Celtic manager Neil Lennon has paid tribute to the “absolute courage and positivity” of Stiliyan Petrov after his former Parkhead team-mate announced his retirement from football.
• Stiliyan Petrov announces retirement after battle with acute leukemia
• Former Celtic midfielder, 33, played last game against Arsenal in March 2012
Lennon and Lambert lead tributes to brave Petrov
The 33-year-old Aston Villa captain has declared himself ready to embrace new challenges in a bid to make a difference to the lives of people who, like himself, are diagnosed with leukaemia. His club manager Paul Lambert is also considering offering Petrov a new role at Villa Park.
Lennon has remained close friends with Petrov since the Bulgarian departed for Villa in 2006 and saluted his strength in his battle against acute leukaemia. Petrov is now in remission after being diagnosed with the illness in March last year.
The former Celtic captain told his club’s website: “Obviously it’s very sad that Stiliyan has announced his retirement from football. He was a fine footballer and enjoyed a magnificent career at Celtic and Aston Villa, as well as representing and captaining Bulgaria on many occasions.
“First and foremost, of course, is his health, and the news earlier this year that Stiliyan is in remission was a great boost for everyone. I’m sure that Stiliyan’s characteristic determination, along with the fact he’s surrounded by a loving family, will ensure he’s a success in this next stage of his life.
“The words he has spoken today demonstrate his absolute courage and positivity and show exactly the kind of man he is. It was a pleasure to play alongside such a great footballer, but, for me, I’m even luckier to call him my friend.”
Petrov was barely out of his teenage years when John Barnes signed him for Celtic in 1999 but he matured quickly to form an integral part of Martin O’Neill’s successful team, winning four titles and four domestic cup winners’ medals as well as appearing in the 2003 Uefa Cup final.
Petrov’s priority will now be his health and work for his leukaemia charity but Villa boss Lambert revealed he is already mulling over a role for the popular captain.
“He’ll be missed here but the door will always be open for him,” said the Scot who is also a former Celtic team-mate of the Bulgarian.
“I have some things in my head which I’m running over. I’ve something in my head I’m thinking about at the minute and it’s not a sentimental thing at all.
“It’s just some things my staff and myself spoke about, they know what I think.”
Petrov will lead Villa out for their traditional lap of appreciation after tomorrow’s final home game against Chelsea.
Villa fans and their opposition counterparts have shown support for Petrov with 60 seconds of applause in the 19th minute of every game since he fell ill, in tribute to his squad number. Lambert knows tomorrow’s farewell will be particularly poignant.
“For him to lead out the team will be a great occasion,” said the Villa boss.
“I think it will be pretty emotional for him when he does it on Saturday.”
Lambert added: “Not having him around here during his illness has been huge blow, it can never be underestimated.
“Him not playing has been massive for this club. Having to try to replace someone like that – a footballer who is a fantastic player – has been hard.
“He has a heart of gold, he’s a nice guy. I knew him since he was 19 years of age and he first came to Glasgow and I had a good friendship with him.
“I played with him for nine years and he was always someone you knew you needed to be in the trenches with you.”
“I’ve never been a person for making grand statements. I’ve only ever got on with my job, while remaining grateful to have great team-mates, great people around me and, most of all, a fantastic family.
“They have been powerful pillars of support when I have needed them most over the past year. To my wife, Paulina, and my sons, Kristiyan and Stiliyan, I love you very much and I will always for your constant love and support. Also to my mum and dad, my brother and Paulina’s mum and the people who have been closest to me throughout this time - you know who you are and I love you all. Each and every day I thank God for giving me the opportunity to still be with my family.
“Football has been the other great love of my life, so it is with a heavy heart that I am announcing my retirement from the game.
“The emotions are overwhelming really, but the continued support of family, friends and the great people I have come to know will make it easier for me to move on from the only life I’ve ever known.
“That I am ready to embrace new challenges will make this process much easier.
“Since being diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March 2012, I have come to understand and appreciate the way in which this disease impacts the lives of so many people.
“I can help and I want to help and, in setting up a foundation to help address the issues involved when people are diagnosed with this illness, I hope to make a difference.
“This will be my new challenge, one I will face with all the enthusiasm, energy and drive with which I have faced every single challenge.
“I remember when I was a young player at CSKA Sofia and the good life was all I was interested in. Celtic came in for me and I moved to Glasgow, to another country, to a new world. I didn’t speak the language and I thought it would never happen for me. I knew nobody.
“Fortunately, I met people who helped me to turn my life around. I came to know great team-mates who showed me the proper way, the way I had to be if I was going to be a serious professional and compete at a high level. I came to appreciate so much the opportunity to work with that level of professional people because it made me something like them.
“At Celtic Football Club and at Aston Villa Football Club I was privileged to live a life competing at a high level and playing the game I love, supported by the most passionate fans.
“Then something crazy happened, something I thought was just a cold but turned out to be something more serious, something life-changing. I played 90 minutes for Villa against Arsenal at The Emirates and I felt fatigued, not myself at all. But I thought it was nothing serious. The diagnosis by Dr Richard Lovell was a complete shock.
“Around 7,600 people in the UK are diagnosed each year with leukaemia and about 2,300 people with acute leukaemia. Fortunately, I was able to make decisions very quickly and I started my treatment quickly. I needed to. My leukaemia is now in remission and I have finished my high intensity treatment. From now on I’ll be on the softer treatment, which is two years on tablets. I feel lucky. Not everyone is as lucky as I have been.
“For this I need to thank Professor David Linch at University College London Hospital, his PA Teresa Macdonald and all of the nurses and staff at that wonderful institution.
“Thank you also to Professor Charlie Craddock, Sandeep Nagra and all of the nurses who have looked after me at University Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
“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.
“I wish to thank the fans of Aston Villa and the Villa chairman, Randy Lerner, chief executive Paul Faulkner and manager Paul Lambert, also the fans of Celtic, the Bulgarian fans and fans of football all over the world who have helped me through the past year with their incredible displays of support and with their personal, moving messages.
“I would also like to thank all of the managers I have worked under and all of the team-mates I have played alongside. I loved playing football with all of you and you will always remain in my heart.
“Also to the agents who represented me, including my current agents Base Soccer. I am moving on and I am excited by this. There is a deep joy in my heart because of what you have shared with me, not only in this past year but over the years I have been in football. I felt privileged. I still do. I always will.”