We continue our countdown of the greatest players in Aston Villa's history with a midfielder who overcame a slow start to life in the Midlands to become a firm favourite with the claret and blue faithful.
19. Stiliyan Petrov
Born: Montana, Bulgaria, 5 July 1979
Aston Villa career: 2006-2013
Appearances: 219 Goals: 12
After a difficult first 18 months at Aston Villa, fans could have been forgiven for questioning whether Petrov was cut out for the Premier League.
The Bulgarian midfielder became Martin O’Neill’s first major signing in charge in the summer of 2006 after winning four Scottish league titles together at Celtic, but he initially struggled to reproduce his impressive Hoops form south of the border.
Midway through the 2007-08 campaign, though, everything suddenly clicked. Moved into a deeper midfield role, Petrov soon established himself as a vital part of O’Neill’s side with his passing, work rate, defensive discipline and leadership qualities, as criticism of his performances rapidly gave way to glowing reviews.
After winning the club’s Player of the Year award for 2008-09, he was handed the captain’s armband following Martin Laursen’s retirement and the departure of Gareth Barry and proceeded to lead the team to their highest Premier League points total from 38 games to date , the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the League Cup final.
Villa had achieved three straight top six finishes at that point, and even when their decline set in the following campaign after O’Neill and James Milner followed Barry and Ashley Young out the exit door, Petrov remained a rock in the centre of the park.
Upon overcoming a mid-season knee injury, he helped Gerard Houllier’s side go from relegation candidates to a top half finish thanks to a late surge, before standing out as one of the club’s few bright spots over the first half of Alex McLeish’s lone campaign in charge.
However, an uncharacteristically sluggish performance at Arsenal in March 2012 would prove to be Petrov’s last appearance in a Villa shirt. A week after the match, the former Bulgaria captain was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, and while he was officially in remission five months later, his battle with the illness eventually forced him to hang up his boots in May 2013 after making 219 appearances for the club and scoring 12 goals – the finest being a 45-yard strike against Derby County in April 2008.
Supporters applauded him in the 19th-minute of every game after his diagnose to coincide with his squad number until the start of the 2013-14 season, while the outpouring of tributes he received from the rest of the football world during his treatment went a long way towards emphasising how respected he was by his peers.
Now back fit, playing Sunday League football and helping coach Villa’s Under-21s on a part-time basis, it is testament to his legacy that the club still have not found his replacement four years on from his final game.
Aston Villa: top 30 players