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'I don’t feel forgotten' - What the coronavirus crisis is like for Arsenal loanees abroad

17:00 GMT 26/03/2020
Dejan Iliev
Gunners goalkeeper Dejan Iliev - who is on loan with Jagiellonia - talks exclusively to Goal about what it's like in lockdown in Poland

Dejan Iliev is sitting quarantined in his apartment in Białystok, Poland, 1,200 miles from home as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across Europe.

The Arsenal goalkeeper - currently on loan with Ekstraklasa side Jagiellonia - has been training by himself for the past fortnight since he and his team-mates were told to stay away from the club’s training ground.

Jagiellonia were planning on getting the squad back together this week, but then Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Tuesday that tightened restrictions were being put in place throughout the country in a bid to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Poland is in lockdown - with mass gathering banned and people confined to their homes except for essential activities such as shopping, going to work and taking care of elderly relatives.

“The prime minister said we could only go out to the supermarket or pharmacy and that if we didn’t have to go out, just don’t go out,” Iliev told Goal.

“I’m training at home, doing exercises, doing some bike and core work. I’m doing as much as I can, but it’s just not the same as being outside on the pitch when you are training with the manager and the boys and preparing for games.

“It is tough. Usually we train the whole week and get prepared for when the game comes, but now we have a different match and we have to stay home.

“It’s a mental test now, a mental challenge and we have to look for positives. If we look at the negatives all the time, it’s not going to be a good thing for us, so I’m trying to stay positive. The situation is how it is for now so we have to get used to it.”

Iliev lives alone in Białystok, although he does have some of his Jagiellonia team-mates staying in the same apartment block in the heart of the city, which sits in northeastern Poland.

But other than the odd trip to the shops for essentials, his life for the past fortnight has involved little else but fitness plans and streaming TV boxsets, with Money Heist on Netflix a particular favourite.

For any footballer, it’s a difficult situation to adjust to. They have spent the majority of their lives being programmed to get ready for a game at the weekend - but for Iliev it’s an even stranger situation, given he is so far away from the place he has called home for the past eight years.

The North Macedonia international arrived at Arsenal in 2012 having been signed by Arsene Wenger as a 17-year-old, but despite now being one of the longest-serving players at the club, he has yet to make a senior appearance for the Gunners.

In a bid for more regular game time he asked last summer if he could head out on loan. After spending the first half of the season with SKF Sered in Slovakia, he returned to north London in January before agreeing a switch to Jagiellonia for the remainder of the campaign.

But the 25-year-old made just three appearances before the Ekstraklasa season was halted and now he - like everyone else - he faces an anxious wait for some sort of normality to return as the coronavirus pandemic engulfs the world.

Iliev is one of 10 senior and academy Arsenal players away with loan clubs at the moment and given what it going on around the world, it is understandably a worrying time for anyone who is away from home.

But the goalkeeper is full of praise for the way Arsenal are handling the situation even though he is currently so far away from their London Colney base.

“I’m constantly talking to Arsenal,” he said. “They are always asking me how I am and they have been great so far. They are speaking regularly with me and with Jagiellonia.

“The two clubs are in touch together and have given me an agreed fitness plan. There is a great relationship between the clubs.

“I don’t feel like I’m forgotten at all. I’m part of Arsenal and they make me feel like I’m part of Arsenal. We are a family, we take care of each other - I’m really proud to be part of Arsenal.”

Ben Knapper is Arsenal’s loan manager and is the man tasked with looking after all of the players who spend time away from Emirates Stadium on a temporary basis.

Knapper, who first joined Arsenal from statistical analysis firm Prozone in 2010, has been in the role since the start of 2019 and prior to the coronavirus outbreak would regularly travel out to spend time with Iliev, watch matches and keep tabs on how his move was going.

With the new travel restrictions in place, the pair now stay in touch via phone and Iliev is grateful of the support he continues to receive from his parent club.

“Ben has been very important,” said the Macedonian stopper. “I’m constantly in touch with him.

“When I was in Slovakia I was constantly speaking to him and he came over there to see me. We speak after the games, whether it’s been a good game or a bad game, he give me positives and he believes in me.

“So he has been very good for me, very supportive. I really respect him and I appreciate what he does.”