Stiliyan Petrov: I was dragged away from a lads’ holiday to sign for Celtic
Over the course of seven years and 10 trophies, Stiliyan Petrov became a Celtic legend. But he was more concerned about shaking off a hangover while on a lads’ holiday when he first got news of a medical at Parkhead.
Back in 1999, Petrov was a teenager on the books of CSKA Sofia, combining his prodigious football talent with indulging in common trappings of teenage life, alcohol, mates and weekenders away. In the space of the year, he was forced to integrate himself into an entirely different culture – a period of immense difficulty that stood him in good stead to thrive in British football.
It was during one of those weekend trips to the Bulgarian seaside that Petrov’s life was changed forever.
“It’s funny how the move (to Celtic) came about,” he says on the most recent episode of our 2000s football podcast, The Broken Metatarsal. “When the move was initiated, I was actually at the seaside with friends without money. We were five boys from CSKA Sofia going away every summer for a couple of days.
Subscribe to The Broken Metatarsal, our 2000s football podcast
“My phone was cut off because I didn’t pay my bill. So, when the call came, they had to contact me through my friend because my phone wasn’t working and they couldn’t get in touch with me!
“It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. We had walked in about half six in the morning so I was still sleeping and we all had hangovers from the night before.
“One of the boys was shaking me saying, ‘Stan, Stan the club are looking for you. The technical director is saying you have to travel to Sofia.’ I said just to leave him and I went back to sleep!
“At six in the evening, a representative from the club arrived at the seaside. He found where we were staying and said, ‘Come on, pack up because I have to take you to Sofia.’ I asked why and he told me I was flying to Glasgow.
“I asked, ‘Why do I have to fly to Glasgow? I’m with my friends at the seaside, what has changed in the last four days?’ He said they had a huge offer from a club in Scotland for you and another player so you’ll both be flying to Glasgow for medicals.”
That Scottish club was Celtic, who had bid £2.8million for Petrov and his CSKA team-mate Milen Petkov. With luggage consisting solely of two t-shirts and a pair of trousers, Petrov rushed to Glasgow for a medical under the assumption he would only be away for two days.
While Petkov rejected the Scottish club’s offer, Petrov signed a contract worth around £400 a week. The meagre clothing he had bought over from Bulgaria, which was being washed in the sink at his temporary accommodation, would need to be expanded upon urgently.
Yet insufficient garms were only one problem that faced a youngster adjusting to a completely different culture.
“My second phone bill, because I was constantly on the phone speaking with people from Bulgaria as I couldn’t speak English, was £6,000. Now, you can imagine the amount of time I was on the phone – 24/7!
“I hope one day to have the chance to speak with the person who helped me with that bill! My wages for the month were around 1,600 dollars so I had to borrow money from my friends in Bulgaria to make sure I could live in Scotland! This was my life.”
Petrov was saved from a life of isolation and extortionate phone bills through an unlikely source.
“I got friendly with one of the security guys at Celtic, his name was Brian,” says Petrov, speaking courtesy of Player 4 Player. “He didn’t speak Bulgarian, so we used hand signs. It was a really interesting relationship that developed.
“Brian started teaching me English. He did this by giving me lifts every day, waiting for me after training, making sure I had something to eat by going shopping together.
“He started picking parts of my body, like my elbow, knee and shoulder and taught me how to say them in English. People will go, ‘That’s silly, that’s what little kids do,’ but I was like a little kid when learning a new language.”
• • • •
• • • •
These English lessons often took place in an unusual location, Brian’s burger van.
“The burger van was my friend’s business on the side. He was working as a security guard at Celtic but his wife was running the van. We went for food a few times and he realised that I was really struggling with ordering and understanding how everything works.
“So he said, ‘Come over some time to sit around and listen to how people place their order.’ I was having one or two burgers myself I won’t lie!
“I heard some great ways people order their food, I’ve heard some bad ways, some good and bad language, but it was a great experience.
“At the start, when somebody said, ‘How are you?’ I would listen to their reply and the next morning I would walk into the dressing room and say, ‘Good morning guys, how are you?’ Everybody would turn around and say, ‘Good morning Stan, how are you?’
“I had a very difficult time, but as soon as I showed that effort to become part of the team, the boys clocked it straight away and said, ‘Yeah, we want to help.’
“Paul Lambert would come and sit next to me and say, ‘Stan I thought you did well there,’ and I would be able to reply. So now I felt, ‘I’m there, I’m with the boys, I wanna get better and be part of that.'”
By the end of the 1999-2000 season, Petrov had scored three goals and the arrival of Martin O’Neill would accelerate his rise to club hero status. Once Petrov had established himself in the team, his recollection of his initial experience in Scotland made life easier for the club’s future foreign imports.
By the time he departed for Aston Villa in 2006, the Bulgaria international had made 311 appearances for the Scottish giants and his legend was secured.
None of that would have happened without overcoming the teething problems of that first year in Glasgow.
Listen to the full episode now to hear more from Petrov about the success he would go on to enjoy at Celtic and his relationship with O’Neill which would later take him down south to Aston Villa.