It was in 2012 that we learnt the tragic news that Aston Villa and Bulgaria midfielder Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with Leukemia. What started out as just a fever, ruled him out for more than a year before cruelly forcing him to retire in May 2013, aged 33. However, it appears that this might not be the end of the story, the player who has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Stan’ is hoping to return to the ranks of professional football with Aston Villa.
His talent was obvious from an early age, aged just 16 he began to play for his local team in Bulgaria, PFC Montana before being spotted at 18 by CSKA Sofia who parted with $30,000 for the services of the young midfielder in 1996. After making over 40 appearances for the club over two seasons and incredibly while still a teenager he secured a move to Celtic and began what would turn out to be an incredibly successful relationship with Martin O’Neill.
He overcame initial settling-in issues at Celtic and went on to establish himself almost instantly, in his first season he made 29 appearances for the Bhoys. The next season in 2000/01 was even better for him, Petrov became a vital part of Celtic’s treble winning side and his dynamic box to box play saw him become the first foreign player to win the SPFA Young Player of the Year Award. The success just kept coming as by the time he left Celtic in 2006 he had won 4 Scottish League titles, 3 Scottish Cups and 3 Scottish League Cups along with being voted Celtic’s Player of the Year in 2005.
He left into 2006 to join Aston Villa and to renew his relationship with Martin O’Neill, together they created the club’s glory days, which Villa fans can only now dream of. Petrov soon grew to be a fan favourite and the nickname Stan started to be used. He became the captain in the summer of 2009 and he was voted Players’ Player of the Year and Supporters’ Player of the Year the same year. Alongside all of this he won 105 caps for his country and was voted as Bulgarian Footballer of the Year in 2003.
Then in 2012, his career came to a shuddering halt, shortly after the game against Arsenal on 30th March 2012 he received the diagnosis of Leukemia. He had made such an impression on the game during his career that the tributes poured in. Aston Villa allowed him to retain his captaincy for the 2012/13 season and invited him to visit the squad whenever he felt able. In honour of him, the Villa fans began to stand and applaud in the 19th minute (his shirt number) of every Villa game, a tradition that still continues today. In August 2012, we received the great news that the Leukemia was in remission but unfortunately he was not able to return to playing with the club and had to announce his premature retirement on 9th May 2013.
In his time away from the game he was awarded a place in the Aston Villa Hall of Fame and also set up a foundation to raise money for Leukemia sufferers. After a short spell on the Villa coaching staff came to an end we wondered if we would see his face in football again but with the immense determination and love for the game ‘Stan’ possesses he was never just going to quit. In 2014, he made his return to the game with Sunday League side over-35 side Wychall Wanderers, in typical Petrov style he helped to guide the team to victory in the Central Warwickshire Over-35s Premier Division One Cup Final. Petrov scored in a 6-0 demolition of the ironically named Aston Manor. After the game, he claimed that winning that trophy meant as much to him as his medal from the UEFA Cup final.
He now has much loftier ambitions. According to the man himself, “My fitness is getting close to when I retired, so let’s see where we go. Aston Villa remains my priority.” With the current crisis engulfing the club and with the club facing its first ever season in the Championship the return of an icon could be just the pick-me-up needed to galvanize both the players and the fans. To be aiming to return to professional football at the age of 36, when most players would be thinking about retiring, and in the wake of four months of Chemotherapy Petrov is striving to achieve something that would be extraordinary, the likes of which have never seen before. If he were able to make a return it would be a true inspiration for us all, a man who has been through such a tough time refusing to give up and working so hard to achieve his dreams. It would be the ultimate feel good story which football requires after the tragic death of Exeter striker Adam Stansfield of Cancer in 2010. I’m sure I speak for everyone at TFF when I say we wish Stiliyan Petrov all the best and would love to see him out on the pitch again.