IN AN astonishing display of fan loyalty, a sellout crowd of 60,000 attended yesterday’s challenge match at Celtic Park in aid of the Stiliyan Petrov Foundation and other charities.
Celtic XI 3 - 5 Stiliyan XI
Scorers: Celtic - Larsson (10 pen), Van Hooijdonk (73), Brown (81); Petrov XI - Berbatov (1, 39, 58), M Petrov (16), Byrne (89)
It was the biggest crowd of the weekend at any sporting event in Britain, and an attendance only slightly less than the 61,000 who were at Wembley to see England beat Moldova on Friday.
Petrov’s battle with leukaemia has inspired people in and out of football, and now his Foundation, which will support leukaemia sufferers and their families, is off to a flying start.
Part of the proceeds from the match will also go to the Trussell Trust, who will provide a food bank in the east end of Glasgow. Celtic FC was founded 125 years ago to raise funds to feed the poor in the east end. Not much progress since 1888, then.
A host of professionals and former players plus celebrities turned up to play for Petrov’s XI or the Celtic Legends XI, with Kenny Dalglish and Martin O’Neill as respective managers for the day.
Alongside the likes of Henrik Larsson and his merry band from the O’Neill era at Parkhead were actors Martin Compston and Warren Brown, plus Louis Tomlinson of One Direction, which apparently is a popular beat combo beloved of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Each participant was warmly received, except former England captain John Terry, for some reason, though it was all good natured and even he was applauded eventually after he hit the Celtic post with an outrageous shot from his own half.
The biggest cheers were reserved for Petrov and his children Stiliyan Jnr and Kristiyan. The fans launched into their Celtic anthems and it was soon clear that this was going to be a memorable day, particularly for the players who played under O’Neill and alongside Petrov in his seven years at Celtic.
His own XI included many friends from Aston Villa where he also spent seven years before his cancer diagnosis finished his career. The likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Gareth Barry, Martin Petrov and Paul Lambert turned out for the man called Stan, while Nicky Byrne of Westlife fame showed why he was once a junior Irish internationalist.
The match was hugely entertaining, with Petrov’s XI taking the lead inside a minute through Berbatov who went on to notch a hat-trick. Bobo Balde duly scythed down opponents as per the old days, and there were purrs of nostalgia as Rab Douglas in the Celtic goal flapped at the odd cross but managed to keep plenty of efforts out.
On 19 minutes, referee Bobby Madden stopped play, and in honour of Celtic’s former number 19, the entire crowd and all the players applauded Petrov for a minute.
Martin Petrov and Nicky Byrne were the other scorers as the Petrov XI ran out 5-3 winners, Henrik Larsson scoring the first for the Celtic XI from a penalty with Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Warren Brown getting the others.
Those Celtic fans who followed their heroes to Seville in 2003 were in raptures to see Larsson and Chris Sutton, Lubo Moravcik and Johan Mjallby, and so many others from that era on the pitch at Parkhead, with manager Neil Lennon getting special cheers throughout. Most of the Legends were a little bit thicker round the waist, but their passing was still there and it is clear that they are all still close friends.
Young Mr Tomlinson did rather well, his every touch accompanied by maidenly squeals, before big Gabriel Agbonlahor promptly flattened him. The One Direction star promptly went off and the occasion had clearly got to him as he was sick in the technical area.
“It was one of those things, said Agbonlahor, who is now a hate figure for a million young females. “I’ll apologise to Louis when we meet up with everybody after the game. I know he enjoyed playing in the game and it’s fantastic that he took time out to be here, and the same with everyone else who played.”
That is true. No-one needed to play in the game, and their time and presence meant that the crowd had an enjoyable day while raising money for good causes.
Speaking afterwards, Kenny Dalglish explained what Petrov meant to people: “It was a fitting tribute to a very strong man who has been an example to anyone else who gets a bit of bad news – showing that the harder you stand up for yourself, the stronger you are, the better chance you have of succeeding. He’s inspirational for what he’s gone through. He’s never moaned or complained. He’s tried his best to get on with it. He’s a man of tremendous courage and determination. I just hope it pays off for him. He’s touched lives inside and outside of football. Footballers are much-maligned but I don’t think you could be anything but complimentary about Stiliyan.”
Martin O’Neill, who guided most of Petrov’s career at Celtic and Villa, was quietly eloquent as always: “He’s revered here and down at Villa, too, and I have enormous respect for him. His generosity in every aspect of life is phenomenal.”
At full time Petrov spoke to the fans: “Thank you very much, all the support and everything you have done for me throughout my career. Today you showed the world how special this place is. You made it special for me, my family and these players and thank you for standing by me.”
For Petrov’s lap of honour, his children and wife Paulina entered the pitch where the couple were both overcome with emotion. They were not alone in their tears – it was that kind of day.
Celtic XI: Louis Tomlinson, Tom Boyd, Tosh McKinlay, Jackie McNamara, Joos Valgaeren, Bobo Balde, Henrik Larsson, Morten Wieghorst, Chris Sutton, Pierre Van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete, Tommy Johnson, Brian McClair, Bobby Petta, Martin Compston, Didier Agathe, Neil Lennon, Stiliyan Petrov, Rab Douglas, Stevie Graham, Warren Brown, Jordan Sailsman, Lubo Moravcik, Johan Mjallby
Stiliyan XI: Shay Given, Radostin Kishishev, Freddie Bouma, Marian Hristov, Chris Kamara, Nicky Byrne, Robert Pires, Dimitar Berbatov, Jamie Redknapp, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Hristo Yovov, Paul Lambert, James Allan, Martin Petrov, Gareth Barry, Stiliyan Petrov, John Bishop, Habib Beye, Carlos Cuellar, Spencer Matthews, John Terry.