Now on loan in Poland, the goalkeeper is among Arsenal’s longest-serving players despite never having played a first-team game
Dejan Iliev was in the middle of one of the three trials he had at Arsenal as a 17-year-old when he noticed Arsene Wenger making his way over to where he was training.
The legendary Frenchman – who Iliev had grown up idolising in his native North Macedonia – positioned himself directly behind the teenager’s goal and studied him intensely.
“Not long before I was watching him on TV then suddenly there I was on trial with him right there, it felt like I had wings on my body,” Iliev told Goal.
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“I was nervous because I knew I had to do well if I wanted to sign, but at the same time it was a great motivation for me to be surrounded by people like that. I was thinking if I’m here, I must be worth it.”
And Iliev was deemed worth it because soon after, on the final day of the 2012 summer transfer window, Arsenal signed him from his hometown club Belasica.
Now, eight years on, he is one of the longest-serving players at the north London club.
“It has gone quickly,” said the 25-year-old. “When you are at a club like this people take care of you and make you feel really happy. I’ve learnt a lot at Arsenal. I went there as a boy and now I’m a grown man, not just in football but in life.
“I’ve learnt how to lead my life, how to respect and talk to other people. I’m really happy to be at a big club like Arsenal.”
Despite having now entered his second decade as an Arsenal player, however, Iliev has yet to make a senior appearance for the club.
He was on the bench twice under Arsene Wenger and was also among the substitutes during last season’s Europa League final defeat by Chelsea in Baku.
But Iliev, currently on loan with Jagiellonia in Poland, has not yet made it on the pitch with the first team.
For Iliev, it is a source of frustration, but given that not so long ago he wasn’t sure whether he would even play football again due to a knee injury, he refuses to be downbeat.
“After I came back [from the injury] in 2017 I had to train for one year to get back to my fitness,” he said. “In 2018 I was No.3 goalkeeper when me, Petr [Cech] and Bernd [Leno] all went to the Europa League final.
“Then I asked if I could go out on loan to get some experience. I’m now here in Poland and hopefully in the future I will get a chance to show my quality at Arsenal.
“I really hope that this will happen and I’m working hard to get this chance. I’m not going to give up, I still believe that I can make it.”
Positivity and a strong mentality are two of the key ingredients that make up Iliev’s personality. Prior to the current season being suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, he was enjoying a good campaign out on loan.
He spent the first half of the season with SKF Sered in Slovakia before returning to north London in January and agreeing a switch to Jagiellonia for the remainder of the campaign.
The Gunners keeper believes the two spells away have been good for him as he continues to battle back from a period in which he feared his football career could be over.
A knee injury sustained in 2015 was only expected to keep him sidelined for a short time, but complications and several operations would see him confined to the treatment room for more than two years.
“It was a very difficult time and I didn’t know where I was going,” Iliev recalled.
“I was stuck in a place where at some points I thought my career would be over because of the injury. Even the doctors couldn’t believe what was happening.
“Mentally it was tough. As the time was going by and with the uncertainty of what was happening, it was getting more and more difficult.”
It was at that point that Iliev turned to a psychologist to help him.
Despite the difficulties he was facing, he wanted to stay focused on his recovery and to train his mind to stay positive and it’s something he believes ultimately helped him emerge from his injury nightmare.
“I worked with the psychologist at Arsenal and that really helped me to try to stay positive as much as possible,” said Iliev.
“I was talking to them open and honestly. I got to the point when I said this is going to be a career-ending one for me because it seemed like there was no way out.
“But then I started to believe again. I had my last operation, I said it was my last operation and that I would give it a go. After that my knee was feeling good and it all worked out. Arsenal were so supportive. The psychologists, doctors, the whole club were behind me and they believed in me.
“When I look back, it’s not a nice pleasure, but it definitely made me stronger and nowadays I play football without any problem.”
Despite now being fully fit and free from injury, Iliev continues to use a psychologist to help improve his ‘mental skill’ and performance.
The use of psychologists in football is growing and the Arsenal keeper believes it is vitally important they are utilised, even at the top level.
“When we are all good, we think we don’t need help,” he said. “But when we are bad, or have a bad game or a bad day, sometimes you have negative thoughts and this is very important to control.
“If you make a mistake in a game after just 20 minutes and you have to play the rest of the 70 minutes still thinking about the mistake you have made, you destroy yourself and you won’t show the quality you have.
“So I believe psychologists play a big part and a big role in football, they help you train yourself, train your brain and actually be prepared that if something goes wrong, you can bounce back and perform at the highest level.”
With uncertainty surrounding the end of the football season, Iliev is unsure when exactly he will be heading back to Arsenal.
But with his dream to still make an impact with the Gunners, he is determined to return and show Mikel Arteta – a man who was once his team-mate – that he has the quality to be involved in his future plans.
But if he is to force his way into the first-team picture, he will be up against Bernd Leno, a keeper Iliev admits is one of the best in the English top flight.
“Bernd is a top keeper, one of the best in the Premier League,” he said.
“He’s actually a very good friend of mine. We talk regularly and message each other. He’s not just a good goalkeeper, he’s a great person as well.
“I’ve learnt a lot from him and from Petr Cech. Working with them was a great experience for me.
“He was my idol growing up. When I was little I was watching him and trying to pretend to be him. He was a great role model for me so it was a pleasure to work with him at Arsenal. It was amazing to be a part of his career.”