STILIYAN Petrov may still be coming to terms with the wicked vagaries of battling leukaemia but still his pressing concerns on returning to the scene of many special footballing occasions were similar to those of countless fathers.
The Celtic shop and his ten-year-old son’s desire to reconnect with his “homeland”, Petrov explained, were the priorities.
Then it was a look at the stadium and to hear stories of how his dad delighted many thousands of fans with his silky skills in the Celtic midfield. Stiliyan Petrov jnr is not Bulgarian, like his parents, said the former Hoops No.19, fondly remembered as “Stan”.
“No, he is Scottish,” he said. “My son was born here and he’s ten now. We left Glasgow when he was three so he can’t remember too much about the place. This is the first time he’s been back and he was so excited.
“On Tuesday night, we were up to 2am talking about things and he keeps asking me if we can move back and live in Scotland again.
“He says he wants to come ‘home’. I say to him ‘me and your mum are Bulgarian’ but he says ‘I know, but I’m Scottish’. He really enjoyed the Cliftonville game and we got him some Celtic strips yesterday, so he’s happy. He’s had a great time and I’m now under pressure to come back here more often.”
He was clearly enjoying his return after leaving for Aston Villa seven years ago, spoke enthusiastically of Neil Lennon, Celtic, the players and supporters, and admitted to huge excitement at the prospect of the #19 charity match featuring a host of his best friends in football on Sunday, 8 September (2pm), including Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert, John Hartson, Roy Keane, Dimitar Berbatov, Brad Friedel, Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Gareth Barry.
He acknowledged: “It is emotional for me to be back because I’ve met a lot of people I used to work with at the club, but it’s great to see everyone.
“Lenny [Neil Lennon] took me into the dressing-room before the game [against Cliftonville] and I saw all the boys and the coaching staff.
“I’ll play part of the #19 game, definitely. I’m trying to get fit and lose a bit of weight. I’m not going to lie, I trained with some of the young boys at Villa and my body’s still aching. It’s difficult considering what I went through last year but I’ll definitely play a bit of the game.
“I’m good right now. I’m on a maintenance programme, which is a softer treatment and it’s tablets at the moment. I’m finished the intensive chemotherapy and I’m in remission, which is really positive. Everything is going to plan so far.”
Handed a role assisting Gordon Cowans coaching Aston Villa’s youth team, Petrov is on the way back.
He admitted that there have been “difficult, very difficult” times when he could hardly look up, when he did not have the energy to cuddle his children or the will to reply to a friend’s text for months, and when he was only kept from calling a halt to the punishing treatment by the unwavering support of his wife Paulina, and sons Stiliyan and Kristiyan.
He spoke passionately about the support also from across football, from Glasgow to Birmingham and much further afield, from hearing his name cheered at games to candles being lit and heart-rending letters; players, coaches and supporters all playing a part in helping him to battle the disease he said.
Now 34, his hair is growing back, the eyes are regaining their sparkle and while training may be a challenge, his strength is building. That was visible in the passion with which he spoke about what he had learned about leukaemia, how it wrecks lives and tears families apart, and how he hopes his charity foundation can make some small difference.
Having discovered how heavily research for medical cures rely on funding, he is looking to raise as much money as possible to push that cause, but is also determined to improve the plight of sufferers personally. Under-funded hospitals across the UK struggle to find the space to properly isolate vulnerable cancer patients with weak immune systems, never mind allow families to remain close by, so Petrov has been providing accommodation for a family in Birmingham, to keep them close to their three-year-old son as he undergoes treatment, and providing some humour.
“The boy’s mother is actually from Glasgow, too, and she’s a big Rangers supporter as well, so we’re having a great time together!”
A positive player who lit up games with his ambition, scoring 65 goals and winning ten trophies in 312 games for Celtic, Petrov is bringing the same bright approach to this new chapter in his life, but with a request for support.
As to whether we may one day see another Petrov in Scottish football, he revealed that young Stiliyan was first trying to work out whether he preferred playing goalkeeper or in midfield.
“But would he play for Bulgaria or Scotland? I can answer that,” he added. “It would be Scotland because he keeps telling me ‘I’m Scottish, dad’. As soon as we have that conversation he hits me with a straight answer.”
Match tickets for the #19 game are on sale priced £10 for adults and £5 for concessions from the Celtic ticket office and by calling 0871 226 1888, with premium tickets £25. Proceeds from the match will be shared between Petrov’s charity and the Celtic Charity Fund.