, everything was uncertain at that point. I came home and quarantined myself for two weeks; I was still allowed to go outside and exercise, so I was training by myself,” says Erik, over a call after his second training session of the week.

One thing led to another and what began as casual catch-ups over the phone, turned into one training session on a field, followed by coffee. A month later, it’s become a pattern they duo cannot get enough of. With Australia’s lifting of restrictions, Paartalu and Sandhu are able to spend more time together on the field and in the gym, often catching up over a cup of coffee afterwards; a routine Gurpreet says he could get used to.

“When you play for the national team, your vacations and days off are planned between two different schedules. I always wanted to try and be able to train with someone during the off-season but it never really happened as consistently as it has been with Erik. It’s not just the two of us, to be honest. A big part of the link is Graeme Forbes, who is a good friend of Erik’s, and I must say, a great guy. He’s a fitness trainer, and he’s always eager to help us on the field and in the gym. I’m glad that this has come together perfectly,” Gurpreet says.

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The duo are joined by Graeme Forbes, a fitness trainer who was teammates with the Aussie midfielder at the Parramatta Eagles.

Fondly called ‘Forbesey’ by the duo, Forbes and Erik share history. As teenagers in Scotland, the two were teammates at the Parramatta Eagles. “Forbesey and I have known each other for almost half our lives. From being young and stupid, our relationship has blossomed. He’s a very successful fitness trainer and it’s always nice for Gurpreet and I to have a guy who knows the sport to push us. Training with someone else who pushes you to your extremes, is a totally different kettle of fish,” says Big E.

Their choice of venue for training, a pitch named Russell Reserve in Rouse Hill, is a 40-minute drive for Gurpreet, a trip that would have taken him a lot more than that had it not been for Australia’s recently advanced motorways. “Erik tells me I’m lucky because there have been a few flyovers that have been built in the last decade that help me reach the field sooner than I would have otherwise. We catch up every Tuesday, Friday, sometimes even on Saturdays for a coffee. I cannot stress how lucky I am to have Forbesey and Big E with me here, because I wouldn’t have known where to look for people to train with,” says the Blues’ number one, a compliment that the Aussie midfielder is quick to return.

“He’ll say that, but the truth is that it’s a two way street. I’m sure it has been over 10 years since I spent so much time working on my shots in front of goal. I wouldn’t say it has been a weakness of mine, because I have scored a goal now and again, l but it’s not something I do regularly. In my position, I may get a chance to shoot once in every game, and it’s been really good to work my different muscles and keep pushing Gurpreet, because he’s pushing me too. Against a player like him, you can’t just hit the target and expect to score. You have to be able to get it in the corner and with enough power to keep him away, and even that doesn’t work sometimes. He really is a freak!”

Far away from his home in Chandigarh, Gurpreet says his trip to Australia could not have come at a better time. “I know how tough it is for my teammates back in India, and I’ve been seeing how they’ve been working out at home, and in the small fields near their apartments. I consider myself lucky to be able to get so many sessions in during the week. I heard that Chhetri bhai is traveling to Bellary to start training with the Academy, and I think if our players are able to get together and train safely, that will be very important. The next season was always going to be a challenge, and with all this, it’s become an even bigger one at that!”

Erik, meanwhile, has been giving his brain a bit of work, too. In a bid to make the most of his time in isolation, the 34-year-old completed an online course in Sport Psychology. “When I was younger I didn’t really get the chance to push hard through high school. I missed a lot of days in my year 12 because I was travelling with the Australia U17s. I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d love to try and learn something and this course helps me understand how I can understand my teammates better, their body language, personality traits and how I can get the best out of the team. It was not a tough course, but reading and spending so much time in the study made me realise what it’s like to have a brain again,” says Erik, who is now a certified Sports Psychologist.

From the dressing rooms and practice fields in India to the sunny lush green in Sydney, the pair have admitted that little has changed. “True, a lot has changed since the outbreak of the pandemic. But as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We meet up for a coffee after training on some days, and it’s nice to be able to know a side of Erik that I wouldn’t have known as just a teammate. We’ve been having these really deep conversations about growing up, and life in general, so we’re definitely closer because of this experience. We’re always joking around and Erik’s been asking me to post the videos of him scoring against me in training. I wouldn’t say there aren’t any, but why would I do that?,” says Gurpreet, tongue-in-cheek.

For Erik, the banter never stops. “Did he say that? You know it’s true then! Nah, he’s a great guy. To be honest, I keep my phone away and he does most of the recording so it is what it is. Just the other day, I was shooting and trying to make him work the posts. And towards the end of the session, I started flying. I was hitting top corners, keeping them low and out of his reach. There were a few that were close to his body but went through. I was jeering him on a little with a bit of trash talk, maybe. At the end of the session, when he took his gloves off, his thumb was twice its size and he said it had been like that for a while. He didn’t say a word! That’s another side of Gurpreet that is rare. If you’re out here in Australia on holiday and you jar your thumb, most ’keepers would just step out and not train anymore. But Gurpreet was at it, using his legs, his body and his other arm; that mentality is amazing to have around. He’s not an outfield player, but he’s got that attitude that I just love to work with.”

So just how much does Big E miss Bengaluru? Not a lot you’d think. You’d be wrong. “I was saying to my dad the other day how this is the first time since I was about 12 years old that I’ve stayed in one bed and in the one bedroom for so long. For over 20 years now, I’ve always had a camp to go to, preseason overseas, matches, staying in hotels, motels. I’ve never been this settled for a long, long time and it does bring back memories. I’m sure Gurpreet feels the same way, because it’s almost like we’re little kids again. It’s obviously really nice to have the time with the family and to be able to work with a world class goalkeeper. But, I know my phone’s going to buzz one day and tell me I’ve got to be in India for pre-season. I do miss it, a lot, and I really can’t wait to get back and get going!”