From Montana to the Midlands: Groundswell of support will help Stilian Petrov face his toughest challenge yet

Fans and players paid tribute to Aston Villa's captain in Saturday's match against Chelsea as the popular Bulgarian begins his battle against acute leukaemia
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By John Stammers

During the 19th minute of Aston Villa's 4-2 defeat to Chelsea on Saturday, 34,740 fans stood and applauded one of the most popular figures in football.

Stilian Petrov was diagnosed with acute leukaemia on Friday and while there is no way of imagining how the Bulgarian will begin to deal with the uncertainty that surrounds his career - and, more importantly, his health - it is fair to say the tide of goodwill flowing his way can only aid his cause as he begins the biggest battle of his life.

The Villan's number 19 (hence the minute chosen) was at Villa Park to see the game and to acknowledge the ovation. A message of thanks from the player nicknamed 'Stan' was also announced.

"I would like to thank all of the people who have left messages of support - the response has been overwhelming and I appreciate it very much," one part read.

Plans for the tribute were known before kick-off but, when the moment came with Villa already a goal down, the eruption of emotion was incredible.

The whole stadium was lifted, and not just from the fans physically rising to their feet. The hosts enjoyed a lively spell of possession around that minute, as if the crowd's noise shifted them up the gears.

A view shared by Alex Mcleish, who in his post-match interview stated: "He [Petrov] was in just before kick off and it was great to see him, his presence today inspired a lot of people and the crowd inspired the young players".

The Villa boss is particularly fond of his captain because of his extraordinary winning mentality - something you just have to look back at his career to understand.

Discovered by top Bulgarian scout Dimitar Penev, the man who unearthed Dimitar Berbatov, Petrov moved from PFC Montana to CSKA Sofia as an 18-year-old. With his new club he won the Bulgarian Championship once and the national cup twice, all in the space of three years.

His next move was to Celtic in 1999. The Scottish club was ultimately where the young starlet matured and made his name, although the transition was certainly not an easy one.

Petrov moved to Glasgow unable to speak English and he became severely homesick. To make matters worse, after being signed by John Barnes as a central playmaker, early on he was asked to play in an unfamiliar position at right-back.

APPLAUSE FOR PETROV

ASTON VILLA 2-4 CHELSEA PLAY-BY-PLAY
19' The Villa Park crowd have risen as one in applause for Stilian Petrov. He is visibly moved by the outpouring of affection, standing to return the gesture to the fans - all of them, as the Chelsea supporters join in too.
In order to acclimatise he took the unprecedented measure of opting to work in a friend's burger van to help him overcome the language barrier. The job, however, developed into his own way of joining the community and interacting with fans.

Despite a difficult start, his time at Parkhead was filled with honours; 312 games, 65 goals, four SPL titles and six domestic cups - as well as becoming foreign SPFA Young Player of the Year. All of great annoyance to a certain Rangers boss called McLeish.

It was inevitable that a Premier League club would eventually come calling and in 2006 Aston Villa, then under the management of his former Celtic boss Martin O'Neill, made an offer he could not refuse.

Once more, Petrov had to overcome a shaky start to life at his new club, while his international career took a turn for the worse as well.

Petrov was Bulgaria's captain at the time but, in 2006, he announced he would no longer play as long as Hristo Stoichkov - his playing idol - was in charge. He has since returned to the international scene, notching over 100 appearances and regaining the armband.

Back at Villa, a contender for goal of the season against Derby County in 2008 certainly helped his popularity, but he was also named captain for the first time, against Bulgarian side Litex Lovech, in the same year.

But perhaps the honours that define him the most are his players' and supporters' Player of the Year awards in 2009. They are the ones that hint at his character and commitment.

Now the full-time club captain, Petrov has again become a key member of the squad. Away from the pitch the 32-year-old is also a patron of  Football Saving Lives, an HIV-awareness charity - yet another testament to his drive to give back to the community.

And that brings us to today. Just two weeks after Fabrice Muamba's collapse, the beautiful game has suffered another tragedy.

But not all is gloomy. The Bolton man is recovering steadily, and Petrov revealed in his message to the fans that he is encouraged by the remarkable story: "I saw the picture released yesterday by Fabrice Muamba, my fellow player, and it has inspired me, as has all of the support in the past 24 hours."

Sometimes footballers can seem a world apart, but one thing that McLeish said summed up the feeling at Villa Park: "When Stan [Petrov] was with all the boys, they weren't quite sure whether to applaud, cry or hug him, but he shook everyone's hand and everybody embraced him."

The situation at Aston Villa football club is unimaginable, but the truth is that Petrov does now face the toughest challenge of his life.

However, that 19th minute tribute encapsulated the widespread feeling of fans; it's impossible to know what to Petrov is feeling, but football will support him every step of the way.