A tribute to Aston Villa legend Stiliyan Petrov
Stiliyan Petrov was more than just the captain at Aston Villa – he was the club captain.
That meant the entire organisation had ultimate faith in him representing the club on a national and international level, whether they were playing abroad on tour, attending charity events or working with Acorns Children’s Hospice.
It was because Petrov was, and still is, more than just a player at Villa – he embodied what the whole club stood for.
He may have been on a good wage having been brought to Villa Park from Celtic Park by Martin O’Neill for £6.5 million in 2006, but as we’ve seen so often in the Premier League, money can’t always buy you love.
Petrov was the nucleus of O’Neill’s revolution, forming formidable partnerships in the middle with the likes of Reo-Coker and Gareth Barry, before eventually settling into one of Villa’s best midfields for sometime – with Stewart Downing, James Milner and Ashley Young.
That side, backed by a huge amount of money, nearly became great, but the wheels started to come off and Villa were soon sliding down the table. Milner left first for big-bucks Manchester City, followed by Downing to Liverpool and Young to Manchester United.
But Petrov stayed. He wasn’t as sought after as the other three, but he did have admirers and could have left at any point. But he stayed because he loved the club and the fans, and they loved him equally in return.
It also says something about the player that he could play under managers whose philosophies were as contrasting as O’Neill, Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish – yet under all three he was always one of the first on the team sheet.
His style wasn’t earth-shattering, but he had a great touch, could pick out a pass, scored a few screamers and his determination was unmatched. When Villa were down in the doldrums last year, he worked and worked and worked, until he was struck down by his terrible illness.
Current Villa manager Paul Lambert did the correct thing and kept him as club captain until he announced his retirement this week. It was hardly a shock but it was extremely upsetting. There are footballers out there who complain about their fixture schedule, training methods or being played out of position. Petrov simply loved to play and he would light up the field when his team was on top, or rally his troops until the final whistle when they were losing.
It’s such a shame he didn’t win anything with Villa but he played a huge part in helping us finish sixth three times on the bounce, make it to the League Cup Final in 2010, when we were narrowly beaten by Man United, and also helped us reach the semi-final of the FA Cup that same year, when we were eventually outplayed by Chelsea.
He kept the team functioning when Houllier’s training methods were upsetting some of the players, and battled on with the team when McLeish’s tactics began to wear down the spirit of even the most avid Villa supporters.
When he announced he was fighting acute leukaemia in March 2012, it was a shock to everyone’s system. No-one deserves to contract such an illness, but for such an honest and respected player like Petrov, with such a young family, it seemed even more unfair.
But he began fighting it straight away and, although I couldn’t and wouldn’t claim to have ever known the man, in my eyes he did it with unbelievable dignity, humility and pride.
He could have shielded himself from the media, the club and public eye, but he still came to Villa Park to cheer on HIS club.
The respect for the man is such his removal from the football world is being felt equally as hard at Celtic and of course in his home country of Bulgaria - a country he represented a staggering 106 times.
It’s easy to get all teary-eyed when someone is fighting a battle such as Petrov’s, but he is a different type of footballer – one of the rare breeds in today’s society who cuts across the divide.
It’s an absolute honour to applaud him on 19 minutes at every home game – 19 minutes because he wore the number 19 at Villa with pride for six years – which is always superbly respected by away supporters, and long may it continue.
Petrov has announced he is now ready to plough all his efforts into his charity work, raising awareness about leukaemia. I’m sure he will get the support of players, past and present, as well as football fans throughout Britain.
Looking to the future, it would be great if he could one day take some sort of ambassadorial role at Villa. Apart from not coming from the local area, Petrov is of the same mould as Ian Taylor, and Villa fans known what a great job he has done promoting and representing the club. It comes easy to him because he really does love everything about Aston Villa Football Club, as does Stiliyan Petrov.
Petrov will lead the players out for a lap of honour after the game with Chelsea today and I’m sure the majority of the 41,000 fans expected at the game will applaud him and everything he has done for the club.
It would be nice if he could lead the players out at the start too because that would really create an atmosphere at Villa Park. I also believe his shirt should be retired as a mark of respect. It takes a lot for a player to make their mark at a club in such a way, but Petrov would have played for Villa until his legs wouldn't let him anymore, which sadly became the case.
Aside from football, however, the most important issue is his health and it’s great to see him making strides towards recovery, knowing the leukaemia is in remission. Petrov knows better than anyone his battle is not over yet, but we wish him and his family all the best for future.
And if he does decide to come back to Aston Villa to take up some sort of role, he will be welcomed back with open arms.
Article by James Fisher