Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Southern B Group was judged weaker than the Northern one – few former First Division members played there and all of them were in decline for years, not a factor at all. Thus, Minyor (Pernik), just relegated from the top league, was seen as sure winner. The rest of the league appeared very similar – the better teams had between one and three known former first division players, generally aging ones – enough for 'solid' performance, but not for aiming at promotion. Minyor was struggling in the fall, when finished 4th – 4 points behind the leader – but there was no fear: better than the rest, they were surely to end on top.

No matter what they did, Minyor were to be champions: sitting from left: G. Ganev, I. Todorov, B. Evtimov, G. Yordanov, V. Bankov.
Middle row: D. Kontev – coach, F. Filipov, A. Divyachky, S. Nikolov, B. Dushkov, V. Naydenov, S. Malinov, Y. Ikonomov – masseur.
Third row: V. Boyanov, A. Slavov, E. Banchev, G. Manolov, Y. Christov, Y. Katrankov.
Minyor was a mirror image of the better clubs of the Northern B group: a core of solid players carried it on so far since 1970. They were dangerously aging – Evlogy Banchev (31), Georgy Yordanov (30), Slavy Malinov (31) – or already reached their peak – Angel Slavov. The team leaders were pretty much alone, though – the other experienced players were rejected by their former clubs – Ganev, Evtimov, Naydenov. They were no leaders, but run of the mill players. And no great talent completed the squad – Boyanov was perhaps the best of the rest, but it was already clear he was not to be a star. Experienced, but rather ordinary team, depending on few old stars. The only exception was a boy not on the photo: the 17-years old winger Mario Valkov. He debuted with a bang and was the only one seemingly capable of replacing the old leaders. But... he was not to last in Pernik. Minyor was clearly unable to even start meaningful rebuilding, but the squad was experienced enough and obviously better than the rest of the league. On paper – yes. In reality Minyor was unable to win – they did not improve much in the spring, adding 24 points to the 22 earned in the fall. With that Minyor finished second. They were not contenders even for a second – the winners left them 9 points behind. So much for surety of predictions.
The winners were one of those clubs never expected to win – veterans of Second Division football, a staple really there, normally found in the upper half of the table. A typical second league club – just happy to play there and never aiming higher. The club did not recruit for more than second league stability, so it was a typical squad – a bunch of vastly experienced club veterans, some youngsters with exactly second-league potential, and two or three former first division players with fading names. The very making of the squad did not suggest any ambition old or new. But this very squad finished first in the fall with 26 points. It still did not look not serious... rather, in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed was king. Behind were one similar club – Dimitrovgrad – and one surprise – Trakia (Novy Krichim) was third, a club more often playing Third Division football. The top three clubs were expected to drop down in the spring and Minyor to take the first place. But... only Trakia, a tiny club even by second division measures, dropped. The league was quite weak and no big changes happened in the spring: Dimitrovgrad finished third. May be the fall leaders were just caught by the inability of others to gather points, may be they developed some appetite for success – at the end, the fall leaders finished 9 points ahead of everybody: 22 wins, 11 ties, and 5 losses. 55 points, the best attack – 67 goals, the best defense – 27 allowed, most wins in the league and especially impressive number of losses – the next best were Minyor, losing 10 games – twice as many! The champions were overwhelming on paper. The name is Haskovo, a club named after their home city in South-Eastern Bulgaria.

Sitting, from left: Valchan Vassilev, Zhivko Gospodinov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Yordan Kichekov, Lyudmil Mikhalkov, Kostadin Latinov, Ivan Slavov.
Middle row: Petar Aleksiev -coach, Ivan Grudev, Dimitar Zarev, Krassimir Yakimov, Roussy Delchunkov, Pavel Pavlov, Svetlin Cholakov, Atanas Atanassov – assistant coach.
Third row: Dimitar Tekhov, Rossen Stratiev, Toshko Yanev, Valentin Marinov, Nikola Kordov, Saly Shakirov, Lyuben Lyubenov, Nikola Kostov.
This was the biggest success of the club founded in 1957 under the name 'Dimitar Kanev' so far – champions of Southern Second Division and confidently so. Not exactly a Cinderella story, but... the squad was hardly good for top league football. Relatively young team, depending mostly on typical second division players and following the pattern of most second-leaguers: two or three well known names, getting old. The left winger Latinov was the local star and one of the best strikers in the second division for years, already 30 years old. Nikola Kordov was the key figure in defense – at 32, his best years were gone. He was part of the strong Beroe (Stara Zagora) team circa 1967-1973 and was even included in the national team a few times, but injuries and age moved him to Haskovo. Yordan Kichekov was similar – although younger, 27 years old, his best years were already behind him. Five years back he was considered one of the most promising young players in the first division. Then he played for Trakia (Plovdiv), but the promise was not fulfilled – he lost his starting place, moved to Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) and eventually moved again – and down – to Haskovo. The trio shined in Haskovo and made a difference, but it was in the second division. For top flight new players were urgently needed, if Haskovo wanted to survive. As they were, they were not going to last, therefore, the best was just to enjoy their victory and promotion.