Gravesen, Petrov and the ties that bind

O'Neill reunited with the star he rescued as Strachan lands an imposing replacement
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The paths of Stilian Petrov and Thomas Gravesen are perhaps destined never to cross. The Bulgarian and the Dane missed each other by a few hours in Glasgow last week, as one checked in and the other checked out. Petrov flew to Sofia before Gravesen arrived at Parkhead for his medical, and the subsequent intervention of Martin O'Neill has ensured that the blond midfielder will not be sharing a dressing room with Celtic's new recruit.

The pair did share one brief moment, two years ago. Petrov made his mark on the feisty Gravesen in a way few people do. He kicked him. It earned Bulgaria's captain a booking in the 1-0 defeat at Euro 2004 and led to a red card. Now Petrov plans to make his mark on the English Premiership.

Not that there will be any doubt that Gravesen is planning a similar hijack. The £2 million recruit from Real Madrid may have felt slightly ill at ease with the galactico glitz in the Bernabeu, but the shaven-headed Dane will feel at home in the east end of Glasgow. When Gravesen spoke about the prospect of adding a Celtic-Rangers derby to the Everton-Liverpool and Real-Barcelona clashes already on his CV, he simply gave a smile and growled earthily: "Let's get it on!"

Gordon Strachan was desperate to keep Petrov at Parkhead to augment Gravesen's presence. The Celtic manager turned down three transfer requests from his midfielder and a £5m offer from Portsmouth. However, the arrival of O'Neill at Aston Villa and Petrov's desire to taste a new environment after seven years at Celtic meant that taking £8m for him was a shrewd piece of judgement.

When Gravesen faces Rangers on 23 September he will not be an innocent abroad. He regularly visited Parkhead while at Everton with Alan Stubbs, who spent five seasons with Celtic. Gravesen even persuaded his father to come over from Denmark to share in the experience.

"I took him to an Old Firm game when I was at Everton," recalled Gravesen. "He filmed the Celtic fans when they sang 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. He still has it on his computer at home in Denmark. Me signing for Celtic means an awful lot to him and it means everything to me. My dad said to me I couldn't turn down Real because I had to see the bright lights, but he always preferred Celtic."

Neil Lennon turned down the chance to be reunited with Roy Keane at Sunderland but knows that Gravesen possesses a similar bite that has been lacking from Celtic's midfield since the Irishman hung up his boots in June. "Gravesen is a winner," the Celtic captain stated. "With Stilian gone now, Thomas will probably be a ready-made replacement. Gravesen played a more attacking midfield role - and scored quite a few goals - at Everton. At Real, he was maybe more of a holding player, but I don't think Real recognised what a good player they had."

Lennon has no such doubts that Petrov will be a hit in the Premiership. "Stilian could play in any league in the world," declared Lennon. "He is almost 27 now and his experience for us in European football will really help him. He will be a great signing and Martin O'Neill has the Midas touch when it comes to getting the best out of players."

Lennon should know. The Northern Irishman was seen as O'Neill's favourite son as he bought him from Crewe for Leicester and spent £5.8m to bring the ballwinner to Parkhead in 2000. Yet, it was one of the players O'Neill inherited at Parkhead, Petrov, who made the biggest impression on the manager.

O'Neill rescued an insecure teenager who was isolated, both by language and his role on the pitch as O'Neill's predecessor, John Barnes, played him at right-back. Seven years on, Petrov speaks like a Glaswegian; his son was born in the city. But he craved a reunion with his football father. "O'Neill saved my career," Petrov wrote in his recent autobiography. The former Celtic manager even wrote the foreword to Petrov's book, joking that the Bulgarian's good looks made him a hit in the O'Neill household with daughters Aisling and Alana. "Seriously, he possesses the ability to become one of Europe's best midfielders," enthused O'Neill. Villa fans hope their hearts can be won over just as easily.