Belfast Telegraph

Brave Petrov has found winning smile

By Simon Hart

Stiliyan Petrov is sitting in a pub, talking about cup finals. For the man who led out Aston Villa when they last played in a Wembley showpiece, there is plenty to discuss, with his old club preparing to face Arsenal in the FA Cup today, but there is a different decider - played out far beyond the media glare - to reflect on first.

It was a final, he says, that left him feeling "like a little boy again" and it took place in front of just 300 people.

It was the Central Warwickshire Over-35s Premier Division One Cup final for Wychall Wanderers, the Sunday league team he has spent this season playing for.

He scored a goal and Wychall won, though for a man forced to retire from professional football during his fight against acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the simple act of stepping on to a pitch and kicking a ball again is the real source of joy.

Petrov smiles as he describes a pre-match routine that takes him back to his childhood in the Bulgarian town of Montana, when he was still dreaming of travelling the path that lay ahead with CSKA Sofia, Celtic, Villa and the Bulgaria national team, for which he won 106 caps.

"When I was younger I used to get up in the morning around seven to have my breakfast because I'd play a game at 10.30, and that was something I'd look forward to," he said.

"Now I am back to that. I get up in the morning, I get excited. I've got breakfast with the boys and I've got banter in the dressing room.

"Obviously I am still overweight and don't have the same movement but, after what I've gone through, to be able to go out there and play and smile again is something you can't describe."

Petrov will not be at the match today, having arranged a half-term holiday in Turkey with his wife Paulina and sons Stiliyan and Kristiyan, before Villa booked their Wembley place.

"I will watch it and support them," says Petrov, 35, who helped Tim Sherwood in his opening weeks as manager at Villa Park. "Everybody involved in the club - fans, players, staff - is looking forward to this."

If Villa fans have found recent times tough, it pales beside what Petrov has endured in the three years since the former midfielder made what turned out to be the last of 219 appearances for the club - against today's final opponents Arsenal.

The date of the match was Saturday March 24, 2012 and afterwards nothing would ever be the same again.

"That day my muscles weren't reacting the way they used to and I knew through the game that something was not right," he recalls. "But you never think that something will come and change your life in about a week.

"Within a week of being healthy, I was diagnosed with leukaemia."

For Petrov, a new existence had begun. "I thought my treatment would be about six months and after that everything would go back to normal but it wasn't like that," he says. "I was constantly hit with intensive chemo for one year, and put on about 13 kilos with the steroids and drugs."

After six months he was told by his specialist that he would not play football again. "For three hours I was just crying. As much as I was fighting for my life, I didn't want to accept that I needed to give up football," he said.

"The next six months I got really down and it hit me really hard. I was constantly in hospital and couldn't go out for months because my immune system was down."

Yet he knows that he was blessed to receive the support he did, and not just from the Villa fans, who sang his name in the 19th minute - after his shirt number - of every match. "I had letters from all around the world. I was privileged to have this support."

His aim, now that he has received the all-clear, is to help others, and the conversation turns to his plans for a charity match at Villa Park on September 6 to raise funds for his Stiliyan Petrov Foundation, following the success of a similar event at Celtic Park in 2013.

The foundation's goals, he explains, are to fund research trials and to support the families of children undergoing treatment for leukaemia.

For Petrov, his own long weeks in hospital, when he could not hug his two boys but "only see them through the door because they had sneezes and coughs", was the hardest time of all.

"At this moment you realise what you can lose," he adds. It was his wish to focus on his family and his foundation that meant he turned down the offer of a permanent coaching role at Villa this year, following a period spent helping Sherwood after his appointment as Paul Lambert's successor.

"When Tim Sherwood took over I spoke with him and he wanted me to be involved with the team," Petrov says.

"Our conversation was for me to come in and give the boys a little bit of a lift, trying to speak to individuals. He needed individuals to pull in the right direction and I was helping.

"Tim is a very positive man and I was impressed with the way he approached players and people working in the club. I think the Villa fans have seen passion in the way the team have played and reacted under pressure."

Petrov - a beaten League Cup finalist against Manchester United in 2010 - is optimistic that Sherwood has the tools to hurt Arsenal as Villa seek their first trophy in 19 years at Wembley. "A final is 50-50. Villa have the speed and ability to break teams down, and having Christian Benteke up there - he can unlock any defence. As long as the delivery is right then this boy is untouchable."

He also cites the key role of Fabian Delph, Villa's England midfielder, describing him as "another player standing shoulder to shoulder with Christian".

It is Delph who will follow in Petrov's footsteps as Villa's Wembley captain and the pair have spoken about what lies in store. "It is an honour and something you can't describe," Petrov says.

Life has taught the Bulgarian to value every good moment, be it at Wembley or with Wychall, and he recalls the precise words of his conversation with Delph.

"I said, 'You need to enjoy every minute because it comes and goes very quickly'. I told him to cherish every single second."

FA Cup final: Wembley, 5.30pm (BBC 1/BT Sport 1)


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