Anyone reading the Daily Record's report of Aston Villa's 2-1 loss to Chelsea on May 11 could be forgiven for thinking that one of footballâs greats had retired ahead of the match. The "former Celtic star," the story read, "led his team onto the pitch for the last time yesterday to rapturous applause from fans." Midway through the first half, he was honored with "a now-traditional 60-second applause for him in the 19th minute of the game... a nod to his no. 19 shirt." And once the final whistle had blown, "he did a final lap of appreciation with team-mates and family members."
At a club such as Aston Villa, one with a long and storied history that includes a European title, these are the sorts of honors reserved for footballers who have made a significant impact on the game, the club, and the community. True to form, the player receiving the adulation of the crowd had affected all three, though largely as a result of who he is rather than what he did on the pitch.
If we go by statistics, Stiliyan Petrov had an above-average career, but not a spectacular one. In 573 club appearances, across all competitions, the Bulgarian midfielder scored 83 goals, approximately once every seven matches. His most prolific period came during his seven full seasons with Scottish powerhouse Celtic, for whom he scored 65 times in 312 matches. After his transfer to Aston Villa near the beginning of the 2006-07 season Petrov slowed considerably, scoring only 12 goals for the claret and blue.
Of course, goal scoring is not the only measure of a player’s success. As his touch for finding the back of the net seemed to get weaker, Petrov began to help others make up for his own shortcomings. In his final five seasons at Celtic, Petrov had zero assists. Compare this with the 12 he had for Aston Villa and you begin to see a player transforming himself from being a shoot-first midfielder to one who looked for opportunities to let others shoulder the scoring burden.
But Petrov, known to his fans as Stan, has gotten far more attention than these numbers seem to justify. Certainly, his battle with leukemia has galvanized support for him, but even that does not explain the reception his retirement has gotten. Other players in other sports have dealt with cancer, and other fan bases have rallied around them. Speaking from my gut, though, this does not feel like a typical version of that story. Instead of being someone fans thought of only when the team sent out updates, Petrov, through his absence, paradoxically became a constant presence for the club. He became an icon of sorts for Aston Villa and is quite possibly the current player most beloved by fans. To an outsider, it might be difficult to understand why Petrov got to lead the club onto the field in their last home match. That same outsider may have trouble understanding why the always-emotional 19th-minute applause became such an important part of an Aston Villa match day. "What," our outsider might ask, "did Stiliyan Petrov do to mean so much to these fans?"
Or perhaps the outsider would have no trouble understanding this whatsoever. Ted Harwood, formerly the editor of SB Nation’s The Short Fuse, is quick to take joy in every bit of Petrov news that comes across Twitter. His reactions are half of the reason that you’re reading this story now. I was absolutely perplexed as to why a man so obsessed with Arsenal could seem equally obsessed with a midfielder from a poor Aston Villa side.
When I asked Ted where the love came from, his response was profoundly simple. "He rips long shots, which I love... and he always seems like a solid dude!"
That, more than anything else I have come across, nails the importance of Petrov. Stan has become a player whose importance to fans and to the game outpaces his performance on the pitch - and anyone who has seen those long shots will tell you that most of them aren’t wisely taken.
In fact it was suggested numerous times on this very site that Petrov should be instructed to shoot the first time he touched the ball on the pitch. That way he’d get it out of his system and it would be just as likely to find the back of the net. Nevertheless, he is well beloved precisely because he is such a "solid dude."
"Away from the pitch, Stan has always been the friendly face of the club," says Martyn Yallop, a lifelong Aston Villa fan. Petrov is "a likeable human being who seemed much more approachable than most other footballers."
Villa journalist Mat Kendrick emphasized Petrov’s down-to-earth nature as well. "He’s a gent. He’s someone who appreciates how privileged he has been to play football for a living."
And Harwood, Yallop, and Kendrick are not alone in focusing on the off-the-pitch Petrov. When I put out a call to twitter to describe the Bulgarian in 10 words or fewer, here are a few of the responses I got:
"A true leader of men." -@HeartOfTheHolte
"a brave & dignified man not fully appreciated until now" -@pudandreub
"Petrov was dependable, consistent and classy." -@KyleDixon95
"Good professional, great role model, worked hard, did his best" -@AVFCJAYDEE
"not always the best player but always a great leader" -@crabsauss
"one of the good guys" -@Omariqy
"a passionate perfect professional and a true leader. Legend" -@gazswain
The unifying theme amongst the responses — in fact, mentioned in nearly every single one — was an emphasis on Petrov’s character. A few mentioned his on-field performance, but that largely ends up seeming secondary.
The fact that he was so beloved by fans was no accident. "He enjoyed such a strong rapport with the Celtic fans that he made it his mission to win over the Villa fans," says Kendrick. "It took him awhile ... but he achieved it."
Liz Owen, who describes Petrov as her "favourite player for a long, long time," echoed that sentiment, saying "he did take awhile to fully settle as a player and it was only a few seasons into his Villa career that we saw the best of him."
Some fans never got over that slow start, or perhaps expected too much from the peak they saw in 2008-09 when Petrov won Aston Villa’s Player of the Season award. Yallop mentioned a few people who felt this way. "In the last season under Martin O’Neill and under [Gerard] Houllier, I heard a lot of fans at games criticising Stan, saying he was too old, too slow, not a natural leader."
But what really struck a chord with fans, regardless of performance on the pitch, was Petrov’s dedication to both the team and the community. Kendrick, recalling the first time he interviewed Stan, says that Petrov "spoke of his fear of his kids developing Brummie accents, but he himself is an adopted Brummie now!"
Yallop noted that one thing fans love "is a player who loves the club, and Stan has shown this in spades." In an era when players make demands before their contracts are up and in which those same players seem to control the labor market with total disregard for their fans, Petrov demurred from these tactics. "We have never heard complaints about wanting to move, the club lacking ambition or wanting a pay rise. Stan has only wanted what’s best for the team."
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t because Petrov didn’t speak to the press that fans didn’t hear any complaints. As Kendrick points out, "Some players will go into hiding after a bad result, but Stiliyan would always front up and speak to the press win, lose or draw."
That willingness to take responsibility resonated with fans as well. Owen, when asked what Petrov has meant to the club, said "The most important thing ... is, I think, his total commitment and professionalism throughout his career here, particularly during his time as captain."
So he was a fairly skilled player who was personable with the fans and press. That doesn’t really explain the nearly unconditional love that the Aston Villa faithful have for Petrov. After all, Carlos Cuellar was a pretty adept defender who was as affable and lovable as could be, and his departure was bemoaned by very few. What, then, makes Petrov so special?
"Since his illness, Stan has been the one factor that has unified all Villa fans and given them nothing to argue about," said Yallop. Petrov’s legacy seems to be as much about timing as anything else. His impact on the club that qualified in three consecutive years for European competition solidified him as a player that fans liked. By the time that run ended, Martin O’Neill had resigned and some of the most tumultuous years in recent club history had begun.
Between the beginning of August 2010 and June 2012, the club had six managers (this counts caretakers and interims). The once-solid Aston Villa defense disappeared in the 2010-11 season, Gabriel Agbonlahor - one of the league’s most promising young players - became incredibly streaky, James Milner was sold to Manchester City, Alex McLeish was hired, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing were transferred in 2011, and the club has flirted with relegation in every year since O’Neill left. Amidst this chaos, the one constant has been Petrov.
He is just a genuinely lovely person and no one will tell you any differently
It is an understatement to say that Villa fans have had a testy relationship with their club in recent seasons. Yet at every juncture, Petrov was willing to be the face of Aston Villa, to speak to fans, to sign kits, and to continue doing everything that had made him such a stand-out individual before. Owen has a story that really brings this home.
"Not everyone will have had the fortune to meet him, but it’s easy to see how he comes across in interviews. He is just a genuinely lovely person and no one will tell you any differently," she writes. "My number one memory [of Petrov], I suppose, is the two or three occasions where I have met Stan and been able to chat to him and have my photo with him. He’s always been more than happy to do that for the fans and even used to get out of his car on the way out of Bodymoor Heath, spending longer than anyone interacting with us all. That’s something that we all appreciate."
In another time or another place, Stiliyan Petrov would likely not be viewed in the same way he is now. On a better club, he would have been a friendly role-player. At a more stable time he would have been the player who was active in the community and a stalwart on the pitch, but never a superstar. Exactly the type of player who is forgotten by most within a few years. But Stan won’t be forgotten. He’s given fans something to rally around in a pretty miserable stretch of football.
It’s good to know that the feeling is mutual. "The outpouring of love and support for Petrov, especially from the Villa family, but also from the wider football community has meant a lot to him," says Kendrick. Nowhere was this more evident than in Villa’s final two matches of the year. Ostensibly, his walk around the Villa Park pitch and his appearance on the field at Wigan were moments for the fans. But they were the two moments that Kendrick cited as evidence of how much the fans mean to Petrov.
In his farewell statement to the fans, published in the programme for the match against Chelsea, Petrov emphasised his tie to the game and the community, and how much both had meant to him:
"For the life I’ve lived in football, I will always be incredibly grateful. For the opportunity this crazy thing that happened in my life has given me, I also feel grateful in a strange kind of way. This crazy thing, somehow, has touched people and I want to try to channel this in a positive way. This will be the greatest challenge of my life."
In a wonderful turn of events, Petrov will have the chance to channel that love of the game in a positive way. After his retirement, acutely aware of what Petrov’s involvement in the team would mean to fans and players, Paul Lambert found a position for Stan in the Aston Villa front office. After being named as an assistant to player development coach Gordan Cowans, Petrov showed that his commitment to football remained as much about the players as the game. In his statement after being re-hired, he said that he was ready to "help the young lads to progress, become better players and better human beings."
Regardless of what he does in his new position - and the recent signing of fellow Bulgarian Aleksander Tonev seems to suggest that he is already taking an active role with the club - Petrov will be remembered fondly by fans. No, Stan is not one of the greats. And, given a different context, I imagine he would be one of those players who fade quickly from memory. But thanks to forces both within and beyond his control, he has become a legend in Birmingham.