In celebration of Stiliyan Petrov: the tiger in the grass

In celebration of Stiliyan Petrov: the tiger in the grass

Some midfielders use their position to involve themselves in every aspect of a game, immersing themselves in the centre of the park the way a spider nestles at the heart of a meticulously constructed web. The reverberations a spider feels when a fly lands on its web are similar to how players like Xavi and Andrea Pirlo are affected by every pass on the field, so attuned are they to the ebb and flow of a game.

Others, like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, treat their position as though it is a McGuffin in a Marvel movie. An entity that must be protected from the enemy at all times, no matter the cost. Violence, aggression, intimidation – there is no tactic too sordid to be deemed unusable.

There are some midfielders, however, that seek to use their position in a more passive sense. They treat the midfielders in both sides in the manner a tiger would seek to utilise long strands of coarse grass; stoically hidden, poised for that one pivotal moment of explosion that could make all the difference. While the tiger bursts in the attempt to fell some poor unsuspecting antelope, these midfielders burst into space to pick up loose balls, before smashing them beyond, until then, untroubled goalkeepers.

This article will focus on one such player who regularly demonstrated these feline attributes. A player who over the course of a few short years went from flipping burgers outside the Celtic Park to being considered worthy of individual analysis from José Mourinho before the 2003 UEFA Cup final. This is the story of Stiliyan ‘Stan’ Petrov.

Before we delve too deep into the career of Petrov, I must make a disclaimer. Growing up, Petrov was my idol. Every wee boy growing loving football has a player they venerate more than any other – mine just happened to be the energetic Bulgarian. Darting around the back garden I would internally narrate games, always ensuring my side won with a late strike from Petrov. When at football practice, I would mimic the flailing motion his arms made whenever he made connection with the ball. Things reached a rather regrettable nadir when I aped his dated hairstyle – frosted streaks have never been a strong look, a lesson I required more than once.

With that caveat now in place, we can continue.

Nowadays the footballing public is far more aware of how difficult it can be for a player to transition from one club to another. These difficulties are multiplied exponentially when said player is both young and asked to move from one country to another. These players, regardless of annual income, are not mindless automatons that can be switched into low-power mode between training and games. We know that for a player to maximise his potential on the field, his life needs to be as harmonious as possible away from it. This has been achieved in a multitude of ways.

Clubs now recruit full-time translators to help speed up the acclimatisation process. Player liaison officers are in place to help new recruits decipher some of the local idiosyncrasies that could very well be alien to them, from the bigger ordeals faced when living in a strange land such as buying a house, to the smaller, more heartfelt actions, like acquiring some of the player’s home comforts, otherwise not easily located.

When Stan Petrov made his transfer from CSKA Sofia to Celtic at the tail end of the last millennium, he would find adaptation a whole lot more difficult to master.

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In his homeland, Petrov had developed a glowing reputation as a young, dynamic midfielder capable of impacting games on a regular basis. He was also a man made of strong moral fibre, demonstrated when he and his teammates were able to secure the 1999 Bulgarian Cup, just 12 months after a humiliating 5-0 loss to bitter rivals Levski Sofia, in the season’s prior incarnation.

Such qualities were brought to Celtic’s attention by their former manager Josep Vengloš, however the interest was only solidified when Petrov put in a stellar display in his nation’s 1-0 defeat to England at Wembley. The 19-year-old Bulgarian touched down in Glasgow, alien to the new culture into which he would be expected to immerse himself. Today, of course, he would be provided with a smorgasbord of assistance; in 1999, however, he was more or less left to his own devices.

Celtic would defend their operating procedures and explain that English learning classes were arranged, but Petrov failed to attend. The problem was that the classes were in East Kilbride, a fair distance from Petrov’s accommodation and, without the mastery of the language to navigate the gap, he understandably retreated into his shell.

Problems began to snowball. Bills mounted and without the understanding of how to elucidate a solution, the pile grew ever higher. The nadir came when he was hit with a £6,000 mobile phone bill, accumulated as the increasingly homesick teenager phoned home with more and more regularity.

Without the ability to converse with either the players or management, Petrov endured a poor start to his Celtic career. Unable to assert where his best position was, or where niggling injuries were having a debilitating effect, his mood damped with each increasingly isolated week. The fans, too, struggled to see the value of their latest recruit. Petrov’s image was sullied further when the manager, John Barnes, attempted to utilise him as a right-back.

For Petrov, the merciless pull of depression must have been monstrously hard to fight. Imagine, for a moment, that life for most folk is like climbing a flight of stairs; monotonous work, offset with the knowledge that your destination is only a few floors away. For Stan, the stairs on his journey lacked the definitive robust edges most folk enjoy. His were rounded, covered in a glistening sheen that would only make slipping and falling much more likely.

While most have a safety net at the base of their stairwell, Petrov had a yawning chasm, a pit of bottomless depth, an engulfing void with an intense gravitational pull. It must have been the easiest thing in the world to abandon the hard, trudging, upward motion and succumb to the pull of despair. Yet he never. 

Salvation would be found in an unlikely source. After yet another session of dispiriting training, he made his way to wait for his taxi home only to bump into security worker Brian Wilson, who offered a lift to the Celtic player. This became a regular affair, with Wilson taking the time to engage with the forlorn footballer. Petrov’s English skills, as a result, slowly improved. This arduous process is explained by Petrov himself: ”We started with the simple things. He would touch me and go ‘elbow’, he would touch me and go ‘shoulder, knee, thigh, hamstring’ – and I would write these things down.”

His grasp of the language improved to the point he felt comfortable working in a friend’s burger van. Entertaining almost 60,000 fans on a Saturday to then serve them a burger drench in fried onions a couple of days later is something fit to be seen in the Goal! movie franchise. Nevertheless, the practice expediated the adaptation process. Petrov, in comic fashion, epitomised his stint in the culinary field by saying: “The only thing harder to understand than a Glaswegian accent is a drunken man with a Glaswegian accent. And, believe me, I served a few of them.”

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By the end of a challenging first season in Scottish football, Petrov could feel justified in sticking his chest out, inflated with a sense of self-satisfaction. Not only did he fight off the inexorable pull of depression and overcome an immensely difficult start to life at Celtic, he ended it with a League Cup triumph over Aberdeen.

Despite this personal elation, it was a dismal season for the club on the whole, suffering the dual indignities of finishing runners-up to arch-rivals Rangers by an incredible 21 points, and elimination from the Scottish Cup at the hands of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It was a defeat that spawned the now infamous headline, ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious’.

The twin embarrassments ushered in a new era for the club: out went the dismal reign of John Barnes and director of football Kenny Dalglish, and in came Martin O’Neill. Celtic would flourish under the Northern Irishman, winning all three domestic trophies in his first season at the helm, shattering Rangers’ aura of superiority and rejuvenating a set of Celtic fans who for over a decade had enjoyed only intermittent success.

Petrov himself enjoyed the tenure of O’Neill immensely. With O’Neill’s warm style of management, something Petrov himself described as a “distant friendship”, the playmaker quickly morphed from a player of considerable promise into one of Scottish football’s most potent threats. The formation utilised by O’Neill – a 3-5-2 – brought the best out of the majority of the squad, with Petrov benefitting more than most.

Behind him, acting as the most solid of bases, he had the midfield screen of Neil Lennon and Paul Lambert, two players who could protect the precocious Bulgarian, as well as provide an easy means to jettison possession should he ever find himself in trouble. The pair were also hugely experienced; Lambert. in particular, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund, was a bottomless source of information, which was regularly mined.

On either flank, Petrov was lucky to play with two unique talents. To his left he had Alan Thompson, a Geordie blessed with an immaculate left peg and a work ethic as industrious as anyone in the sport, while to his right he had the jet-heeled Didier Agathe, a player who throughout his lengthy career continued to look as raw as a butcher’s steak. Never a guy blessed with technical grace, he was so rapid he’d make Theo Walcott look like the irritable old man in Pixar’s Up.

The strikers within Celtic’s ranks provided Petrov with the perfect foil. Chris Sutton and later John Hartson were big, robust attackers who were more than willing to nod down crosses into the path of the goal-hungry midfielder. The cherry on the cake was Henrik Larsson, a player so good he elevated those around him, exuding of an aura that was almost visible to those in the stands, a glow that would permeate teammates. Petrov himself benefitted hugely from the Swede’s quiet leadership.

Despite the abundance of talent surrounding him, the player with the biggest impact on Petrov would be the rival for his position, a squat Slovakian with his 30th birthday becoming progressively smaller in his rear-view mirror – Ľubomír Moravčík. ‘Lubo’, as he was affectionately known, was the identikit for what Petrov should stride for: immaculate when on the ball, capable of delivering goals and assists, brave in a physical sense as well as in possession, but above all, two-footed.

Read  |  How Ľubomír Moravčík became Celtic’s Slovak sensation

Champions League Magazine still rates him as the most ambidextrous player to ever ply his trade in the competition, edging Wesley Sneijder into second place. Petrov himself was in awe of the player he would call a “gift from God” – sometimes even questioning the management team when they would select him to start games ahead of the Slovak.

With such a diverse array of quality teammates, Petrov, armed with his own fierce array of skills, matured into one of the best players in the country. In his first season under the watchful gaze of O’Neill, he was named as SPFA Young Player of the Year.

Petrov’s late, penetrating runs saw him produce a steady stream of goals and assists. As his role in the team became more defined and his confidence grew, he began to assert himself when it came to set pieces. A regular Celtic routine involved Larsson deftly laying free-kicks into the path of Petrov who would then unleash impossibly quick strikes on target. However, Petrov still had more to prove. 

Players operating within the confines of the Scottish game always have their qualities questioned. The opinion, often emanating to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, is that players who stand out are merely the biggest fish in an emaciated pond. The answer to this is to showcase your quality in the European arena, and in O’Neill’s second season Petrov was able to strut his stuff in the Champions League.

After dismantling a talented Ajax side in qualifying, Celtic were placed in a competitive group containing a Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg. The Hoops made a positive impact their maiden season in football’s toughest tournament, amassing a credible nine points. Unfortunately, this only garnered third spot and a place in the now defunct UEFA Cup. Still, despite elimination, Celtic and Petrov left the big stage with a reputation enhanced.

What Celtic learnt the most from this campaign was how to adapt to a different standard compared to their more manageable domestic foes. Petrov himself adapted well to a new role. In Scotland, Petrov, aping the tiger in the beginning of our tale, was expected to burst from midfield and latch onto loose balls, but in Europe, devoid of the possession his side grew accustomed to, Petrov devolved into a more orthodox box-to-box midfielder. A solitary goal in six games – a strike in a 3-2 away loss to Juventus – did not reflect how good the Bulgarian was.

Still, the space needed in the Petrov household for gold medals continued to mount, with Celtic winning the league title with a record 103 points.

The 2002/03 season would be memorable for Petrov, O’Neill and club, with the now historic run to the UEFA Cup final. Wins against Blackburn and Celta Vigo buoyed the club, but when Celtic met Stuttgart in the last 16, few thought they would progress. It was on this cold February night that Petrov produced one of his finest displays.

After going a goal down to a sublime Kevin Kurányi header, Celtic rallied to finish the half 2-1 up. Petrov was a constant menace to the German back line, pushing and prodding, ensuring that there wasn’t a single moment of rest, while simultaneously ensuring that his defensive duties weren’t neglected. His terrific performance was complete when he got himself on the scoresheet with a powerful, low drive from an angle so acute it would leave the most ardent geometry fan perplexed.

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What added a layer of brilliance to Petrov’s evening was the fact that he completely overshadowed the playmaker in the opposition side, Krasimir Balakov, Bulgaria’s creative force alongside Hristo Stoichkov the 1994 World Cup and something of an icon to an impressionable young Petrov. 

Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista were all dispatched, setting up a final against José Mourinho’s Porto. Celtic were playing some super stuff – miserly at the back and rampant going forward – with Petrov key in oscillating the play. Petrov highlights the role played by his manager: “I was the best at this in Scotland because Martin O’Neill gave me the freedom to go and surprise teams.” 

Mourinho was not the rampant excuse-machine we see today. Back then he was still forging a reputation as a manager of peak intellect and was perhaps the best in the world at identifying opposition strengths and how to nullify them. In the Celtic side, the player he ear-marked for special treatment was Petrov. Aware of the Bulgarian’s penchant for exploiting space, Mourinho assigned Maniche in a man-marking role, a task he performed with all the voracity usually only displayed by a prison yard Rottweiler. Petrov describes best what happened that blistering night inside Seville’s Estadio de La Cartuja: “Every time I tried to run into space he was there. Every time I tried something different, he was there.”

The claustrophobic tactics used to shackle Celtic’s dynamic midfielder meant that Petrov was unable to play to his potential. He was a virtual bystander as his counterpart, Deco, pulled the strings with Machiavellian brilliance. Two sublime Larsson headers were not enough to prevent Porto from securing a 3-2 victory. To compound Celtic’s woes the club would return to domestic action only to see their title lost to arch-rivals Rangers on goal difference.

Petrov, however, continued to grow, fully morphing from promising teen to one of the leaders on the park. When Gordon Strachan replaced O’Neill in the 2005/06 season, Petrov was perhaps the key figure in ensuring the transition period wasn’t a total disaster. A 5-0 humiliation against Slovakian minnows Artmedia Bratislava and a 4-4 draw against Motherwell had the majority of fans wondering if Strachan was the right man for the job. Performances and results remained erratic as O’Neill stalwarts were either jettisoned or left frozen in isolation. Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson and Bobo Baldé all saw their influence cut dramatically. Petrov, however, remained unchanged. He was simply too good.

The season eventually saw the Hoops string a series of victories together and exert their dominance. By the turn of the year Celtic had a healthy lead at the summit of the table. The handing of the baton to a new batch of Celtic stars, players like Shunsuke Nakamura, Artur Boruc and Maciej Żurawski, while far from serene, was ultimately successful, winning both the title and the League Cup. And while Gordon Strachan was named as the Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the Year, a huge amount of his initial success lay at the feet of Petrov, his on-field brilliance more important than ever.    

Petrov’s personal trophy haul now read four league titles, three Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups. Despite the regular need to purchase polish, Petrov felt that there was little more for him to achieve within the confines of Scotland, wishing to test himself in the elevated environment of the Premier League.

On the final day of the transfer window, Petrov found the opportunity to reunite with Martin O’Neill, at Aston Villa, to the tune of almost £8 million. Life in Birmingham, however, proved to be more challenging than Petrov could have imagined. Once again, he was forced to combat some internal demons, explained by O’Neill: “He got a bit homesick for Glasgow – which is a bit strange considering he’s a Bulgarian.”

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While the pitch would be expected to be a safe-haven during another difficult time, Petrov encountered a new problem: his raison d’etre of bursting into vacant space was much harder to achieve in England. Petrov’s theory was that the players, physically, were much more advanced than anything he had encountered, and as such were able to close both him and any void he wished to enter much faster.

With spaces diminished and his finely-tuned playing style redundant, he was forced to adapt. With time spent on the sidelines and a new set of fans once again questioning his worth, Petrov analysed both himself and his team, identifying a role deeper in the side, one O’Neill was happy to foster. This deeper role, covering for the rangy Gareth Barry, paid dividends as Villa became surprise contenders for European football, and very nearly secured the League Cup. A series of baffling refereeing decisions were the key factor in separating Aston Villa and Manchester United.

A new aspect of play that Petrov was able to develop was a variation in his passing. Before long he was equally adept at playing short passes to Barry as he was at hitting target man John Carew. A facet of Villa’s play that was always threatening was Petrov’s ability to deftly float balls over opposition defences for the jet-heeled Gabby Agbonlahor to exploit. 

Petrov was no longer the Tiger, hidden menacingly from view, only deadly in bursts; he was now a different beast altogether, more akin to the patriarch in a wolf-pack. Less threatening individually perhaps, but much deadlier as part of his new group – forever visible yet capable of hurting you and your comrades in a menagerie of different ways.

Petrov’s six seasons at Villa again saw him overcome a difficult start to life and become a fan favourite. From a squad outsider, fighting desperately to adapt to the league’s rigours, he became someone respected enough to earn the Players’ Player of the Year award twice, as well as winning the fans’ choice award.

Around this time, Petrov also became Bulgaria’s all-time leading appearance maker, surpassing 100 caps and eclipsing legendary figures such as Balakov, Letchkov, Stoichkov and Berbatov. The fact he was captain for a large proportion of these appearances, including the European Championship campaign in 2004, adds yet another layer of sheen to an already staggering achievement. In fact, he was such a respected figure in his homeland, his wedding was a televised event.

Sadly, Petrov’s career was cut short when he announced to the world that he would be forced to fight desperately once more, this time for his life, when he was diagnosed with Acute Leukaemia. There’s no need to delve into this stage of his life as Petrov himself has made it clear that he doesn’t wish for this traumatic period in his life to define him. Thankfully, the internal strength Petrov possessed, combined with the selfless dedication of his wife, was enough to beat back the disease.

Petrov now prepares to enter a new era in his life, that of a coach. If he applies the same dedication he did to his playing career, it is hard to see him being anything other than a success. Even if his new vocation fails to excite him and he brings the curtain down on his time in football, his legacy will be etched in stone from now until eternity.

The Bulgarian was footballer of immense prowess, able to deflect every lightning bolt the Gods of Fate were able to throw at him; from the banal tasks of overcoming serious injuries and freeing himself from depression’s icy grip, to staring at his own demise and deciding it was a hurdle he was able to leap. He was a man who throughout his career continued to show maturity and remain humble despite entering the era in which footballers were no longer confined as sportsmen, but were now mega-rich celebrities. He rarely, if ever, let his own ego surpass what was best for the team and consistently shattered the expectation fans had for him. It’s this reservoir of strength that makes him one of the most popular players in recent memory.

By Ben Delaney @DelaneyBen11

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