Petrov holds the line for England's future
The Bulgarian had to curb his attacking instincts to rescue his Villa career, he tells Phil Shaw. Now he's captain of a side full of native talent
Saturday 27 February 2010
The last Aston Villa captain to lift a major trophy was Home Counties born and bred but represented the Republic of Ireland and was about as familiar with their national anthem as the very English Tory MP John Redwood famously proved to be with "Land Of My Fathers" when Welsh Secretary.
The man who hopes to follow Andy Townsend's example from 1996 by collecting the Carling Cup after tomorrow's final against Manchester United currently sings from the same hymn sheet as six Englishmen who may be bound for the World Cup finals. At Villa they call him "Stan", and there are Glaswegian inflections in his speech, yet Stiliyan Petrov is a proud Bulgarian.
Bulgaria, which is on the Euro 2012 qualifying itinerary for England and Wales, should be proud of Petrov. His four seasons in the Premier League, like his spell at Celtic under Martin O'Neill, have been a paradigm of resilience and dedication in the face of adversity.
In contrast with his compatriot at United, Dimitar Berbatov, who began brightly at Tottenham and earned a £30.75m move to Old Trafford, the 30-year-old midfielder's career in the Midlands started unconvincingly and went downhill as his confidence drained away. But while Berbatov's languid style has raised doubts about his commitment, Petrov has fought back to become the linchpin of O'Neill's fast-maturing young team. Taking on a different role and the "great honour" of the captaincy, he has helped Villa forget how desperately they wanted predecessor Gareth Barry to stay.
When he followed O'Neill south in a £6.5m deal in 2006, Petrov was renowned for breaking beyond the attackers. In half his six seasons in Scotland his goal tally had reached double figures. Yet he took 16 games to score for Villa and as many again to double the total. His unease recalled his early days at Celtic when John Barnes used him at right-back.
"It was really hard for me but one reason I came to Villa was that if I wanted to improve, I knew Martin O'Neill was the right man," Petrov says. "When I wasn't playing well he just pulled me out of the side. I was out for 15 weeks. But that made me work even harder. Maybe with another manager you never know what could have happened. I knew I wasn't doing well. But he was truthful to me. He's the one that gave me a chance to get back."
Petrov reinvented himself as a holding midfielder, counter-balancing the surges of James Milner, who has come inside from the flanks. "With the players we've got it doesn't really need me to go up and score goals. If I could get a few more it would be great, but our offensive players are just unbelievable. We've got so much force going forward."
The same is true of United, though Petrov notes that Berbatov has had to adapt his game to suit a team geared towards feeding Wayne Rooney's scoring habit. "A lot of people get on Dimitar's back but I think he's a great player; his cleverness, movement, touches, everything. Maybe he hasn't scored enough goals but he's playing deeper than he used to. Away from the penalty area he tries to link up and bring others into play."
The pair are close friends, despite Berbatov having taken over from Petrov as Bulgaria's captain, and will sit together on the flight to Warsaw for a friendly against Poland next week, when Petrov will win his 92nd cap. "Dimitar's really hard on himself. But he'll keep battling and come out okay because he's a strong character. He's always been a private boy. Some people think he's arrogant and moody. He's not. He's just so concentrated on the game."
O'Neill's team have prised four points from this season's meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson's men, winning at United but having to settle for a draw against a side reduced to 10 men for an hour after Nani's dismissal for clattering Petrov on the ankle. The challenge, which means Nani is suspended tomorrow, left Petrov fearful for his own place. In the event a chest infection posed a greater threat until the antibiotics got to work, but as he lay on the turf he was in shock. "I didn't expect him to make that kind of challenge; I didn't think he was that kind of player so I was really surprised. I managed to 'pull' at the last moment. If I hadn't it could've been even worse."
Petrov was in awe of Rooney's "immense" performance that day. "I'm a big fan. He's a complete player. You've got everything a manager could want in one player. He didn't score against us in the two games but to win this one we need to stop him."
Whether the League results will have any bearing on a one-off occasion is questionable, but Petrov says: "We've shown we have the ability to beat them. We've got hungry young players who want to win, to make their names and be remembered. The only way to do that is to win something. That makes us more dangerous than ever. They know how good we are, that we've got a talent and strength to hurt them. "
United may be steeped in big-match combat but Petrov and O'Neill can draw on the experience of Celtic's gallant failure in the 2003 Uefa Cup final against Jose Mourinho's Porto in Seville. "We went for three days beforehand. I don't know if that was a great idea because it was about 57 degrees! But Martin was really relaxed. The lads could do anything they wanted: hang out in the hotel, see friends. Before the game he just said: 'I don't need to say anything about this game. You know how important it is for you and for the fans'."
Seven years on and in cooler climes, "Stan" Petrov heads for Wembley with a similar message, albeit more quaintly expressed. "We want to win it," he said, "and make all these charming fans happy."
My other life
Petrov's passion is for Bulgarian folk music. The captain is patriotically loyal to the Balkan tradition in which the big names are Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a women's choir, and operatic mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. Team-mate Curtis Davies, asked by Soccer AM, to name the player with the worst taste in music, chose Petrov.
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