Sometimes in this life you can come across a very special person, sometimes you are lucky enough to do so. A meeting with Stiliyan Petrov in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia was one such occasion.
Our encounter occurred three summers ago now, two days before Ireland were due to play his native land in a very important World Cup qualifier.
The Aston Villa midfielder was well known at the time to Irish fans. He had, after all, come to our attentions in this part of the world as a very special player with Glasgow Celtic Football Club.
He was, even in the few years he spent with the club, a Parkhead legend, the sort of footballer that only Celtic fans can cherish in their own inimitable way.
Petrov was a cult hero as well as a hero to the green and white half of Glasgow.
This was the Bulgarian who took a job selling French fried potatoes, chips as we call them, from a van to improve his understanding of the English language in general and the local vernacular in particular.
He was also a player who understood the very special bond that exists between Celtic and their star names. They don’t tolerate prima-donnas around Parkhead and Petrov knew that well.
He toiled as honestly on the pitch as the Celtic fans did off it. He understood they wanted value for their hard earned money on a Saturday afternoon and he never failed to deliver.
That partly explains why he was target number one for an interview when I landed in Sofia, several days ahead of the main Irish press corps and with a photographer for company – a man by the name of Gary Ashe as it happens who will become part of this story again in a short while.
Normally on such occasions, a visiting press man will chance his arm and try to blag his way to an interview with a member of the opposition team.
The chances, for example, of a Bosnian journalist gaining access to the likes of Robbie Keane when they come here for a friendly at the end of May are remote to say the least. Come to think of it, not even the Irish media get that much access to the Irish players anymore but that’s for another day.
That June we made contact with the Bulgarian press officer, expecting to be told his team’s camp was off limits. His answer was nothing of the sort.
The day after we arrived in Petrov’s capital city we were picked up from our hotel by the same press officer.
He drove us to the Bulgarian team hotel, marched us into the team’s dining room and introduced us to Stiliyan Petrov.
What followed was an hour long conversation, out in the car park to enjoy the sunshine, as Stiliyan explained his love of Celtic, Villa, Paul McGrath and Richard Dunne.
He was so keen to prove his Celtic credentials that he even sang the Fields of Athenry for us and laughed that he could sing along with the Irish national anthem the following Saturday night as well, he’d heard it sung so many times by the Celtic fans.
By the end of the interview it was time to take a photograph for the next day’s paper back in Dublin.
Gary liked the vista of the city behind Stiliyan but the Bulgarian team bus was in the way. What did Stiliyan do? He had it moved of course and posed happily with Sofia beaming behind him.
Interview over, we were invited in for lunch by this gentleman before he sent us on our way back to the hotel in the company of the team’s press officer once again.
As usual, we promised that day that we would drop Stiliyan a line on our return to Dublin and thank him for his hospitality. As usual, we did nothing more than say hello to him after the game and thank him personally once again.
This week however, I am going to write to Stiliyan Petrov and simply wish him the best of luck.
A week or so ago he felt unwell as Villa lost to Arsenal in the English Premier League. The doctors feared it was a fever and nothing more. Heart checks, taken as a precaution after the recent Fabrice Muamba scare, revealed a very different tale.
Stiliyan Petrov has acute leukaemia. As you read this, he is already undergoing intensive treatment in a London hospital in his bid to beat blood cancer.
His plight, like that of Muamba, has touched so many hearts and not just those who follow the beautiful game.
The reaction to his news, announced publicly just last Friday, has also done much to prove that professional football is not just about the prima-donnas on the pitch and the lager louts off it.
The scenes at Parkhead on Sunday, as Celtic moved closed to the Scottish League title with a 2-0 win over St Johnstone, proved that much at least.
Before the game, the Celtic players warmed up with number 19 shirts, Petrov’s number, on their backs.
During the game, their manager Neil Lennon and his coaching staff patrolled the touchline with the same number 19 on their shirts.
As the clock hit 19 minutes into the first-half, the Parkhead crowd to a man, woman and child applauded to show their support for Stiliyan Petrov and his young family as he battles this horrible illness.
The scenes were touching, poignant and well deserved. If ever a man was worthy of support at such a delicate time in his lift, it is Stiliyan Petrov.
He is worthy of the term legend. And I really hope he lives to tell this current tale for many years to come.SIDELINE VIEWSGOLF:
Rory McIlroy was explaining on Tuesday how different his life is from this time last year when he literally threw the Masters away. He does indeed have a new girlfriend, a new management team and a new ability to close the deal when leading golf tournaments. He still has the same basic swing that got him so close to the green jacket last April and that should be enough to get him into contention again this time around. Think I’ll put a few bob on Wee Mac.SOCCER:
Kenny Dalglish is now a failure at Liverpool according to those in the know after his team were beaten at Newcastle on Sunday. As the manager he is responsible for the actions of those on the pitch but sadly, as far as Reds fans are concerned, their current players aren’t as good on the pitch as Kenny was. And that’s their real issue.SOCCER:
Manchester United may not be as close to the English title as Celtic are to the Scottish version but they do look like champions elect. Several English bookies have already decided as much and paid out on Alex Ferguson’s team. After their 2-0 win at Blackburn on Monday night, I can understand why.SOCCER:
Paul McGrath says elsewhere on these pages that Team Ireland needs a fully fit Richard Dunne in Poland this summer. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni clearly agrees – he’s been texting Richard every 48 hours for an update on his shoulder injury.BOXING:
The Irish boxer Tyson Fury will fight Belfast’s Martin Rogan again on Saturday week with the All-Ireland heavyweight title at stake. With a great name like Tyson Fury, he can’t fail. Can he?
Robbie Keane got the captain’s armband ahead of David Beckham at the LA Galaxy last weekend and Becks was none too please apparently. Pity about him.
HERO OF THE WEEK
I don’t really understand the sport but any Irish world champion is to be applauded so well done to Sheamus on his new found status in the world of WWE. How he became heavyweight champ in just 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28 must be the stuff of legend. And can anyone tell me what a brogue kick is?IDIOT OF THE WEEK
The Welsh rugby player Gavin Henson was sacked by his Cardiff club on Monday morning, 48 hours after he engaged in drunk and disorderly behaviour on a flight back from a match in Glasgow. Henson could have been one of the greatest Welsh players ever but will always be remembered now as an idiot of the highest order for his off-field antics.Cathal Dervan is sports editor with the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin.