Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Second-division football is not exciting even when having much stronger year – the real thing is always the top flight. But football as a whole can be sufficiently represented by a single league – if second division has a mediocre season, very likely first league as well. And the Bulgarian top flight was not in great shape: four clubs fought on top, leaving the rest twelve far behind. Tellingly, the 4th in the final table was 6 points ahead from the 5th. And even more tellingly the 5th and 6th in the table, Botev (Vratza) and Pirin (Blagoevgrad) finished with negative goal-difference. Only 6 clubs had positive goal-difference this year and only the champions managed to score more than 2 goals per game average. Otherwise, it was business as usual: most clubs stayed in mid-table as ever, the relegated were hardly surprising names, decline was detected in some clubs, and there was one surprise – big surprise surely, but a solitary one nevertheless. Dunav (Rousse) and Minyor (Pernik) finished at the end and were relegated. To a point, typical 'in between' clubs, constantly moving up and down, so nothing strange about their sorry state. Dunav gave up sometime in the spring and accepted their fate, but Minyor kind of tried to survive to the end. Both clubs payed quite well a few years back, but suffered from their predicament: small provincial clubs, they had no chance of building consistent team. Instead, they had a core of few very good players and frequently changing mediocrities for the rest of the team. Understandably, they went down, to the delight of other clubs of the same ilk – ZhSK Spartak (Varna) in particular, who finished at the safe 14th place.

Up the table Trakia (Plovdiv) hit rock bottom – their aging squad was declining for quite some time, and now the painful change of generations finally took full force. A whole bunch of juniors and handful of over-the-hill veterans were not the squad to make waves - 11th place was really low, but not surprising. Down went two other clubs, who were delightfully strong so far: Akademik (Sofia), 12th, and Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), 8th. Both were going downhill, having to build new squads, but the decline was more pronounced in Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), clearly aging, and already disjointed – half of the team was at retiring age, and the other half – almost teenagers. Akademik perhaps was able for something better, if not dividing its efforts between championship and the UEFA Cup, but the team's life span was at its end anyway: they had to rebuild. It was just the beginning of the real troubles for both Akademik and Lokomotiv. Apart from these three, the bulk of the league shuffled in more or less its usual way. General mediocrity elevated 4 clubs high above the rest – the struggle never ended between three clubs, giving the forth the opportunity of quietly building building advantage of 4 points by the end of the season. Three clubs were 'the usual suspects” - Levski-Spartak, CSKA, and Slavia. The fourth was unlikely, but very pleasant surprise. Slavia finished at 4th place.

Sitting, from left: Emil Mihaylov, Stoycho Berberov, Georgy Minchev, Vanyo Kostov, Chavdar Tzvetkov, Atanas Aleksandrov, Milcho Evtimov.

Middle row: Kiril Angelov – coach, Petar Miladinov, Georgy Dermendzhiev, Bozhidar Grigorov – playing assistant coach, Andrey Zhelyazkov, Ivan Iliev, Trendafil Terziisky – assistant coach.

Top row: Stoycho Stefanov, Ilyaz Aliev, Georgy Gugalov, Botyo Malinov, Valentin Modev, Ivan Chakarov, Georgy Tikhanov.

It is debatable were Slavia real contenders or not – on one hand, the team built few years back was coming to maturity. Seven national team regulars – the defenders Iliev and Evtimov, midfielders Kostov and Minchev, and the whole line of attack, Aleksandrov, Zhelyazkov, and Tzvetkov. The strikers were considered the deadliest in Bulgaria at the time. On the other hand, Slavia was – and is – notoriously erratic and moody team. Entirely unpredictable, and therefore losing many points. Inconsistency is the tradition of the club, and traditions are funny consistent force in football. The usual ups and downs of Slavia left them 4th at the end: they missed third place by a point and second – by two points. They had the second best attack in the league, but also the worst defensive record among the top four.

Second place went to CSKA. Now, for CSKA a season without a title is a disaster, but the fact is CSKA was struggling to rebuild and was unconvincing team since 1973.

Sitting, from left: Pritargov, Sredkov, Kolev, Mirchev, Dzhevizov, Goranov, Denev, Metodiev, Yonchev.

Standing: Kamarashev, Vassilev, Dimitrov, Rangelov, Markov, Lyubomirov, Zafirov, Stankov, Yordanov.

To say this squad was 'shaky' would be difficult, judging by the players – the only one who was not a national team player was the reserve keeper Kamarashev. National-team players, but from different times: some were no longer called for some years, others were not called yet. Still six players of the 'silver team' of CSKA remained, but 4 of them were clearly going downhill – Zafirov, Stankov, Denev, and Yordanov. Perhaps 'downhill' is not the right word, but all of them were not improving. They did not fit well with the younger teammates, sometimes they were even counter-productive, especially egoistic Denev. On the opposite side were Bozhil Kolev and Borislav Sredkov – Kolev was at his finest , and Sredkov transformed from 'eternal' reserve into national team regular. But...but... Kolev had to waste a lot of time correcting mistakes of others, therefore, playing more defensively in time when the team badly lacked strong playmaker, and Sredkov was constantly moved to cover different weak spots – he played everything on the right flank: full-back, defensive and attacking midfielder, right wing... what exactly was his real position was impossible to tell. There were clearly fading away players, such as Pritargov, the Bulgarian best goal-scorer just two years back and Dimitar Dimitrov, who was in the national team at the World Cup finals in 1974, but now was not sure regular, let alone leader of the team. And the rest were still too young, more promising than consistent – Dzhevizov, Yonchev, Markov, Rangelov still needed a year or two to really unfold their potential; Lyubomirov, Metodiev, Mirchev never became the stars they were expected to be, and Kamarashev left no trace, and soon sunk entirely into lower division football. At the end, the deadly defender Tzonyo Vassilev suffered the most: he was moved from left back to his original position as a sweeper, and again to the left flank, just to cover weak spots. Neither here, nor there, Vassilev appeared somewhat a misfit, and his tendency for rough and violent playing made his situation worse, for he was often suspended. The team needed to become well rounded, positions to be established and stabilized, so the best qualities of the players to come to fruition, but instead it was rather chaotic team, with constant changed in the line and duties. True, egocentric Denev was capable to beat a whole opposing team in a god day, but his style made the English-type centre-forward Dzhevizov practically useless and isolated, for he needed feeding balls, and those never came – the ball went to Denev and once in his feet, everybody had just to watch. CSKA was still in the fruitless time of trying and erring. Silver medals were disappointment, but on the other hand – this team was not made yet.

CSKA and Slavia were no revelation, but little Marek was. They finished surprising third, a place they had never reached before, but more importantly, they were a delight. As newcomers from second-division, no one expected Marek even to survive in the First Division. In the past they were known for playing mean, dirty football, aiming only at survival. When they were relegated, many were actually relieved. Marek stayed in the Second Division for years and its coming back thrilled no one at first: the villains were back. There was practically no recognizable name in the squad, except two survivors from the team once upon a time: the right winger Pargov and the right full-back Sevdin. Pargov was already 35 years old, little was expected from him – most likely, it was to be largely his benefit, retiring as a top flight player. Sevdin was so-so years back, so why expecting him to be better now? Third familiar player was of the same kind: the central defender Nikolay Krastev played few years back for Slavia, but he was an average player at best, and therefore nobody even noticed when Slavia dismissed him. He was over 30 as well. Marek appeared to be particularly anonymous even for a second-division squad, and to top its 'hopelessness', the club did not go into familiar shopping spree, gathering experienced rejects from around the league – in the summer of 1976, they got only two players from small second-division clubs: the twins Ivan and Ventzislav Petrov, a Levski (Sofia) juniors, who were not even considered for the first team, and the strikers went to small Torpedo (Karlovo), a club normally playing in Third Division, but recently in the Second. The Petrovs soon became well known in the lower division, but no first-division club expressed any interest in them, so it did not look like Marek was improving with them. Marek was expected to last only one season, kicking its opponents, but donating vital points to big and small. When the season started and Marek – winning match after match, it was viewed with skepticism for awhile: enthusiasm brings some surprise wins, but just you wait – the string of lost games is going to begin any minute now. It was mid-season before Marek were taken seriously – they played pleasant, creative and attacking game; they were well-rounded outfit, to which the Petrov twins fit with like hand and glove. The old so-so players suddenly were in excellent and impressive form, the local nobodies turned out to possess real talent, name after name was 'discovered', and, running a bit ahead, almost the whole vintage was invited to the national team. Contrary to expectation, Marek played clean football, not killing, but outplaying their opponents, and even something extraordinary happened – even great teams were rarely able to repair a starting eleven during going season, let alone small clubs with limited resources. Marek depended largely on their first eleven, and when Krastev was deliberately injured in the match against Sliven, it looked like the end of Marek: his leg was broken, he was out for the rest of the season, and as it turned out – he was out forever. There was nobody to replace the key defender... the coach 'improvised': he moved the left full-back Kolev to be a sweeper, and the left winger Karakolev was moved back to replace Kolev. The reserve Emil Kyuchukov took the left winger. The whole shuffle was universally seen as desperate and spelling disaster, but... everything worked out smoothly, Marek continued to play the same, if not better, as if nothing happened. Too bad Krastev missed the rest of the great season and had to retire in so miserable way, but on the other hand when Kolev and Karakolev were invited to the national team, it was in their 'improvised' positions. Credits were given to Marek's coach, Yanko Dinkov, who was also unknown up to this season. And not only credits: he was also to coach the national team soon. Bunch of provincial nobodies?

Sitting, from left: Sasho Pargov, Ivan Petrov, Nikolay Krastev, Ventzislav Petrov, Emil Kyuchukov.

Middle row: Yanko Dinkov – coach, Lyuben Sevdin, Ivan Palev, Stoyan Stoyanov, Lyuben Kolev, Roman Karakolev, Dimitar Kukov – assistant coach.

Third row: Aleksander Kyuchukov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Assen Tomov, Aleksander Raynov.

The revelation of the season and truly one of the best and optimistic happenings in Bulgarian football. A small and tied outfit – a small club hardly can afford anything else – so it is easy to point out the 'culprits': Stoyanov between the posts; Sevdin, Krastev (later in the season – Kolev), Palev, Kolev (Karakolev later) in defense; Raynov, Dimitrov, Ventzislav Petrov in midfield; Pargov – captain, Ivan Petrov, Karakolev (later – Emil Kyuchukov) in attack. Tomov was almost regular player as well – the midfielder appeared in almost every match either as a substitute or starter. 14 players in total. 11 of them became national team players, plus their coach. Not exactly one-time wonder either – Marek was still to have its best ever year. Coming with a bang and determined to stay.