Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First division offered a mixed bag of goods. Some clubs were in decline and dangerously slipping down. Others struggled to establish relatively strong teams. The leaders were familiar. Decline settled in four clubs – it was detected earlier, perhaps measures were taken to stop it, but they were not effective. Akademik (Sofia) suffered the most – the very design of the club made this possible. The 'students' club had no way of keeping players – as long as they graduated from University, they had no right to stay with the club. The great team of the mid-1970s was another danger – Akademik was constantly raided by the big clubs and the best players taken away. By 1978 practically nobody of the strong squad was still in Akademik and the new recruits, although promising, were not at the same level. Perhaps they lacked character, perhaps they saw playing for Akademik only as means for getting easy degree, perhaps the selection was altogether wrong, but the team had no chemistry, finished 15th, and was relegated. Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) came dangerously close to relegation – they ended 14th. 
From fighting for the title to struggling to escape relegation – the problems of Lokomotiv were obvious and detected a few years back: it was dangerously aging squad. There was no easy solution – the regulars were great players, lead by Christo Bonev, the best Bulgarian player of the 1970s and one of the all-time greatest Bulgarian footballers. There were also the former national team goalkeeper Stancho Bonchev, the legendary right winger Georgy Vassilev, to name but only the biggest names. Not only there was reluctance to let go legends – another problem was their form. Old, but still dangerous and much better than younger players. Thus, Lokomotiv, trying to replace other veterans, suddenly ended with strange and disfunctional squad – half of it was veterans over 30, and the other half were almost teenagers, too young and too inexperienced. The road to disaster was wide open – the strange mix did not work. Another club was going in the same direction – Pirin (Blagoevgrad), but at least for the moment they had hope for better fate: unlike Lokomotiv, they had more and better youngsters. The other club going downhill suffered from its predicament. Sliven were something like a farm club of CSKA – the 'mother' club was constantly sending young players to get experience with Sliven, but as soon as they played well, they were taken back. A few were actually shuffled a few times between the clubs. The result was constant uncertainty – Sliven was not in a position of building a strong team and sooner or later was to pay the prize for subservience. They finished 13th this year and although their luck could change in the next season, the danger remained  -  performance depended largely on what players CSKA was giving or taking away, there was no permanence. The fourth club in decline  was Botev (Vratza). Like Lokomotiv (Plovdiv), they were strong in the early 1970s, but their best players aged. Botev was slowly sinking. 
Front row, from left: R. Panov, L. Manov, Oleg Karchev, D. Efremov, N. Penkov, S. Dimitrov
Middle row: P. Kamenov – assistant coach, L. Kunovsky, V. Petkov,  M. Goranov, V. Romansky – coach, T. Mitov, V. Toshkov, An. Tzenov, G. Kamenov – assistant coach.
Top row: Ves. Petkov, P. Dimchev, S. Venkov, P . Petrov, Val. Maldzhansky, V. Krastev, T. Arsov, S. Angelov.
It was a team still depending on the veterans from the late 1960s and the early 70s: Penkov, Tzenov, Angelov, Kunovsky, all nearing retirement and no longer at the their best. Milen Goranov, who made his name with Akademik Sofia was  also in his third decade – and he was the best addition to the team! None from the promising youngsters of five-six years ago developed into a star – Toshkov and Efremov apparently reached their peak already and their best was not as great as expected. Newer recruits were not even that – the only promising additions were the goalkeeper Arsov and the central defender Maldzhansky. Arsov, although he caught the eye of CSKA and moved to the big club for a while, never lived up to expectations. Maldzhansky, not exactly a great hope at first, for he was not young at all when came from the lower leagues to Botev, was the only player who not only secured a place in the regular team, but became one of the top Bulgarian defenders of the early 1980s and eventually played in the national team. Yet, when the best new discovery is a 28 years old unknown the future does not look bright.   
 Four clubs in decline, but those rising were half the number... Trakia (Plovdiv) successfully changed generations with just a brief trouble, thanks to talented teenagers in their youth system. Almost the whole team was their own production and apparently there was no end of even younger talent – already 4 players, who just popped up, were taken by CSKA (Dzhevizov, Kalburov, and Slavkov) and Levski (Milkov), and it was not a problem – they were replaced by other fresh juniors. And the new boys were often even better than those who were introduced a year or two earlier. Trakia was expected to burst big, to become a title contender. They finished 8th this season, and the mid-table position was excused – the team was still too young and inexperienced. However, the place should have been alarming – it was already a second or third year Trakia was hailed as the next big thing and the middle of the table was hardly a success. Were they to become just another unfulfilled promise ,were they to settle for comfortable mediocrity? The danger of that was real. Meantime, the great Dinko Dermendzhiev, one of the best Bulgarian players of the 1960s and 1970s played his last season and retired. It was sad to see him gone, but in the same time the generational change was completed – not a single player of the older generation was in the squad, everything was in the feet of the young boys. 
Trakia bursting with new talent – the most promising team in Bulgaria.
 The other interesting club was Chernomoretz (Bourgas) – they returned to top flight the previous season, played well, and now – even better, ending at 5th place.  Like Trakia, they depended on talented home grown youngsters. The new boys were perhaps not so talented as Trakia's, but so far they played more seriously and successfully. Both clubs were example of an old truth: a club gets best results if building a strong youth system and producing their own stars. In a small country, with small pool of talent, this was the most efficient policy. 
 The rest of the league performed as usual. Marek finished 6th, no better and no worse than the previous two seasons – it was amazing, because the club depended still on the very 12 players as in their first great season two years before. And it was very risky... how long such a run would last with so limited resources? An injury, one or two transfers to other clubs, and... the team will be destroyed. If luckily avoiding that, then aging was inevitable – a quarter of the regulars were getting old already. 
Beroe had a strong season, but it was also typical unpredictable Beroe – one year down, the next up, no consistency.  At the bottom pf the table settled the debutant Haskovo. It was expected – they had no strong team when they won promotion and did not take strong additions. Their best efforts did not produce results – the squad was simply lacking first division quality. They earned 19 points, but were still 3 points behind the 15th place Akademik. Down they went, along with Akademik.