EXCLUSIVE | How Wayne Sandilands stood up and faced the pain

Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands.
Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands.

It is a story of determination, grit and having the faith to stand back up after being struck down.

After some high-profile errors last season leading to a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands fought against the odds to win back his place as first-choice and then recaptured some of his best form. Along the way, he pulled off perhaps the save of the season.

In the fast-paced, ruthless world of professional football, dips in form to level that we saw from Sandilands are seldom tolerated and often result in a player exiting a club. 

Players can struggle while settling in at a new club and, if they are young enough, clubs might loan them out to work on their game elsewhere until they are ready. 

Sandilands, though, does not fit those moulds and, at 36, was facing an uncertain future at Pirates. 

It’s quite rare that a player of Sandilands' age or any player of that matter who stays at the same club with their future in serious doubt and then, against all odds, goes on to recapture their form and place in the team. Another that comes to mind is Manchester United’s, Ryan Giggs.

Here, Sandilands chats to Sport24 about this remarkable journey and reveals what it took to overcome the odds.

Sport24: I’m always keen to hear how goalkeepers started out between the sticks as it’s often an interesting story, such as the regular goalkeeper failed to show up and the team needed an emergency replacement. Also, who were your childhood heroes growing up as a kid?

It’s funny you’d mention that because I started out in my U-6 team as an outfield player, at that age you know everyone is just running after the ball. The team’s goalkeeper relocated and the coach asked who would like to be the goalkeeper. I stuck up my hand, I was too young to understand the dynamics so I don’t think it was a calculated decision. It’s funny, when I retell the story I always think that the position chose me in a way.

So, then I went between the sticks and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my parents where my dad really helped me. Being a goalkeeper is a really specialised position so at amateur level back in those times the goalkeeper trained as an outfield player.

My dad really helped me, I remember him going to a library and he got a (former South African Man United goalkeeper) Gary Bailey book that had different exercises in it and he photocopied and binded the pages together and that was sort of like our textbook on goalkeeping. When we would train or had games he’d come along and take me to the side to do some exercises and maybe getting a bit of specialised training made me a bit better than everybody else.

In terms of childhood heroes, there’s not anyone in particular that I modelled my game on. I do remember in high school having a poster on my wall of Moeneeb Josephs while he was at Ajax Cape Town. He inspired me in terms of this young exciting keeper who is energetic, acrobatic and very athletic.

Also, the markings that I wear under my eyes during game-day, I remember watching the 2002 World Cup and the Turkish keeper Rustu Recber, he caught my attention because of the black markings he wore under his eyes. But what also attracted me was his aggressiveness, fearlessness and just his confidence. I just loved the aura that he had on the pitch and that inspired me. So when I made my professional debut I just copied his trademark.

It’s often said that outfield players are afforded the chance to make mistakes but when it comes to goalkeepers these mistakes prove costly. Can you describe being in this unique position that not many get to experience?

That’s the reality of the position and obviously, you’re so close to the goal that with any mistake there’s a good chance that a goal can be conceded from it. I think it’s something that you understand maybe, it’s not necessarily something that you think of all the time. Because if you think about it all the time or feel that weight or pressure, you did you wouldn’t want to step out onto the pitch. You’re not going to want to receive the ball.

You’re aware of it but your focus is more on doing what you can to help your team win and to focus at that moment. Everybody is human and mistakes will happen at some point and when those things do happen, it’s important to be able to put those kinds of things behind you and to look forward and just continue to play.

When mistakes do happen it’s sometimes easy for fans and journalists to criticise players without any empathy. So when you were going through your rough period, how did that affect you?

For me it’s different with each individual, I guess. I can only speak for myself and for me taking the game home is something that I do. I care a lot about the game and it’s one of the things that I’ve wrestled with throughout my career; the identification with football and with myself as a person. For me then to just come home and just detach and say: 'Whatever happened, that’s football' doesn’t really happen. So it hurts. It hurt a lot.

So definitely coming home, having that support group around me like my wife, my kids and my parents .... that was really important for me.

Because for me it wasn’t like: 'Oh, that happened and it’s on to the next one.' It does stick with you. I think also the best thing for an individual would be to get back onto the pitch, however hard that might be to. As they say, get back on that horse, however scary that may be.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t afforded that opportunity. I only got back on that PSL pitch four, five or even six months after that. So it was really challenging because now you walk around and you've got that kind of thing that you have to live with and process.

So it was difficult but there are a couple of factors that helped me. First of all it was my belief that there was a purpose for this that was bigger than me. It was knowing that there is something here that is bigger than me that’s happening and it’s going to benefit me, it’s going to strengthen me and it’s going to make me a better person in the long run. So that was one thing I remember holding onto.

The second thing is just the kind of personality I have or the determination and the drive. I kind of know the keeper that I want to be and the level that I want to reach and it’s sort of like I won’t give up trying to attain that level. For me it was about just grinding every day just showing up to practice putting in the effort, working 10 times harder.

Some players may have felt dejected and handled it in a negative way but you chose not to. So when you did get back into the side how, did you handle that pressure or was it a motivating factor?

I think for me I would probably have to put it down to my faith that, during those difficult periods, helped put things into perspective.

When you believe that there’s a higher power and that you’re going to come out of this better than before, it motivates you and sort of keeps the pieces of you together. So that faith of knowing that there’s something at work coupled with that determination of being my best.

There’s just something within me. There’s just more and there’s another level to be reached. There’s just this never giving up kind of spirit and there’s just no option of giving up.

If there’s one thing I can say, probably until the time I retire and hang up the gloves, it will be just one continuous pursuit of excellence and trying to improve and evolve.

So after winning back your starting place and putting in some excellent performances, did you feel vindicated to come out on the other side of it?

I think in any professional sport the more that you play the more confidence you’ll gain. I think it’s a good thing to be able to have played consistently. But nothing really changed in terms of the approach to the game or in terms of work ethic. I try to be professional every day and try to maintain a certain standard. I’m just grateful to get the game time and to be able to contribute to however the team was playing in the recent victories.

I remember the end of last season we came really close, we pushed hard to be there in terms of the title, but we came up short. But it was good to be able to just play and to contribute. The goalkeeper coaches I’ve had at Pirates have also been amazing. Last season I had Andrew Sparkes who is now the goalkeeper trainer for Southampton in the Premier League and Coach Jyri Nieminen this season.

They are guys who just connect with you and understand you. They’re more than just trainers and guys who arrive, put you through your paces, shake hands and that’s it.

I’d say that that’s also what contributed to me playing at a consistent level.

The reason why I found your story so fascinating was because I found it extremely rare for a player to come out of a bad spell in such a remarkable way. The moment that signified this coming full circle for you was that incredible save against Black Leopards earlier this season. Could you detail that moment?

I think the save against Black Leopards was a reflex save that happened so quickly. It felt really amazing for me and I felt really grateful to be able to pull off a save like that. But most importantly it contributed to the team getting a valuable three points, which at the time kept us quite close to the log leaders.

For me, it’s just about not trying to think of too many things. Preparing for the Black Leopards game, it was another game and, like I said, my work ethic or mentality never really changed much. I really just try to go out there and be the best that I can and not try focus too much on the storyline. Maybe when my career is done and then I can look back and see the significance of this game or this save.

I think the hunger is still there because I think it’s all about that next level. I personally think I haven’t yet reached my full potential. I think that that’s got to do not so much with the physiological side of things, but maybe the psychological side of things.

There’s a good saying by a mental coach by the name of Jannie Putter who says: "Both success and failure is written in ice and the next day the sun rises." So you kind of enjoy it, but you realise there is more work to be done.

What do you think fellow players, especially up and coming youngsters could take from your experiences?

I would say as hard as it is, you’re going to be faced with two choices. You’re going to have to decide whether to give up, maybe this is too hard for you, and you’d have to then live with the pain of regret.

Or you stand up and you face the pain. You stand up to the pain and you keep on grinding. You keep on pushing, grinding, keep on believing. You just keep putting one step in front of the other. I think that’s something that I’ve done and I think if you’ve been knocked down it’s important to just stand up and keep moving forward.

A lot of great success is born out of great adversity. Sometimes life hits you with situations that aren’t easy like the current pandemic for example or the loss of a family member.

Life will hit you but you need to dig deep, you need to stand even if that’s all you do… is just stand.

You just have to make sure you get up and just stand, make sure you put one foot in front of the other, and you keep moving forward having hope that things will change.

When it’s all said and done you’d rather choose to look back not with regret, but that you gave it your all, you kept pushing and you never know how fast life can change.

I’ve seen it in football when things happen so, so fast and your world could be turned upside down even in a positive way. But for that to happen, you need to keep believing and keep pushing and that’s something that I’ve tried to do.

That’s what I’ll continue to do and I’ll look back when I’m done and say: 'You know what, I gave it my best.'

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