With Diwali on the horizon, we spoke to Surrey-born AFC Bournemouth academy player, Dinesh Gillela to learn more about the festival as part of our #ThisIsSurreyFootball series.
Dinesh is in the third year of his professional contract at Bournemouth where he serves as captain of the U21s. In this interview, Dinesh provides an insight into how his family celebrates Diwali, his journey from playing grassroots football in Surrey for Mayford Athletic and Woking Cougars to academy level at AFC Bournemouth, as well as his advice to young players dreaming of playing football at the highest level.
How do you and your family usually celebrate Diwali?
“When we were younger, it used to be very big and colourful with fireworks and presents. As we grew older, we all have things to do. My brother, for example, has his football and school too which makes it hard to get together for the occasion. If it’s on the weekend, I will always try and go back home for it. We’ll then have the family together, and some friends also come over to have a celebration and some fireworks. The last couple of seasons I have been quite busy, and it has been hard to do that, but we still have a prayer at home as well as celebrating the most essential aspects of Diwali, rather than all the fireworks and other celebrations.”
How will Covid-19 change these celebrations for you – what are your plans for this year?
“This year it is undoubtedly going to be a challenge due to the circumstances. Families won’t be able to come together for it, which is a shame. This might carry over to Christmas, which is not the best of outcomes, but we have to deal with it in the best possible way.
We will try to have our little celebrations at home and stick to the guidelines. I will probably go home and have a small family reunion with some food and fireworks.”
Where did your journey in grassroots football begin?
“It all started in the Sunday League team [I was in] with some friends I had at school. I was playing football in Woking, where I am from. I was hanging around friends who I used to play with every Sunday. On a Saturday, they went to a training session, and I decided to come along with them, and I enjoyed myself.
I always loved football but never experienced the competitive side of it at school. At first, I joined Mayford Athletic when I was young, before joining Woking Cougars later on. Those were my Sunday League teams. From then on, I just played Saturday-Sunday with them for the majority of my childhood.”
Who was your football role model growing up?
“When I was young, there were two players I would always want to watch.
In the Premier League, it was Didier Drogba, my favourite player growing up because of everything he did and achieved. Outside the Premier League, Ronaldinho was the one. I used to watch him on ITV Champions League nights, and you knew something was going to happen the moment he came on. He made people want to watch the game because you never knew what he was going to do with the ball at his feet.
"We were in the frozen section, and right next to me I saw this big towering man. It was Drogba!"
When I was 10 or 11, I used to go to the Tesco at Chertsey or Weybridge. We were in the frozen section, and right next to me I saw this big towering man. It was Drogba! I stood there staring at him for a while until Dad and I decided to go up to him for a picture. He spoke to me for a little bit which was very nice of him. Something I will never forget.”
When and how did you make your break from grassroots football to academy level football at Bournemouth?
“I had been playing Sunday League since I was 5-6, up until I was 15. I have been in Sunday League football all my childhood which meant I never got the experience of playing at an Academy. I got scouted when I was 15 for Brentford, and I spent a season there. Afterwards, I signed my first professional contract at Watford, where I spent another season. When that season finished, I, unfortunately, didn’t get a scholarship but Bournemouth offered me one. I joined AFC Bournemouth, where I am now in my fifth season and third as a professional. It has been a great experience here.”
Often in South Asian culture, parents can prioritise education over the sport, how did your parents support you in your journey in football?
“My parents have been brilliant; without them, I would not be anywhere near where I am now considering all the sacrifices they made whilst growing up. Especially as a young Asian boy, you don’t see many others from that young age playing. People at school and other clubs would always mention things related to this, but it was never a big issue for me. Looking back at it now, I realise parents do hold their sons [or]daughters back from playing competitive sports mainly because they do not see the end goal or finish line that the kid might see. They look at the education side and think that it will last forever. This last bit is true, no one can take away your knowledge but if the kid is very talented in football or very talented in another sport then I feel like they should be pushed and supported in that journey.
My parents were fantastic with me; they never pushed me to do anything. Football and all the other extra bits I was doing, it all came from myself, but I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my dad and mum. They were supportive and drove me around everywhere no matter the weather or what day it was. I owe everything to them, honestly.”
What advice would you give to a young player looking to follow your footsteps?
“You’ve got to love it and not do it for the wrong reasons. If you do not love what you are doing, you will never be the best at it.
Also, persevere through all the hardships that come with it. I have had a lot of setbacks throughout my childhood, and even now, that is part of who I am and it is just going to make me stronger.”