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'Injury stole my dream but I have no regrets' - Iliev opens up on Arsenal exit after contract termination

08:00 GMT 28/01/2022
Dejan Iliev Arsenal GFX
In a GOAL exclusive, the Macedonian goalkeeper talks about his darkest days at the Emirates and why he owes everything he has to the club

For Dejan Iliev, it’s the end of an era.

The Macedonian goalkeeper first arrived at Arsenal in 2012, plucked from near obscurity by Arsene Wenger following a successful trial.

But now, a decade on, his time with the Gunners has come to an end following the mutual decision to terminate his contract six months early.

Iliev leaves without having made a single senior appearance, with a knee Injury suffered in 2015 sidelining him for 25 months, just as he was on verge of making his first-team breakthrough.

But the 26-year-old has no regrets and as he begins his search for a new club, he looks back on his 10-year stay in North London with nothing but affection.

“It’s obviously sad,” he admits during an exclusive interview with GOAL. "I’ve been at Arsenal long-term so I’ve got a connection with the club, I love the place.

“I went there when I was very young and I met many people. I worked with many different coaches and many big players.

“I had the opportunity to work with my idol when I was growing up, Petr Cech. They are all unbelievable memories that will stay with me until I die.”

Iliev added: “There are definitely no regrets. I made the right choice by joining Arsenal and I was very happy until the very last day.

"It’s a great club where I didn’t just improve on the pitch, I improved as a person. I learned a lot of different things and I learned to appreciate different things in life. 

“Ten years have gone very fast and, unfortunately, I had some injuries, but this is part of the business. 

“Everything has to come to an end some day and that’s what happened with my time at Arsenal. Now, I have to go elsewhere.”

Iliev spent the first half of this season on loan with SKF Sered in Slovakia.

It was a loan spell that started well but an injury then saw him lose his spot in the side and he struggled to regain it after battling back to fitness.

So, he returned to Arsenal in January and, after talks with the Gunners hierarchy, his contract – which was due to expire in the summer – was terminated early.

“It was just mutual consent,” he explains. “I asked the club if it was possible and they agreed with it. They listened to what I had to say, I listened to them and, in the end, we thought that it was the best decision."

Having been an Arsenal player for the past decade, Iliev admits the thought that he is now a free agent is taking some getting used to.

He is now back in Strumica, in Macedonia, and offers are already starting to arrive from interested clubs.

Iliev is in no rush to make a decision, however, with the shot-stopper determined to find a club that can provide him with the stability he has craved for the past few years.

“This is the most important thing for me,” he said. “I’ve had a few loans, but a loan is always difficult. You go, you meet people for a short period of time and then you leave.

“I would like to put myself in a club where I could stay for the long-term. It’s very difficult to go to a different country, a different culture, a different coach and adapt in a short period of time.”

Iliev looks back at his time at Arsenal fondly, even though he never got the chance to make his senior debut.

His progression after he arrived in 2012 from hometown club Belasica was impressive and it looked like it was only a matter of time before he was given his opportunity by Wenger.

But, having twice been named on the bench by Wenger, the knee injury he sustained in 2015 changed everything. By the time he returned to full fitness just over two years later, he was way down the pecking order.

“My dream was to make my debut for Arsenal,” Iliev said. “That’s why I signed. It wasn’t just to train and wait for my salary.

“I was training every day to get my first-team debut, but it didn’t work out.

“My knee injury came at an age when I was developing well and Arsene was giving lots of chances to youngsters.

“There were lots of cup games and everyone at the club was saying I was doing great. So, I was just expecting that moment to come when I would get my chance.

“But then the injury came and it stole my dream.”

Having clocked up 10 years at Arsenal, Iliev played with many great players and regularly came up against top strikers in training.

There was Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and, more recently of course, it’s been Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the line for the Gunners.

So, who was the best finisher Iliev faced in training during his time at the club?

“There were loads because of the amount of players I’ve trained with, so it’s difficult to say,” he answers.

“But if I had to pick one, it would probably be Santi Cazorla. He was amazing. His technique, he could use both feet, he could shoot from anywhere. It was very, very unpredictable.

“It was like he was from another world.”

Iliev leaves with nothing but fond memories of Arsenal.

The chance to work alongside Cech will always remain a treasured memory, as will the day he first joined as a teenager.

“Obviously, signing was a massive thing,” he admitted. “I was used to watching Arsenal on the TV. Then, all of a sudden, I was training with them and Arsene Wenger was talking to me. This moment I will never forget.

“Signing for Arsenal, spending my teenage years there and 10 years of my professional career, it’s definitely the best thing that has happened to me.

“I’m leaving as a massive Arsenal fan. I love this club to bits. Everything I have is thanks to them.”