Stiliyan Petrov’s announcement last month that he intended to resume his football career was greeted by the whole football community as an impressive and positive signal of his recovery following a heart-warming victory in his battle with leukaemia.
Various attempts to integrate Petrov back into the football environment within the club previously proved too demanding for the Bulgarian, at a time when he was perhaps still convalescing. Paul Lambert added Petrov as part of his backroom set up and Tim Sherwood went a step further in offering Petrov a coaching position when he became manager in February 2015. Petrov completed the job for the remainder of that season, but felt he was not physically able to carry out those duties full time going into the 2015-16 season.
Still, Petrov was a presence around Villa Park and it was great to see the club supporting him rather than shunning him, as recently occurred at Newcastle United, with Jonas Gutierrez recently winning a discrimination hearing against his former club after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As a club, Aston Villa hasn’t got much right recently, but it is good to see that the club has certainly been there for Stan during his battle. Despite the demands of a full time coaching role being too much, he was welcomed to train with the Under-21s in an effort to regain fitness and lose some of the weight he’d gained as a consequence of his illness.
When the original announcement was made, I was sceptical. It was great to see Petrov in a position to feel he could make a comeback, although I doubted that it would actually happen. Age was not on his side and, after four years out of the game, it seemed unlikely that the step up to professional football could be made once again.
Last week, Petrov released pictures on Twitter to show that, in fact, he was deadly serious about a comeback to professional football. Before and after snaps showed just how far the man has come. From a portly figure approximately eighteen months ago, Petrov now has a healthy and lean looking body that is not far away from a professional footballer’s.
It is an incredible turnaround and testament to the man’s resolve that he has made it even this far. To be in such shape after his ordeal shows that he is not suffering the effects of his illness any longer. The effort required to lose such an amount of weight and to get into decent shape is substantial and could not be undertaken if illness were still an issue.
So this brings us to a conundrum: should Aston Villa be offering Petrov a contract for next season?
My initial reaction a month ago was that his illness would have some effect on his overall fitness. Given the effort he has put in to even get into contention, I don’t think this is an issue any longer.
The next obvious stumbling block is age. Currently thirty-six, Petrov will tick over one more year to thirty-seven by the time the new season is under way. Most outfield professionals have retired by this age. For Petrov to make a comeback at this stage may be a step too far, in my opinion, especially after such a lengthy time out of the game.
Then again, does this matter? Dropping out of the high intensity Premier League may just have done Petrov a favour. It is a well worn adage that the change of speed of the game from the Championship to the Premier League is noticeable. Having that extra second or so on the ball may make all the difference. They also say that you never lose a footballing brain. Petrov is an intelligent footballer. Besides this, would we really expect Petrov to be starting every game anyway? Probably not.
So the question is what can Petrov offer us as a player now? It’s difficult to say. I have to admit that, whilst I could appreciate the work that he did for us in the middle of the park, I was always hoping for more from Petrov whilst playing for Villa, certainly in terms of goals. This may be an unpopular view and whilst I thought he was steady, hard working and efficient, I always just wanted him to get further forward more often, and create a bit more from midfield. This probably comes from his fine goal-scoring form while at Celtic, a team that plies its trade in a far less competitive league, but I always felt that side of his game was somewhat tempered at Villa. It is easy to get carried away due to the ill healththat has befallen Petrov and remember him as a better player than he perhaps was for us, which I do think is a trap that many of us fall into. Nevertheless, it was extremely rare that he let the side down and his effort never waned. Those are traits which we have not been able to attribute to any of the 2015-16 squad with any conviction at all.
If he did line up for us now, would this matter? I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be a marauding centre midfielder and I’m not sure how effective he would be as a defensive, ball-winning midfielder. We’d probably just be looking at him to occupy the middle of the pitch, get play going and sit tight whilst allowing others to venture forward. I’m not sure this is going to be enough in a tough division.
It’s very easy to let sentiment take over: I would love to see Petrov back in a Villa shirt but I am struggling to justify it in terms of his ability to make a difference on the pitch.
Perhaps it is other qualities and factors which should see at least a rolling contract offered. The sheer determination of the man may be a good enough reason to get him involved. After all, what an inspiration he would be, especially to the youth players who are likely to come in and feature more prominently next season.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that Petrov was also our captain. This is a role which has become farcical over the last season and we are currently not even close to having a player who has the necessary skills as a leader to carry this off. Ciaran Clark may be eyeing up the role and perhaps he can do a job but, for me, Petrov would be the ideal club captain if not team captain. A symbol of determination, never giving up and achieving the impossible, an actual leader who commands the utmost respect, a true professional and a role model of the highest order, Petrov is exactly the type of captain our club needs. We have seen all too clearly how a ship without a worthy captain sinks without trace.
Whilst there are advantages and disadvantages to Petrov’s reintroduction into the first team, perhaps it isn’t his playing ability that is most important for our needs right now. I’m not saying he should be brought back in purely as some sort of figurehead and a shining beacon of how a footballer should be conducting himself and that it doesn’t matter if his footballing ability isn’t up to standard. Sentiment is hard to ignore but it should have no place in the decision whether to re-sign Petrov. I believe that his fortitude, effort, bravery and desire to play professional football again, for Aston Villa no less, earns him a shot at proving himself. He has come so far and his strength of character would go a long way towards making him reliable on the pitch for us. A rolling contract at the very least represents no risk to the club and gives Petrov, a player who would certainly have an important role in the dressing room and a point to prove when selected in the team, the finale to a playing career that he would otherwise be robbed of.
Whatever happens, it’s certainly a welcome sight to see the man looking healthy and beating his nightmare ordeal. Long may that continue. Congratulations, Stan, on your biggest victory so far.