Family feel at Bolton a welcome change for Petrov
After three years at Manchester City, Martin Petrov's departure from Eastlands over the summer was a touch anti-climactic. His final season at the club that first brought him to English shores was blighted by injury and an inability to force his way into the first-team plans of Mark Hughes and his successor Roberto Mancini. Managing just eight starts and eight substitute appearances in 2009-10 - the last of which came against Stoke in February - the frustrated winger trained alone with City's physio for the final three months of the season as part of a rehab programme, before being released on a free transfer in June.
Settled in Manchester with his wife and two daughters, Petrov was faced with the prospect of upping sticks and possibly moving to a new country for the fifth time in his career - having spent previous stints in Switzerland, Germany and Spain since leaving CSKA Sofia in his native Bulgaria as a fresh-faced 19-year-old back in 1998. Bolton boss Owen Coyle had other ideas, offering devout family man Petrov a Premier League lifeline and an opportunity to remain in the North West.
"The first thing is that I always wanted to stay in England, especially around Manchester because for me family is very important," Petrov tells ESPNsoccernet. "I have two children and I want to stay here to learn English and stay in a good country. I don't want to move houses too much now as in my career for many years I have moved from country to country. It' normal in football but when you start pre-season you must think of your family, schools etc. The second reason is that I spoke with the manager also - he told me that he wanted me in this team to play good football and to help the team score more goals."
Petrov may have played just 25 league games in the past two seasons, but his time at Eastlands was not always spent lying on the treatment table and watching longingly from the stands. The tricky winger flourished in his debut campaign after Sven Goran Eriksson snapped him up for £4.7 million from Atletico Madrid - scoring five goals and supplying nine assists in 34 Premier League games under the Swede. Two of those games were in famous home and away victories over Manchester United, including an emotionally charged 2-1 victory at Old Trafford on the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, one of Petrov's fondest memories of his time at City.
"That [match] was fantastic. It was my first year here, with Sven Goran Eriksson - we beat them the second time at Old Trafford 50 years after Munich. It was not great for them but it was special for us and I will never forget the moment. Winning the derby twice in a year was unbelievable for the fans. You can imagine how I felt on the pitch, the arena, the atmosphere - it was unbelievable."
Of City's squad that day, goalkeeper Joe Hart is the only player who featured in the 1-0 victory over Chelsea on Saturday, and since the club's billionaires owners took control of the club in August 2008, they have funded an incredible overhaul under Hughes and now Mancini, as the Abu Dhabi chiefs look to propel their group of galacticos towards English football's summit. Petrov saw his fair share of players fall victim to the revolving door policy at Eastlands, before eventually suffering the same fate himself, though he reveals that the continuous arrival of high-profile players was something that never fazed him.
"[Before leaving] I spoke sometimes with the guys from City. I said I wanted to stay there and play football - that I was not scared that they were buying players for too much money and paying them so much money. I wanted to show on the pitch that I had a place there but it just didn't happen. Everyone is gone and is not happy, [Richard] Dunne, Elano, [Vedran] Corluka - when everyone is gone from the club they are clearly not happy with the situation. Everyone from this time deserved to play for the team but they just signed more players and I don't think it was fair."
But for Petrov, the City chapter of his football life is one that is now closed. Having endured a difficult time trying to win the faith of Messrs Hughes and Mancini, the winger is now blessed with a boss at Bolton who is renowned for commanding the love and respect of his players. Coyle appears to be the perfect candidate to help reignite Petrov's career and Bolton as a club seems to be a good fit for the Bulgarian family man.
"He [Coyle] is very important because the day before I signed I spoke to him and he told me how the team want to play is with crossing, finishing, scoring more goals - we try to play football that is the most important and it was not difficult for me to make the decision, I'm happy that I'm here and I'm enjoying it at the club. I don't know how things are at City at the moment. They buy too many players and before, everything in the changing room was not perfect but here it is. It is like we are a family - we play snooker, billiards and ping pong; in training everyone is laughing and this is important in football.
"Every manager is different, I have changed managers so many times in my career. But I've worked with Owen for two months and he is positive and motivated every day, every training session and every game. It is unbelievable what he does for the team and it is very important in football. It's a different situation than at City, they now have money and think they can buy everyone but we have seen in some of the last games that money is not everything. If you don't have a team and don't play together you lose games. It was a difficult situation at City, everything changed after the first year but I don't want to discuss it anymore, I am here now. I don't want to say bad things about the club because they gave me my chance to play in the Premier League and make my name in England."
Among the table tennis and pool tables in Bolton's training complex, there is a detectable feeling of camaraderie, with little whiff of pretention in the air. It can be compared to the style of football that has long been associated with the Trotters. A strong emphasis on teamwork and a no-nonsense approach has proved an efficient formula in recent years. But while Coyle has undoubtedly managed to retain the club's rock-solid team ethic, Petrov feels that Bolton are developing into a more attractive side.
"We still play this [long ball football] a little," Petrov says. "I know how they played before but it's normal when you have two great players in the air like Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies, you want to use them. But it's okay, we can improve that in training and in games also - I think that we have tried to play more good football but we need time because I know for so many years that Bolton played a certain way. It's normal that if you want to make a change it can take time, it won't happen after one month."
On a personal level, Petrov has been disappointed with his form since arriving at the Reebok Stadium but, despite being his own worst critic, is confident that he can rekindle the sort of form that saw him galloping past full-backs, whipping in pinpoint crosses and firing in goals during that first impressive season in England.
"I want to help them and I hope they can score more goals from my crosses. At the moment that's not happening. I am always critical of myself, for me personally if after the game I am not injured I have won! If the team lose obviously I am disappointed but if I go home and my children ask 'how are you dad' and I am fit then I say 'everything is fine'.
"I have had too many problems in the last two years that have cost me too many games and maybe better contracts - I have lost three or four years of non-stop injuries. But that is life. I am not the real Martin Petrov now and I want to improve in training and in games. It is not easy - football is very quick and hard and you must be prepared for this battle. I try and work for that and hopefully I will reach my best form again."
Martin Petrov was speaking on behalf of Bolton's principal sponsor 188BET. The In-Play betting specialists will be offering a huge selection of markets with fantastic odds before and during Bolton's game against Manchester United. Go to www.188BET.com today and back Petrov to score first at 14/1 and then make sure you claim your free £25 bet.