Young players often change position as they progress through the ranks, but very few switch from being a striker to a goalkeeper, particularly not at the age of 17.
Somehow, though, this was the route Heurelho Gomes took to a career at the highest level for club and country.
“I just wanted to succeed,” he says. “I promised my mum that I was going to become a footballer and I was going to give her a house. My dream was to become a footballer. For me, the position didn’t matter. Of course, I liked to play up front, but, at the end of the day, I believe it was a good choice.”
Although Gomes was still learning some of the basics of his new position, his height, agility and determination instinctively set him apart, prompting interest from Cruzeiro.
He made his professional debut in 2002 and quickly established himself as their first choice, making 65 appearances in all competitions a year later as the club won a domestic treble.
Maicon, Luisao and Felipe Melo were part of the same team. All of a similar age and destined for further success, they were all soon heading to Europe.
Gomes was picked up by PSV Eindhoven on the recommendation of the scout who had championed Ronaldo’s cause when he made the same move a decade earlier.
“I also received an offer from Dynamo Kyiv, but I chose PSV because they really wanted me. Piet de Visser went to a game in Paraguay to watch me. He only watched the warm-up and then he left the stadium. He told Guus Hiddink that he needed three goalkeepers for next season: number one, Gomes; number two, Gomes; number three, Gomes,” he laughs.
De Visser’s confidence was well-founded. PSV enjoyed an outstanding defensive record as they reclaimed the Eredivisie title in Gomes’ first season, finishing 10 points clear of Ajax. They only conceded 18 goals, losing just once, and shone in the Champions League too.
“It was amazing because it was a new team. They changed the squad a lot from the season before. Phillip Cocu had just re-signed. There were young South American players like Alex and Jefferson Farfan. Ibrahim Afellay was just rising. We had so much young talent,” explains Gomes.
“Winning the league was our focus but we did much more than that. We won the double and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. It was an amazing season, especially for me, having just arrived. Everything went our way because we worked so hard.”
As he adjusted to a new language, culture and lifestyle, Gomes was made to feel at home. The influence of Hiddink and his dressing room leaders – Mark van Bommel and Cocu especially – set the tone for a successful period.
“These two players, with Andre Ooijer and Wilfried Bouma as well, were the base of the team,” he says. “Without them, it was going to be difficult. They knew the league and they had experience in the Champions League. It was a new thing for me, Alex and the other young players, but they led by example. We delivered because we were well conducted by them.”
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A once-dominant Ajax were left trailing in PSV’s wake. Clever recruitment was another major factor. With established stars and top prospects continually tempted away, a steady stream of talented and ambitious replacements was identified. And many of them went on to outgrow the club in due course. Overseeing it all was an exceptional manager.
“The big influential person was Guus Hiddink. He maintained the team and made a new one that was successful for four years. He was involved in everything. In any situation, he was controlling everything. I believe he was the key person who gave us the opportunity to deliver results on the pitch,” says Gomes.
“He was like a father to everybody. I remember, in my first season at PSV, I had a family problem. Before a Champions League game, he asked me if I wanted to go to Brazil to visit my dad. I said, ‘No, no, no. The doctors are taking care of him over there.’ But you could see he was a person you could count on. He used to treat people fairly.
“Sometimes, in the world of football especially, you see people who don’t care about you as a human being. They just want to push you all the way. It doesn’t matter what your situation is – if you have a problem or not. But Guus Hiddink was more than a manager. He was special for everybody at the club.”
Another league title followed for Hiddink – taking him to an unrivalled six in total – before he stepped down in June 2006, with Ronald Koeman replacing him.
Despite seeing their lead disappear in the second half of Koeman’s first season, PSV held on to be crowned champions again, finishing above Ajax on goal difference.
“It was a question mark [when Hiddink left] because we were used to him. It’s easy when you know someone, and you trust them. But when Koeman came we saw a similarity. We just needed to continue to do our jobs because he knew football and he knew the club as well. It was important that we were still united.”
An uncertain fourth, and final, season in the Netherlands still ended with yet more silverware, even after Koeman departed for Valencia. Jan Wouters and then Sef Vergoossen took over on an interim basis, guiding PSV to their fourth consecutive title.
Last time we played PSV in this stadium. That Berbatov goal was brilliant. Looool remember Gomes being brilliant against us and then we went and bought him. pic.twitter.com/TjMhw8cmIZ
— Warren (@nerrawsiwel) October 24, 2018
Gomes had proven his worth. A commanding presence with spectacular reflexes, he developed a reputation for eye-catching saves and was nicknamed ‘The Octopus’. Across the course of 181 games for PSV, he kept a remarkable 91 clean sheets. Plenty of clubs, Tottenham Hotspur included, were keeping tabs.
“They were following me for a long time, but the key game was against Spurs in the UEFA Cup. I’d done everything I needed to do in Holland. Four years was enough to show my qualities and to be prepared to play in the Premier League,” says the Brazilian.
“I was amazed when I first heard that Tottenham were interested in my services. It was difficult to leave PSV, of course, because I felt like part of the family, but I saw a great opportunity to play in the best league in the world.”
By Sean Cole