Be it in Glasgow or Birmingham, Stiliyan Petrov is a man adored in the terraces.
Coming from an impoverished background, a young Petrov was part of the CSKA Sofia side which won the domestic league and cup double in 1996/97. While it should have been the moment which propelled his career, Petrov was conscripted to the army for 18 months service.
Somewhat ironically, Petrov reflects back on his time in the army and credits his time spent knee deep in snow for developing such a positive outlook of life.
Speaking to Graham Hunter on his Big Interview podcast, Petrov was a highly enjoyable guest and we learned a number of things...
He enjoyed the assembly/disassembly of guns while in the Bulgarian army.
Going to the army for 18 months was a must for everyone. Obviously when you’re a footballer, wrestler or athlete, we could have it a little bit easier in the army. We would have a place where you could go for four months then after that you can start training once or twice a week.
You get up at 6:30 in the morning. You sing the national anthem. You run six kilometres. You shower. You make sure your gun is polished and nicely prepared. Then you go training. Then you go back again.
I enjoyed disabling the gun, cleaning it and putting it back together. Every time I was shooting, I closed my eyes.
When you’re in the army you have nothing. They shave your head. You know what you’re missing out there [in the outside world] every day.
I always felt that everything happens for a reason and being in the army taught me a lot. It was long. I missed football but I knew in a few months time I would get back training and playing.
He arrived in Glasgow with absolutely nothing.
It was with that determination which had Petrov singing the national anthem once again as he earned a place in the Bulgarian team within six months of being discharged. His performances then caught the eye of the Celtic scouts who were scouring the Balkans for emerging talent.
CSKA received an offer from the Glaswegian outfit but were struggling to get hold of a certain Stiliyan Petrov due to the fact he was on holidays without a phone - as he could not afford to pay the bill. Eventually word got through and he was on the next flight to Scotland.
As it was a relatively new experience for the teenager, Petrov travelled light believing he would be back on Bulgarian soil within a couple of days.
I remember having a pair of trainers. A pair of trousers. One shirt and a jacket. That was luggage because they told me I was just doing a medical. Then they informed me that I had to stay for eight days.
So what I needed to do wash my pants, wash my shirt. I think the agent felt so sorry for me that he said that he would buy me new boots
In the end, he declined the agents offer and was signing a contract alongside John Barnes within days, securing a £2.8 million move.
A security man at Park Head helped him to settle in to life in Scotland.
With an abundance of talent but little English, Petrov admits his first few months at Parkhead were a struggle. Yet a saviour came in the shape of stadium security man, Brian Wilson, who was quick to notice the young Bulgarian failing to fit in.
When I got changed he told me that he would take me [home] and that’s how our friendship started. He would take me to training in the morning, wait for me and bring me back.
We started off with simple things. He would touch me and say “elbow” or “shoulder”. And I would write it down. Everyday we would have little conversations. I would watch a lot of movies.
At that time, he had a burgervan and his wife was running it. I couldn’t order. So he said “I’ll teach you something and it will be good for you later"
He learned English by working in a burger van.
It was at that moment with Brian Wilson that Petrov agreed to serve burgers from his van in order to gain a better grasp of the English language.
When people approached me and would say ‘can I have four burgers?’, I would then say ‘would you like ketchup,etc’. I started putting it together. That’s how I learned [English] ‘cause I couldn’t go to lessons.
Everyone at that club appreciated it ‘cause they could see that everyday I was coming with something different. They then played jokes on me. I started to smile again and began working harder. I felt more welcome.
The interview is well worth a listen in full and you can do so below: