Gabriel Sava has come along way since he first popped up on the domestic football radar in the summer of 2008. He was playing for amateur side Drogheda Town at the time but an FAI Cup draw against Bohemians gave the young goalkeeper the platform he needed to launch a career in the League of Ireland.
Drogheda lost 3-0 to the Gypsies but Gabriel put in a Man of the Match performance that was well noted and within a month he had signed for Bray Wanderers. Alan Gough was the man in possession of the gloves at Bray and, with Chris O’Connor and Brain Kane also at the club, Gabby was restricted to just two friendly games against Millwall and Leeds, as well as four appearances as an unused substitute.
He duly moved on at the end of the season, signing for his home town club Drogheda United but it wasn’t until he joined up with Mick Cooke at Monaghan United in 2010 that Gabriel’s career really began to take off.
Sixty one league appearances over two successful seasons with the Mons made Gabby him a firm favourite at Gortakeegan and his time there was crowned with promotion to the Premier Division at the end of 2011. But that winter he signed back at Drogheda United where his former boss, Mick Cooke, had taken up the managerial reins a year previously.
Gabby was now a regular top flight ‘keeper and made 29 league appearances for the Drogs as they finished second to eventual title winners Sligo Rovers. It was a performance that earned Drogheda a spot in this season’s Europa League and which has Sava poised on the cusp of another momentous personal achievement.
Along with many of his team mates, the tie against Malmo FF offers Gabriel his first experience of European football and it is an opportunity that the young goalkeeper is relishing.
“Every player dreams of playing in Europe”, he says, “and especially against a big club like Malmo. Last night at training was the first time we had seen each other since the draw and obviously we were surprised to be playing against a big team like that. They’re the hardest team we could have got but what can you do? You just have to work hard.”
If anyone is qualified to judge how difficult Malmo are likely to be then it is Sava who spent several weeks on trial with Swedish side BK Hacken last year.
The game there, he says, is “more physical”, as well as being “very quick”. Clearly, Gabriel’s time in Sweden made quite an impression on him. “They pass the the ball very quickly”, he says, “and they have some very good players”.
Sava confirms that, in many respects, the game in Sweden is on a different level to the League of Ireland. “Financially, yes”, he says, “and it’s full-time football there, even in the second division it’s full-time. When I went to Sweden last year they had a couple of Brazilians on trial and at the end of the year they sold a striker to one of the Moscow teams for six million.”
At the time of the interview Malmo had just beaten Elfsborg 2-1 and had an opportunity to go top of the league if they beat BK Hacken the next day. Sava wants to know all about the game against Elfsborg; how they lined out, what their strikers were like and even how many fans showed up at the club’s spanking new Swedbank Stadium. “Ah, jeez, that’s good”, he says when told that about 15,000 fans attended the game. He’s done some research of his own too and reveals that he recently looked up Malmo’s most recent results. “They lost 2-1 to Schalke in a friendly”, he says, “… which wasn’t a bad result”. At which point he bursts into a healthy fit of laughter.
Having recovered himself Gabby gets back to business, pointing out that Drogheda have two games to play before Malmo become a live issue. Friday night sees the arrival of Shamrock Rovers for a league game and three days later Drogheda face Cork City in an EA Cup quarter-final, also at home.
“So it’s first things first”, he says. “And only after that is the Malmo game”. Such is the discipline required of Mick Cooke’s men but you can’t help thinking that the game against the former European Cup finalists looms a little bit larger than most in the minds of his young squad.