Football: Genchev's unbelievable adventure from World Cup to Ryman League

Hendon's former Bulgarian international hopes to instigate more dressing room explosions in today's FA Cup tie at Blackpool.
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The Independent Online
HOW HAPPY the players of Hendon were after their recent FA Cup win at Bath City! Through to the second round of the great old English competition! But as his team-mates punched the air and then slid joyously on their bellies in the direction of their fans, Boncho Genchev, whose goal had helped the Ryman League Premier Division side go one step further than they had managed in the previous three seasons, looked bemused.

"I couldn't believe it," said the Bulgarian. "To be like that after the first round, when there were still seven rounds to go. And afterwards, it was like there was an explosion in the dressing room. It was very strange."

If those resemble the words of a man who is accustomed to the big occasion, it is not surprising. After all, this time last year Hendon's 35-year- old forward was playing for CSKA Sofia at Atletico Madrid in the fourth round of the Uefa Cup. And only five years ago, he took part in the semi- final of the World Cup in a Bulgarian team that produced a sequence of performances which amazed and delighted the wider world of football.

"I was playing in front of 35,000 people a year ago," he said. "Now I play in front of 350. But now I play for enjoyment, not for money. Because I love football."

The love affair began in earnest 12 years ago when Genchev began playing for Bulgaria's premier team, CSKA, making numerous European appearances and establishing his reputation to the point where Bobby Robson, no longer in charge of the England team, recruited him to play for a season at Sporting Lisbon.

From there he moved to England, joining Robson's former club Ipswich Town, for whom he played from 1992 to 1995. There followed two years at Luton, and then a couple more seasons back with his old club in Bulgaria, whom he finally left in February of this year.

He always planned to return to this country, because his family - wife Sylvia, and sons Lubomir (13) and Ivor (10) - has settled here, with both the boys now promising to follow in their father's boot-marks as they train regularly at the Chelsea youth academy.

And the family home, as luck would have it, stands only a couple of hundred yards away from Hendon's ground at Claremont Road. Which meant that when Genchev began to look for an environment in which he could regain fitness earlier this year after a four-month summer lay-off, the natural thing was to start training down the road.

After making a series of appearances as a substitute, the Bulgarian has become a regular starter in the Hendon line-up as his match sharpness has returned. The club, which is looking forward to today's second-round tie at Second Division Blackpool, would do well to appreciate Genchev while he is there, because he has clear ambitions to return to the professional ranks in this country.

"Why not?" he said. "I think I have a good chance. I look after myself, I don't drink or smoke, and my performances have been getting better this season."

Genchev is not keen to bring his career to a close. It has, after all, been a great rollercoaster ride in which the award of a medal for fourth place in the 1994 World Cup forms the undoubted highlight. "That was the best thing to happen to me in football," he said. "I was very proud, because Bulgaria was not a big footballing country, and everybody was surprised we went so far."

That progress accounted for the holders, Germany, in a thrilling quarter- final before Bulgaria were finally beaten by Italy. The personal highlight for Genchev was scoring in the penalty shoot-out during the deciding group match against Mexico after three players had missed, a feat which turned to game Bulgaria's way.

"I was so proud to play for that team," he recalled. "We all gave 110 per cent. And although people did not think we would do well, we had six or seven world-class players."

Those included Hristo Stoichkov, three times the top scorer in the Spanish league, Emil Kostadinov, who did the same in Portugal, as well as the balding Yordan Lechkov, with the burly Trifon Ivanov holding things together at the back.

Five years on, Genchev's colleagues include PC Paul Towler, who occupies a position in Hendon's central defence, and midfielder Freddie Hyatt, a rat catcher for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Michael Portillo beware...

In their physiotherapist, Caroline Brouwer, who performed that role for Wimbledon in their 1988 meeting with Liverpool, the club already has one FA Cup final winner on its books.

The chances of that figure altering are nil, but a stirring performance against the struggling men of Blackpool today could land Hendon in the third round, where in 1974 they memorably held a Newcastle United side including Malcolm MacDonald to a 1-1 draw at St James' Park before losing the replay 4-0.

If things go well for his side at Bloomfield Road, Genchev's reaction will be more attuned to that of his erstwhile colleagues than it was in the last Cup tie. "I understand now why they were so happy," he said. "I didn't know how much football meant to so many people in this country. Maybe only the English and Brazilian people feel this way about the game. I think you love it to death."

Another goal from the Bulgarian today, and there could be more explosions in the dressing room. Blackpool be warned.