Rewind a year and new Spain call-up Robert Sanchez was in a state of limbo. Coronavirus had hit the UK and the rest of the EFL season was in doubt.
One of the goalkeeper’s last contributions to a game was picking the ball out of the net after Jamie Lindsay had scored a consolation goal for Rotherham in a 3-1 win for his loan club, Rochdale.
It turned out to be his final game for the League One club, with the campaign curtailed due to the pandemic, and Sanchez was returning to parent club Brighton and Hove Albion as what looked like then their fourth choice goalkeeper.
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Now, Spanish football fans are wondering who on earth their potential new international is.
Sanchez arrived in England as a 15-year-old, having begun his career at Levante. Despite his new surroundings, former Brighton captain Gordon Greer remembers a confident young player who had plenty of belief in his ability.
“He is a chilled out lad, but I think he’s always been quite sure of himself,” said the ex-Scotland defender.
I think the problem was keeping his feet on the ground when he was a young player rather than building him up.
“He’s made mistakes (on loan) at Rochdale and Forest Green, people can easily criticise him but it’s not affected him.
“It’s easy to handle the ups but it’s not always easy to handle the downs. I’m sure he’s going to have a good career because he comes across so mentally strong”.
Sometimes being in the right place at the right time can change things. Sanchez was given an immediate leg up last summer when Brighton team-mate Christian Walton was injured in a pre-season friendly with Chelsea, having been tipped to challenge Mat Ryan for the number one spot, allowing the Spaniard some minutes.
Jason Steele was always seen as a reliable back-up, so it was up to Sanchez to push the Australian for a place in the team.
In the end, Ryan’s performances did not match up to those in his previous campaigns and Sanchez got a surprise opportunity in a defeat to Tottenham in November, before Ryan was restored to the team.
But head coach Graham Potter’s patience with the now Arsenal back-up only lasted another month and a half, before Sanchez was restored to the line-up, where he has remained ever since in the top flight.
A physically imposing goalkeeper, who is good with his feet, Sanchez has impressed with his commanding presence in the Albion defence and sharp reactions. Suddenly, Brighton became less susceptible to set-pieces, a 6’6” player replacing Ryan, who is six inches shorter.
Despite some stand-out performances, a first Spain call-up at 23 following just 17 Premier League appearances came as a shock, particularly for a goalkeeper who has never represented his country at any level.
“It has been a huge surprise,” says Eurosport Spain’s Felix Martin.
I would say that a lot of people didn’t even know who he was. People in Spain know more about other Spanish Premier League goalkeepers like Vicente Guaita at Crystal Palace, Liverpool’s Adrian or Kiko Casilla at Leeds.
“Luis Enrique has proved now that he has an eye on every Spanish player playing abroad, which is great. But again, Sanchez’s case is as unique as weird.”
The big question then, is whether Sanchez will get an opportunity in any of the World Cup qualifiers against Greece, Georgia or Kosovo.
“You never know, he may actually have a chance to play,” says Martin.
“There has been a huge debate around the Spanish goalkeepers lately involving the end of Iker Casillas’ career, then David De Gea’s poor form, and the arrival of other goalkeepers like Kepa Arrizabalaga, Unai Simon or Sergio Asenjo.
Unai Simon has been the starter for Luis Enrique in the last few matches, but Robert Sanchez may have a chance to play to show what he can do.
If he does get an opportunity, Greer is backing him to succeed: “He’s dealt with everything that’s come his way in the Premier League.
“It’s a huge step up, he’s probably idolised a few of those players in the squad and I’m sure they will be trying to test him.
“He’s ready, I don’t worry about him whatsoever. I think he’ll handle it, I think he’ll take it in his stride.”
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