It is over a week since 60,000 people filled Celtic Park to show their love and respect for Stiliyan Petrov. It was the biggest turnout at a UK sporting event that weekend and only a thousand less than made it to Wembley the night before to see England’s key world cup qualifier against Moldova. After the game, Martin O’Neill, back managing a Celtic side for the day, said that, although he was astonished by the reception Stan got, he really shouldn’t have been. While in part a nod to the renowned support of the Celtic faithful, this was really a statement on the type of man that Stiliyan Petrov is, and the regard in which he is held by all who meet him.
His story is well-known by now. Often said to be John Barnes’ sole positive contribution to Celtic, it actually took a while for fans in the east end of Glasgow to appreciate what they had in Stan. Playing out of position, homesick and having difficulties with the language (who doesn’t when they first arrive in Scotland?), Petrov was struggling and £2.8 million was looking a lot of money for an unknown Bulgarian teenager. He quickly identified learning the native tongue as being vital (you hear that Gareth?) and decided that working in his mate’s burger van would be as good a way to pick up the weegie accent as any. As his Scottish improved, so did his performances, and when O’Neill took charge and offered him a chance to make himself a fixture in central midfield, Stan grabbed it with both hands and never looked back.
I watched him play many times at Celtic Park. In seven seasons he scored over 60 goals, won 10 trophies, and picked up a SPFA young player of the year award. He was a complete player in Scotland, a machine. He gave everything over the ninety minutes in box to box exhibitions of midfield power and control. He was the definition of strong but fair. He rarely needed to lunge in to win the ball because he was simply a class above the majority of the midfielders he came up against in the SPL. To my knowledge he was never sent off while playing for Celtic. He played with a controlled aggression that dominated vast swathes of the pitch in both defence and attack. The sweat would lash off him yet he never appeared out of breath. I often imagined him like a super-sophisticated android whose creators had cleverly fitted him out with sweat glands but decided against installing a human respiratory system. He also somehow reminded me of Dolph Lundgren in his 1980s action movie heyday, just before the American good-guy would knock seven shades out of him.
In March of 2012 while playing for Aston Villa, Stan fell ill with a fever during a game against Arsenal and was soon diagnosed with acute leukaemia. True to form, he immediately started fighting back against the illness. Anyone with any first hand experience of cancer will know what this fight entails. Though he was never to play again, Villa kept him as their captain for the following season. Until Petrov himself asked them not to, both sets of fans would rise in the 19th minute of each game at Villa Park to applaud the man and sing his name in an offering of respect and support. Had Stan not appealed to them they’d probably still be making the tribute today against Newcastle.
Stan is winning his battle against leukaemia of course, just as he did all those midfield battles in green and white. He is in remission and even played 32 minutes of the match he organised to raise money for his own cancer foundation and the Trussell Trust food bank charity. Fittingly, it was just enough time for the 60,000 inside Celtic Park and the other 21 players on the pitch to stop and deliver one final 19th minute homage to the great Stiliyan Petrov.