Meet the Millwall keeper who will step in if misfortune falls on Bart Bialkowski at Forest

IF Bart Bialkowski gets injured or sent off at Nottingham Forest on Friday, there's a fair chance most Millwall fans won't recognise the player who will be summoned from the bench to replace him.

That's because he hasn't made a senior competitive Lions appearance and this time last season was playing on loan for the bottom side in the eighth tier of English football.

Ryan Sandford has been at Millwall almost eight years, and if misfortune strikes at the Lions' No.1 this week, he will step into the City Ground cauldron and be thrust into the play-off challenge.

That prospect, and the fact that Sandford concedes he has "put all my eggs in one basket" to try and make it in professional football, would seem daunting for any 21-year-old.

But Sandford is unperturbed. That's down to his positive attitude – which comes across clearly in his first interview with a newspaper – his determination never to waste a day as he pursues his dream, and his work with goalkeeping coach Lee Turner to ensure he always feels ready if he is called upon.

Kennington-born Sandford has been on the bench before, soaking in experiences such as the one at Elland Road in January when he was back-up to Bialkowski as Leeds came from 2-0 down to beat the Lions 3-2.

It's put to Sandford that his debut could come in front of 20,000-plus fans at one of English football's most iconic stadiums, the home of the former European champions.

He has already prepared for the scenario.

"You have to go into every single game anyway thinking you've got the possibility of playing," Sandford said. "You've got to prepare right. If anything were to happen – touch wood it doesn't – you could be on in the first minute, you could be on in the 80th minute.

"You have to note set-plays. You have to prepare as if you are Bart. That means doing it right in training every day in the build-up to the game. It could happen at any time, in the warm-up even, so you've got to be ready to step up.

"It's a really good experience. I know it's only the bench but there are thousands and thousands of people there, completely different to what you're used to. It hits you as soon as you sit down in the dugout, the atmosphere, especially at Leeds away, how difficult some places can be to go."

Sandford experienced training with the first team when he was 15, and an England underage goalkeeper.

He has trained with Jordan Archer, Dave Martin, and now with Bialkowski.

"To be totally honest, Bart is probably the best player I've worked with," Sandford said. "Sometimes you watch him and it's like, 'wow'.  I don't know how to explain it but there's just an aura about him, you just think he's going to save everything. That's my first proper experience of something like that.

"Not that the other goalkeepers who have been here before haven't been fantastic, I've worked with some really good goalkeepers and they've all helped me massively, given me advice, but with Bart you just think he's unbeatable.

"We've never had a bad bunch here, never, we've always been pushing each other and it's always been a good environment to work in.

"When we go over there and train with the first team the tempo is so much faster and you've got to be able to adapt quickly. If you don't you get caught out. The quality the first-team boys have got is unbelievable.

"Things happen so quickly, the finishing and balls into the box are a lot better. That's the good thing about LT [Turner], we work at that tempo, so it doesn't feel as difficult going over there. You're more used to it.

"It's good for us young lads because the quality of finishing is always so much higher with the likes of Fergie [Shane Ferguson] and Jed [Wallace]. To be fair, a lot of the shots from the first-team boys are so much crisper, so much harder. To know what the standard is like in the Championship gives you an insight into what to expect if you were to play, how sharp it is. There are some really good finishers out there.

"I can remember coming over here [from the academy training base] at 15, 16 and working with the first team. At first you're nervous because it's your first real look into a professional football environment, how they work, the quality of the goalkeepers.

"But it's good because you can see where you need to get to. You see how hard they work so it gives you an understanding of what you need to do to get to that level."

Ryan Sandford, right. training with former Lions keeper David Martin

Sandford wasn't afraid, and certainly had the humility, to go down quite a few levels for first-team football last season. With a queue of keepers in front of him, Sandford took the plunge not only into the Isthmian League South Central Division, but right down to the bottom of it.

He spent two months at Egham Town in Surrey where, after a 3-0 defeat to Cheshunt on his debut, in the match report his temporary club's official website praised him for keeping the score down.

Egham finished the season in last place, after conceding 94 goals in 38 games.

Sandford explained how the move happened. "We had quite a few goalkeepers here, four senior goalkeepers. I wasn't getting game-time, purely because some of them were playing for the 23s as well. There just weren't enough games to go and play in. It was what was available at the time where I could go and get games.

"That came up and it was quite low down so you're umming and ahing, but I spoke to LT and it's just about playing games. That's how you're going to get better. At the end of the day a shot's still a shot, a cross is still a cross. It's not like for an outfielder where they're maybe playing with players that are not as good. For me it's still a shot, still a cross.

"I was very busy! It was good for me in that sense, I was always getting a load of action. The boys there were really good as well as people. Believe it or not, despite where they were, it was enjoyable for me because I was able to go out and play football.

"Wherever you go you get boys that have been in academies so they know what it's like, but there are a load of boys who haven't. They're curious about what your day-to-day routine is, how often you train. It is intriguing for them to know what it's like.

"To be totally honest, I have put all my eggs in one basket, I'm not going to lie. This for me is all or nothing, because it's all I've ever wanted to do since I was young.

"When you've put all that time into it you hope, hope, it can work out. So you don't want to waste a day outside, have a bad day in training, you want to be 100 per cent all the time.

"It's a massive opportunity, especially for us young lads. That's the biggest thing, understanding what an opportunity you've got. And even if it doesn't happen here, it can happen somewhere else for you."

Sandford signed a one-year contract last summer with the option for the club of a further 12 months.

It could make the next few months a tense time.

"I try not to think about that," he said, "I just focus all my energy on showing them what I can do out there. Ultimately that should take care of everything, if you work 100 per cent and you're doing well, you'll know yourself if you've done enough to earn a new contract or the option is taken up.

"You've got to give your all because it's quite cut-throat and, like I said, when you've got all your eggs in one basket you can't afford to be slacking any day. You've always got to be the best that you can be to give yourself that opportunity."

Who knows, maybe that could come this week.

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly