Arriving at London Colney for the first time, Deyan Iliev admits he fell into a shocked silence at what he saw before him. The vast open spaces, the hi-tech facilities and the pitches... oh, the pitches! As a 17-year-old Macedonian joining a club he had only ever dreamed of playing for, he didn’t think things could get much better. But they did, and they did quickly.
"I thought the pitches were made out of Astroturf at first because the quality was so good," he says with a wide smile. "Then I trained with the first team on my second day! On my second day! I couldn’t believe it was happening so soon.
"Wojciech and Lukasz really helped me – they were so friendly. Then, after training Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Bacary Sagna asked me to stay in goal because they wanted to practise free kicks. I was looking at them but I couldn’t believe that this was real. But when they started shooting, they couldn’t score against me. They had their heads in their hands and I couldn’t believe what I was saving!
Also, Arsène Wenger was stood behind the goal when this was happening so I was really happy and thought to myself, ‘I’m a different person now’. It was a massive confidence boost."
It has been some journey for Deyan. The son of a former Macedonia international goalkeeper, he has been in London for close to 18 months and, after intensive lessons, speaks unfailingly polite, fluent English. His easy-going nature and sunny personality make him a popular member of the academy but, as he tells the Arsenal Magazine, it could all have been so different...
Deyan, tell us how you ended up at Arsenal...
When I was 15, Inter Milan scouted me at a national team game against Turkey, and I was man of the match. They called me and I went there for a trial, initially for a week. After that they invited me back for a month on trial and I went with them to a tournament and played really well. They said they wanted to sign me but circumstances meant I couldn’t join.
I was buzzing – I couldn’t believe it was going to happen. When I got to the airport I was thinking, “Are you sure this flight is going to London?!”Deyan Iliev
You must have felt like your big chance had gone?
I was upset because Inter Milan are a big club and you think you’ll only get that chance once in your lifetime. I thought that if I didn’t sign then, I wasn’t going anywhere. But I’m really lucky because then Arsenal came in for me.
How did that come about?
Again, I was with the national team and the Arsenal scout, who is Greek, watched me play against Scotland and Turkey. The Club called me to go to Athens for a trial there at a special Arsenal camp. I was there for three or four days and there were about 30 goalkeepers there, from everywhere. [Goalkeeping coach] Tony Roberts was also there and he told me on the last day that he would see me in London, and a few days later I got an email to ask if I was OK to come over.
That must have been a special moment...
I was buzzing – I couldn’t believe it was going to happen. When I got to the airport I was thinking, "Are you sure this flight is going to London?!" Then when I landed and came to the training ground and I thought it was unbelievable. When they told me they wanted me to sign I couldn’t believe it – I said, "can you repeat that please?" Then I signed and it was only when I played my first official game for the Club that I truly believed I was playing for Arsenal.
How were your first few months in England?
It was a bit hard because I didn’t speak the language. But I could speak in Bosnian to Sead Hajrovic, and he was with the German players a lot so we all went out for dinner. Every night he helped me and because I live in Enfield he showed me around the place and showed me the centre of London. After a while I became friends with Kris Olsson and everyone else. The first six months were hard because I didn’t speak good English, but now it’s really easy and I’m very comfortable here.
Was it tough to leave your own family?
No, not really! I said to them that it wasn’t hard to leave them, and they said, "what? How can it not be hard when you’re only 18?" But when I was 15 I was prepared to go to Inter and at 16 I was with the national team and wasn’t really at home. You can miss your family a little bit, but I don’t miss my home much because I know that I’m in a place everyone wants to be. Everyone wants to play for Arsenal, and I have that chance so I don’t really think about home too much.
We hear your dad was a goalkeeper himself...
When I started playing football, he was the goalkeeping coach at the club where he used to play for 15 years: FK Belasica. He was a good goalkeeper and played for the national team as well – I think he got three caps. When he was my goalkeeping coach, I was only 10 years old and I called him dad once and he immediately said, "I am not your dad on the training pitch – only at home! I am your coach here!" I learned so much from him. We’d have long conversations after games and he’d tell me what I had done well and what I needed to work on.
He must be delighted you’re at a club like Arsenal...
He’s really proud. When I was still in Macedonia he used to tell me, "you’ll go somewhere and be a big goalkeeper one day," but I thought that he would say that because he was my dad. But he kept saying, "you’ll see, one day you’ll be a great goalkeeper." He taught me all the skills I needed and gave me the confidence I needed to be a goalkeeper and I’ve got better and better ever since.
What was it like growing up in Macedonia?
It’s quite different to my team-mates here, because they grew up at a massive club like Arsenal and have been taught all the right skills. I was in my country, which is not that professional and quite hard to get out. I had a good coach, the first cousin of Goran Pandev, but it is really hard in Macedonia because they don’t really invest in football that much – although they have started to now. It has improved, but it was hard when I was still there.
I think I’m good at coming out to claim crosses, and shot-stopping as well. But I still need to work on both of them, and everything else reallyDeyan Iliev
But football is big back at home isn’t it?
People are really passionate about football – they really live for it. Now we are starting to see some really good players: for example Goran Pandev plays for Napoli, and used to play for Inter Milan and won the Champions League, while Goran Popov plays for West Brom. There are a lot of good players around, but they’re the big stars.
Did you play other sports when you were younger? No, it has always been about football for me, ever since I was young. I didn’t really play anything else, sometimes a bit of basketball with my friends, but I always wanted to be a professional footballer. That was all I focused on.
So who did you look up to?
Gianluigi Buffon was my hero. I watched him when I was younger, and when I was in Italy I met him and had a picture with him. He is a great person and a great goalkeeper as well. We have some similarities, I hope!
What would you say your biggest strengths are?
I think I’m good at coming out to claim crosses, and shot-stopping as well. But I still need to work on both of them, and everything else really. I can see that I’m much better than when I first came to Arsenal, though. I’ve watched back the video of the game I played for Macedonia just before I signed for Arsenal and I can see how much I have improved since then. I look different, and mentally I’ve improved as well. I know the game, I know what’s going to happen – it is much easier for me now.
Read the interview with Deyan and more in the latest edition
What are your hopes over the next few seasons?
I would like to play for the first team. Wojciech is there now and he is a great goalkeeper and doing really well. I’d say he’s the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and he’s a big inspiration. I watch him closely and have learnt a lot from him, but my hope is to get there and play some first-team games too. I know it is not going to be easy but if I get the chance, I will show who I am.
And what about in the long-term?
I’m really happy and don’t ever think about leaving. Hopefully I will stay for a long time, in fact I would like to sign a contract here forever!