Climbing slowly up to the real thing – the race for the title. A bit unusual one this year – the eternal candidates CSKA and Levski were here of course, but the real battle was not between them. Rather, it was, but not directly. Depending on opinion, it was either a great triumph of the underdog, or sneaky scheming of Levski against CSKA handing the title to a third party. Backroom scheming is never absent in football, but the season can be called crooked – the champions were the most consistent during the season and Levski and CSKA were both shaky. In fact, Levski was out of the race entirely – they finished 4th in the fall, 4 points behind the leaders and the best they were able to do in the spring was to climb one place higher. They were never able to really aim at the title – a disappointing season for the champions of 1976-77. Strange season too, affecting performance – Levski was in very promising form at the beginning of the championship, but not for long. Not everything was in their own hands, though – something disturbed their plans. Not a great excuse, but the event is interesting in itself and also affected the championship to some degree.
Levski-Spartak 1977-78: sitting from left: Ivan Tishansky, Todor Barzov, Voyn Voynov, Krassimir Borisov, Stefan Aladzhov, Stefan Pavlov.
Middle row: Aleksandar Kostov – assistant coach, Tomas Lafchis, Georgy Todorov, Vladimir Nikolchev, Ivan Vutzov – coach, Georgy Krastev, Dimitar Enchev, Stefan Staykov, Lyudmil Goranov – assistant coach.
Third row: Kiril Ivkov, Plamen Nikolov, Nikolay Grancharov, Emil Spassov, Angel Stankov, Pavel Panov.
Strange things started in the summer between seasons – the coach Vassil Spassov, who just made Levski-Spartak champions, was replaced by Ivan Vutzov. The possible explanation was the need of rebuilding: the squad aged both as a squad and as individual players. Spassov, an old coach, was perhaps considered too old-fashioned for the delicate exercise. Vutzov was in his mid-30s and representing modern vision, at least in theory. His qualities were doubted among the fans – he already coached Levski in 1974-75, when he was established at the helm in mid-season practically without any coaching experience. He kind of saved the season, but did not last. Nothing really distinguished him so far – his age was more or less the only quality to speak of. He had more experience by now, but nothing remarkable. Vutzov kept his former teammate Aleksandar Kostov as an assistant coach – the same position he had the year before – and for many he was the real coach: Kostov, one of the all-time heroes of Levski’s fans, was fondly remembered for his cunning. The fans believed him to be the same cunning coach as he was a player, and the one really discovering winning strategies. Vutzov was thought head coach on paper only. But he added another assistant coach – the former Akademik Sofia goalkeeper Lyudmil Goranov. He just finished his playing career, so lacked coaching experience yet, but he was also very young and perhaps well versed in modern football. In general, the coaching staff had to prove themselves worthy for the club – which meant winning the title. The first step was a bit shaky, but deemed in the right direction: six players were released – the veterans Milko Gaydarsky, Ivan Soyanov, and Georgy Tzvetkov; the good, but often injured goalkeeper Nikolay Iliev; and the reserves Blagoy Krastanov and Valentin Chaushev. It appeared right – perhaps there were some reservations about Stoyanov, who lost his regular place, but was always dependable player. He was not all that old and may be should have been kept for a back-up of Todor Barzov, but at the end – no really big deal. The new recruits were met with mixed feelings: Tomas Lafchis (19) came from the club’s youth system – he was already known to the fans and considered great talent. Actually, he was kept in the junior team a bit longer because he needed to play and there was no chance in the men’s team so far. Fans liked his inclusion partly because traditionally Levski’s strength was based on home-grown players, ‘true blue’ since childhood. The fans resented the change introduced after the forced merger with the Police club Spartak – juniors were no longer the primary source. Levski-Spartak employed the practice of CSKA – recruit by hook or crook talent from elsewhere. Lafchis was the only third home-made talent to become a starter since 1970 (and may be only the second, for Voyn Voynov had a brief spell with second division club before called back to Levski-Spartak). Dimitar Enchev (22) from ZhSK Spartak (Varna) and Plamen Nikolov (20) from Spartak (Pleven) were also greeted with enthusiasm – both were more than promising players – actually, they already were solid regulars in their former clubs and given their age, more than promising players – they were becoming quickly sure stars. It was also clear who they came to replace – the aging Kiril Ivkov and Stefan Aladzhov. Not right away, but to be solid and competitive reserves, becoming under the guidance of the veterans excellent regulars in the next year. The last newcomer was unknown, considered at first just a reserve player – the name Angel Stankov meant nothing. He came from the second-division Bdin (Vidin), but actually he was with Akademik (Sofia) before playing for Bdin. Few even noticed Stankov when he was in Akademik – he played a grand total of one match. His contribution was largely on paper – on team photos. True, he had tough competition, for those were the strongest years of Akademik, but it was also source for grave doubts: what kind of player this Stankov could be, if at 24 years he had a single appearance in first division and not considered even among the list of game reserves in Akademik? They still had another like this one (look back to Akademik for Gyorev) – useful only to photographers. Stankov was seen like few others before him – Blagoy Krastanov, Ognyan Bochev, Tchavdar Trifonov – strikers, coming from nowhere, impressing no one, and let go the next year. The newcomers seemingly strengthened the defense, but there were no such additions to the other lines – true, the defense needed badly fresh players, but there was also need of good midfielders and strikers, if a new team was to be built. A bit strange recruits, but the team was looking strong enough – at least for the new season. There was a dark spot, but considered only a temporary problem – the ban of Kiril Milanov. This proved to be the biggest problem at the end, for new strikers were not actively searched for in the summer precisely because Levski had Milanov. When it became clear that actually they don’t have him, it was way too late… the season was practically lost.
The problem started in the spring of 1977, at the Cup final between Levski-Spartak and Lokomotiv (Sofia). Since Levski was trying to win the championship, a backroom deal was made – the suits running Levski-Spartak proposed a little deal to their brothers running Lokomotiv: take it easy in our championship match, thus, helping us to win the title and we will make you no difficulty at the Cup final. The title for us and the Cup for you. Done deal. It was not even looking suspicious, for normally Levski won their matches with Lokomotiv. When the Cup final came, the championship match was already played as agreed and suddenly the blue brass developed new ideas… but they did not share them with neither Lokomotiv, nor their own players. Levski’s team learned that they must win the Cup too just before the game started. The team captain Kiril Ivkov was charged to deliver the news to Lokomotiv – and this happened when both teams were walking together to the pitch. Ivkov, a polite and mellow man, embarrassed and trying to apologize told Lokomotiv’s captain Atanas Mikhailov that Levski was ordered to play the final for real. Sorry, mate, but the deal is off and we have to win. Naturally, Lokomotiv’s players were enraged – and the final was marred by hostility and violence. Levski won, but the fracas were noticed by eyes hostile to Levski and especially hating their centre-forward Milanov. The match provided good reason – one of the most enraged players of Lokomotiv was their central defender Yordan ‘Bumbo’ Stoykov, a fiery character, often playing rough, and great collector of yellow and red cards for both brutal fouls and misbehaving. His direct opponent was Kiril Milanov, not a lamb either. Short-tempered, rough with defenders, no stranger to scandals and often penalized. The collision between the two was perhaps unavoidable even if the original aggreement was honored, but now there was not even a slightest possibility for peaceful co-existence. Technically, Stoykov started the problems and Milanov retaliated. Both were yellow-carted, but their conduct was unsportsmenship by any definition. The Communist system added its own addition to that: it was a behaviour unbecoming to ‘socialist sportsmen’ and disgrace to such esteemed final for the trophy donated by the Soviet Army. The players were to be penalized for tainting the final… but only Milanov was penalized: he was banished for life! There was no mystery who was behind the verdict – Milko Balev, one of the most powerful figures in the Bulgarian Communist Party and government. He was a big CSKA fan and hated Levki with equal passion. And he also hated Kiril Milanov for years – since the time when Milanov was young striker of Marek who refused to follow orders and played seriously against CSKA when the team was to take it easy and save their strength for other teams. Balev never forgot those old troubles, but more was added when Milanov joined Levski and became a menace for the Army defense. Now great opportunity to eliminate him emerged and Balev used it – he used his clout and the football federation banned Milanov for life. Levski were not very concerned at first – such bans were handed often, but later reversed. No player ever was really banned for good – after awhile they were back on the pitch. Milanov was frequently suspended anyway, so now it was a bit more serious penalty given, but soon the emotion will cool down and everything will go back to normal. Levski too had powerful supporters in the highest party echelons and the Police itself was strong enough force. Levski were seemingly so sure that the ban was no more than a joke that they even did not protest the fact that Stoykov was not penalized at all. Levksi were so certain the ban cannot be anything but temporary that Milanov not only trained with the team, but was fielded against Ajax (Amsterdam) in the 1/8 finals of the European Champions Cur – he was banned in Bulgaria, but not in Europe. Nobody even consider that Milanov was playing his very last match in Amsterdam on November 2, 1977.
Milanov, number 9, fighting for the high ball with Dutch defender in the home game against Ajax on October 19,1977. Two weeks later he played his last match in Amsterdam, scoring his last goal. Levski lost both legs and was eliminated – may this also contributed to Milanov’s undoing. If Levski qualified, the ¼ finals were in the spring of 1978, giving more time for maneuvers and using the importance of international success for further elevating the authority of the ‘socialist way of life’ as a possible lever for lifting the ban. Unfortunately, there was no time… Perhaps Milko Balev was too strong an enemy and he was not alone – the powerful Army lobby, led by the Minister of Defense himself, was certainly helping him. May be Levski’s lobby was not equally strong. May be they did not took the threat seriously and did not make a big effort to save the player. May be they decided Milanov was too old anyway to be worth the effort – he was 30 at the time and in the big scheming his age was taken into consideration. But since his permanent absence was not counted on in the summer, Levski faced a big problem – the club traditionally depend on strong classic centre-forward. Two of them were released in the summer – Tzvetkov and Krastanov. The reasons were plausible, but the decision was also based on the fact that Milanov was to play soon. The illusion lasted until the summer of 1978, if not even longer, but Levski was without centre-forward. The young former junior of the club Georgy Todorov was clearly not a starter – a reserve at best, and even as a reserve he did not last long. The unknown Angel Stankov was clearly brought with the same idea – as a reserve of Milanov. He was not a typical centre-forward on top of everything. The team suffered surely, but there was ironic benefit too – this very Stankov suddenly became a starter and he used his lucky opportunity very well: he was one of the most exciting players of Levski this season and was included in the national team . What a surprise he was, but not a full remedy… Levski had to improvise for the most of the season, using him, Todorov, and the attacking midfielder Yordan Yordanov as centre-forwards. None was really convincing at the role… and the situation was gravely aggravated by string of injuires, the most important one was the broken leg of Pavel Panov, the star attacking midfielder of the team, who was able to maintain the quality of the weakened attack. But he was injured in the first leg with Ajax and was out for six months – that is, to the end of the season. Things were really bad at the last ever match Milanov played – Levski travelled with only 12 available players to Amsterdam. Two goalies and ten field players… the great joker Aleksandar Kostov was not joking when he proposed to Vutzov both dress for the match and list themselves as reserves. At least Milnaov’s career ended with a goal against Ajax on their home turf, but Levski lost the season. As the rumor goes since then, they did one thing – Levski supposedly gave important points to Lokomotiv Sofia in the spring. A late compensation for the treachery the previous year? Or the usual revenge on CSKA, self-serving at the bottom – whoever else a champion, as long as it is not the arch-enemy.
CSKA ‘Septemvriisko zname” finished second. They had high hopes for winning the title for the most of the season, although the team struggled often and seemingly the efforts of building a new team, started in 1975 were still not satisfying. CSKA was second in the fall, trailing two points behind the leaders. However, they lost 5 matches – a high number for CSKA, suggesting that the team was not so great. They were stronger in the spring, losing only 2 matches – but the competition lost only one! To a point, Levski contributed to CSKA’a misery: in the fall, Levski destroyed CSKA 4-1. In the spring the second leg ended 2-2. And most of all, Levski did not play seriously against Lokomotiv, helping them with easy, but very needed point. CSKA fans cry foul ever since, but more on principle than with real indignation – truly, CSKA had not a great team and lost the title mostly because of its own weakness. It was still a time of trying and erring, mostly erring… players were recruited one after another, but no solid new team emerged. Risks were taken, some experiments were disappointing, there were permanent problems with no easy solutions. Nikola Kovachev was once again coaching CSKA, but he was fired quickly the first time he did in 1974. Another former CSKA player was tried too – Sergy Yotzov, very successful with Sliven, but not in CSKA. Kovachev replaced him, but it was clear that he was a temporary solution until the needed man is discovered. There was no suitable man… Kovachev stayed. Some of the players stayed too in similar situation and the team was a bit uncertain of their future, a little misshaped, desperately searching for players and right chemistry.
On paper – strong names… but not on the field. Crouching from left: Tzonyo Vassilev, Borislav Sredkov, Plamen Markov, Dimitar Dimitrov, Stefan Stefanov, Tzvetan Yonchev.
Middle row: Svetlin Mirchev, Valery Peychev, Spas Dzhevizov, Bozhil Kolev, Milen Goranov, Ivan Zafirov.
Third row: Boris Manolkov, Nikola Christov, Georgy Denev, Georgy Dimitrov, Todor Atanassov, Ivan Metodiev, Angel Rangelov, Yordan Filipov.
Well, almost a whole squad of national team players… only Stefanov, Atanassov, and Peychev never played for Bulgaria. However, these guys did not play at the same time in the national team – some were getting old by now, others were still too young, and a third group were getting a bit downhill for one or another reason. The first problem was the goalkeeper – CSKA depended since mid-1960s on two national team players: Stoyan Yordanov and Yordan Filipov. The duo served its purpose well – both players were given to certain collapses of form, so it was easy to change the one with other who as a rule would be in great form. Filipov had disciplinary problems and was often penalized by the club, but every time he came back determined to prove his worth, so generally the club benefited by his misbehaving. But the goalies were of the same generation and getting dangerously old. Two young talents were recruited in the hope of replacing the veterans – Boris Manolkov from Lokomotiv Sofia and Ivan Kamarashev from Yantra Gabrovo. Both arrived in 1975 and so far made only one thing clear: that they were not going to be great. Thus, Yordanov and Filipov were also kept – and played. Yordanov was finally released in the summer of 1977 – he went to Sliven. Filipov remained, a forth keeper was also included – Vlado Delchev, 19-years old debutant. He did not play a single minute this season and had to move elsewhere, but his bad luck was somewhat sealed this very year: in the beginning of the 1980s he went to Levksi and was great between the posts. But… even better keeper started the very year he arrived and Delchev spent almost the whole of his career as a back-up goalie, sitting year after year on the bench. CSKA never even tried him in 1977-78. But that time Kamarashev was also deemed hopeless and rarely listed even among the reserves. Manolkov and Filipov rotated – Manolkov was tried again and again in the hope that he will finally satisfy, but soon had to be replaced by the old Filipov. Once a starter, Filipov was almost called back to the national team, but he was a starter for long… Manolkov was tried stubbornly again, and so the rotation went on and on. Rather perplexing, but clearly CSKA needed younger keeper. Old players are not forever – wise idea? Well, Filipov was still only 31 years old. Yes, he retired… at 40 and although he played elsewhere for awhile, at the end he retired as CSKA player. But goalkeeping was a big headache between 1975 and 1979. No solution in this department. Defense was aging too – the full backs, although strong, needed back ups with strong potential. So far – nobody. Ivan Zafirov, 30 years old and no longer called to the national team was still solid and reliable, but getting a bit slower, so the advantage of him doubling as a surprise right winger was lost. Tzonyo Vassilev was a national team regular and only 25 years old – unfortunately, he was too much related to the previous squad, which was still to be completely replaced . There was another problem – finding him a place: when he joined CSKA he was converted from a sweeper to left full back. There he stayed, but CSKA had no sweeper or libero left by 1977 – so, there was a temptation to move him to his original position, but no clear decision was made – if moved, then there was no left full back and also Bozhil Kolev, himself converted into a libero, had to be moved ahead. Who was more useful at what position was a question to which Kovachev did not find an answer – the result was uncertain and frequently changed defense in front of frequently changed and uncertain goalkeeper. The instability was further fueled by the abundance of stoppers – Angel Rangelov was solid, a national team player, and only 25 years old. But there were two others… Georgy Dimitrov – the future captain of both CSKA and Bulgaria was only 18, but eager to be a starter. The 22-years old Georgy Iliev was also in the team after impressive spell with Sliven (like Rangelov, he was a product of CSKA youth system, sent to Sliven at first. Actually, he replaced Rangelov there when he was called back to CSKA.) Three players competing for one position… hard to choose because they were young. Strangely similar players too – all three were fiery and ill-tempered, played dirty more often than necessary, argued with referees, went into fights on the first occasion and, as a result, were suspended and penalized with astonishing regularity. Thiswas perhaps the biggest problem for a coach – to chose one of them as a regular and dismiss the others meant to be without solid central defender often because of suspensions. But to keep so talented players as mere reserves was not a solution either… Iliev was the least gifted of the trio and he was eventually returned to Sliven (and later called back to CSKA again). He was also tried at other positions – in midfield and as a full back – but he was not so good there. The midfield was getting old too – Dimitar Dimitrov was 28, Georgy Denev – 27, Bozhil Kolev – 28. Dimitrov and Denev were no longer improving, they reached their limits some time ago, and it was clear that their main role was to help with experience and inspire the youngsters. For now… they were to be dismissed soon, it was obvious, but it was also obvious that as long as Denev was in the squad, it will be impossible to bench him no matter how he played – he was prone to scandals, had old supporters in the team, and the fans generally liked him. Unfortunately, his egoistic play was becoming increasingly counter-productive to the team. Bozhil Kolev was at his best on the other hand – it could be said that he was the key player, the engine of CSKA since 1974. Originally a defensive midfielder, he expanded, covering the whole field, conducting the game, and scoring goals. To make him a playmaker was not really a solution because it would immediately crowd the central zone – other players operated there too – and it looked like the best was to convert him into a libero. But no conclusive decision was made, so Kolev also appeared in different positions, thus, preventing the building of both strong defensive and midfield lines. The worst was that CSKA had no other defensive midfielder in the squad – Iliev was tried, sometimes Peychev, ultimately, there was no one, so Kolev was often used at his original position to everybody’s regret, for the creative strength of the team was immediately weakened. The havoc in midfield was still great – Dimitar Dimitrov, Plamen Markov, and Milen Goranov were constantly rotated because they were rather similar attacking midfielders, but the left side position was reserved for Denev and they were tried as playmakers and even as centre-forwards. None was matching the vision and the creativity of Bozhil Kolev, but if some of them was placed in the centre of midfield, Kolev automatically had to be moved back. Constant changes were more confusing than positive, and there was no end to them – Dzhevizov was still a bit shaky, but he was just a classic centre-forward and useless anywhere else. So, if he played – and Kovachev was constantly tempted to filed him, for he was the only pure centre-forward, big, difficult to press, perhaps the only player in the team really strong (although not very efficient) in the air, only 22 years old with great coring potential – then the whole team had to be reshaped (Milen Goranov moved back to midfield, immediately affecting the positions and reducing the effectiveness of Markov and Kolev). Perhaps in hope of establishing some stability at last the 26-years old centre-forward Nikola Christov was brought in the winter break from Dunav (Rousse). Like Dzhevizov, he was useless at any other position, so his presence only increased the confusion. Finally, there was no right-winger… the unknown Stefanov showed some promising flashes, but it became quickly clear he was not to be a star. The squad was misbalanced – questionable players at some posts, crowding at others, none for yet other positions. CSKA struggled never finding the right formation or any stability. May be finishing second was just too good for this confused squad – but given the weaknesses of others, particularly Levski-Spartak and Slavia, they were still candidates for the title and missed it by very little.
The most consistent team won the title – Lokomotiv (Sofia). They were first at the end of the fall and maintained the place to the end. In the spring half they lost only one match. In total, they lost only 4 matches – CSKA and Levski-Spartak, sharing the next best record lost almost twice as many games – 7 each. Even the help provided by Levski did not really taint the champions – they were deserving champions. Their kind of game was perhaps not everybody’s liking, but it was interesting tactic for it was designed to get the best of rather limited potential of the squad. Lokomotiv was the poorest of the big clubs of Sofia, ranking forth for years. They had no chance of competing for players with CSKA and Levski-Spartak and their ‘sponsors’ – the Army and the Police. Since 1970 Lokomotiv was not able to compete even with Slavia – they had good players, but not the best and generally had to take whoever the other clubs were not interested of. Winning the title was fantastic – Lokomotiv did not win a championship since 1964. At least they were more successful than Slavia – since the beginning of Communist rule in 1944 Lokomotiv won the championship twice – Slavia had nothing. The number was small, but that is why mentioning Communism is important: the system did not tolerate independence and equality. The ‘official’ clubs dominated all sports, including football. It was the Army and the Police. Period. Only three other clubs managed to win championships so far – Spartak (Plovdiv), Botev (Plovdiv), and Lokomotiv (Sofia). All paid dearly for disturbing the status quo – Spartak and Botev were merged and the names obliterated: there was Trakia (Plovidiv) since 1967. Lokomotiv was merged with Slavia in 1968 (since everybody involved with the original clubs hated the merger tremendously, they managed to break it and restore the original clubs). After the forced merging ending the ‘rebellious’ 1960s Lokomotiv was the first and so far the only club breaking the duopoly of Army and Police – CSKA and Levski-Spartak. It was great not only for the fans of ‘railroad workers’ club. To a point, it was a surprise victory – Lokomotiv, with their limited resources, pretty much settled as a mid-table club. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but when having strong season it translated into 3rd or 4th place, not contesting the title. So even fans did not expect Lokomotiv’s victory.
The squad winning the third title in the history of Lokomotiv: sitting from left: Borislav Dimitrov, Valentin Svilenov, Roumen Manolov, Georgy Bonev, Atanas Mikhailov, Radoslav Zdravkov, Lyuben Traykov, Boycho Velichkov, Ventzislav Arsov, Traycho Sokolov.
Standing: Vassil Metodiev – coach, Georgy Ivanov, Nasko Zhelev, Nikola Spassov, Georgy Stefanov, Nikolay Donev, Roumyancho Goranov, Angel Kolev, Yordan Stoykov, Sasho Kostov, Petar Milanov, Dimitar Donkov – assistant coach.
Well, the previous title was so long most players were too young even to remember it. Nowadays Atanas Mikhailov is considered as part of the 1964 champion team, but this is suspect – he was merely 15 years old at the time. The only sure 1964 champion on the photo is the coach Vassil Metodiev – back then he was tough right full back and member of the national team. As a coach, he was so far relatively unknown – he was just installed as head coach and almost immediately won the title. Since most of the players were familiar names for years and Lokomotiv traditionally played peculiar style, the real contribution of Metodiev was rather fine tuning, not a radical change. Traditionally, Lokomotiv played slightly defensive game, allowing the opposition into their own half, thus looking for counter-attacking opportunities. The ball was quickly given to Atanas ‘Nachko’ Mikhailov and it was up to his great technical skills from there. The players were well prepared for defensive game, so Metodiev only refined the style. It was not exactly a catenaccio, but something without a proper name – most of time the ball stayed in Lokomotiv’s half, if possessed by the opposition, the defenders just tried to kill the attack, but without pressing the other team out of the their half. If the ball was possessed by Lokomotiv, it was just passed around in their own half, inviting the other team to move ahead and press . Once the other half of the field was almost empty, the ball was passed to Mikhailov and he would start his great slalom towards the net. A 1-0 lead of Lokomotiv was almost as if leading by 3 or 4 goals – it practically spelled the end of the match, for their defense was very difficult to beat. The defenders were very cool and never panicked, they were also skilful, so once the ball was theirs the chances of mistaken pass was next to nothing – other teams were often afraid to pass leisurely the ball in front of their own net, but not the guys in red and black. Most of the time the ball was just given to Nachko Mikhailov – he alone was capable to keep it between his legs for long, long time, not necessarily attacking, but rather gathering almost the whole opposite team around himself in an effort of taking the ball from him. But time was ticking in Lokomotiv’s favour during such entertaining for the public performances. There was little wisdom in fouling Nachko – first of all, his stocky body was heavy and tough. It was very difficult to take him down. It was difficult to injure him too. Second and most importantly, he was a fantastic free-kicker. The distance and the angle were not important at all – every free-kick taken by him was extremely dangerous, most often the ball ended in the net. He scored directly from corner-kicks as well. That was the usual style of Lokomotiv – Metodiev simply perfected it. Nachko Mikhailov was left to decide for himself, as ever, the rest of the team was moved as back as possible and let to dance slowly with the ball. Practically one change was made in the starting eleven – the experinced, but middle-of-the-road full back Sasho Kostov was used as a reserve. A new and unknown player was introduced as right full back – Georgy Stefanov, 25 years old with just 2 previous first division matches. He blended well with the rest of the defense: Borislav ‘Boko’ Dimitrov (26) and Yordan ‘Bumbo” Stoykov (26), the pair of central defenders, and Georgy Bonev (23), the left full back.
The trio was at the best age of players, with already plenty of experience with both Lokomotiv and the national team. Behind them was Rumyancho Goranov (27), fully recovered from his psychological collapse at the 1974 World Cup, and not only in great form, but in the national team again. His first name is a bit confusing, for nowadays he is usually written Roumen. Looks like he changed his first name sometime in the 1980s – ‘Rumyancho’ is actually a diminutive of Roumen, the way small kids are called. Very likely his given name, but it did not sound serious for an adult – the reason he changed it, but to the end of the 1970s he was usually listed ‘Rumyancho’. He already had very gifted back-up – Nikolay Donev, 20-years old product of Lokomotiv’s youth system. It was fine for now, but became a problem after a few years – one had to sit on the bench… by then Donev was also national team material, so it was irresolvable problem. The defenders also had back-up – the already mentioned Kostov (28), experienced and capable to cover either full back side, and two home-grown youngsters Nasko Zhelev (17) and Vassil Elenkov (18). The midfield was the same for many years already – Ventzislav Arsov (24), Trayko Sokolov (26), and, nominally, Nachko Mikhailov (28). The trio was very smooth and coordination between them and the defenders was flawless. The nominal strikers were perhaps the least experienced – Angel Kolev (24) was, on paper, the right wing and the mots experienced. Boycho Velichkov (19) was real centre-forward and the newest great talent of the club – he was in his second season and was a regular from the start. He scored a lot, was extremely skilful, and already seen as the new Nachko Mikhailov. The star was also very keen of the youngster and helped him in every possible way – rarely an young broom is given freedom to do whatever he liked on the pitch, but Velichkov enjoyed such a privilege. Like the star, he disliked helping the defense and almost never did – but Lokomotiv style permitted such laziness: their own half was thickly populated and once the ball reached Velichkov a score was more than likely. Radoslav Zdrvakov (21), another Lokomotiv-made youngster was on the left. He already was grizzled regular and scored a lot. With time, he moved back first to midfield and at last as libero, but he was not pure winger even at the beginning – he and Angel Kolev were more like midfielders. Kolev also often moved to play as centre -forward, his original position. The real left winger was the other great discovery of the season – Lyuben Traykov (26), playing already his third season with Lokomotiv, but really blossoming this year. A bit limited, but very fast winger, his major contribution was variety – all clubs were used to a game centered on Nachko Mikhailov, almost inevitably slow, even the couter-attacks, for Mikhailov was slow and he never passed the ball when attacking. Traykov provided surprising speed and different angle of attack – to the opposition’s surprize, the danger was suddenly coming from the left. Concentration on the winger was immediately opening empty space in front of the net, where Velichkov was suddenly free. Or Mikhailov, if the ball was passed a bit back. Small squad really, but Metodiev used it in the full: tactical variety was added in attack, and although the dominant approach was defensive, careful play, looking for mistakes to be used immediately, Lokomotiv was able to change tactics and thus surprize the opposition with the unexpected – their dominant scheme was something like 4-5-1, but they were able to switch quickly to 4-4-2 and 4-4-3. Surprise was what Metodiev added to this team – same players suddenly moving to different positions, then going back to their usual and expected play. It worked – Lokomotiv did not score lots of goals: only 40 in 30 games, but they won 16 and tied 10 matches. Their defense was not brutal, yet, extremely effective – they allowed only 16 goals in the championship: one goal in two games! Luck had its role too – for a small squad injuries are very dangerous. Levski-Spartak in part suffered this year because of injuries, particularly the broken leg of their star player Panov – Lokomotiv were lucky to escape injuries. The next big danger was players leaving – it was clear that to stay on top they not only needed to keep their regular players, but also to add a few strong additions. But this was only a dream… Lokomotiv was not a club able to get whoever they want. They were also not in a position to keep their talent… Zdravkov was soon tempted by CSKA and left the club. Lokomotiv did not permit the move and the player was suspended for awhile, but he did not return. So Lokomotiv had no chance to become a permanent force – which made their victory even more precious: they won with tiny squad and very limited resources. Luckily, it was a talented bunch – 11 players played for the national team at one or another time. Small is beautiful.
And a bit of trivia: ‘Bumbo’ Stoykov, whose rage led to the fracas with Kiril Milanov at the 1976 Cup final enjoyed a fine 1977-78 season. Milanov, as already mentioned, was banned for life – Bumbo was not. Strange this, since the backroom agreement between Levski and Lokomotiv was not made public, nor the treachery of Levski’s bosses. Thus, what happened on the pitch was provoked by Stoykov – technically, he was the culprit and main villain. Milanov was only guilty of retaliation. Stoykov had to be suspended more severely than Milanov – why he was not is obvious: Milanov was a victim of personal vendetta in which Stoykov did not figure. Fine. But he was notorious troublemaker – rough, perhaps the only dirty (on occasion) player of Lokomotiv, ready to fight both physically and verbally. Frequently suspended as a result – along with Nachko Mikhailov, he was not a dirty player, but always argued with referees. In 1977-78 Stoykov was for a long time one of the prime candidates for the individual sportsmanship award – there was such strange prize during Communist years and all players got points for their conduct in every game. Out of the blue, Bumbo scored high and this was both ironic (given the fate of Milanov) and amusing – the defender did not change a tiny bit of his habits. It may had been weird to Stoykov himself and may be he took care to correct the situation – a yellow card here, a little kick there, a bit of swearing at the referee, and he was out of the list of exemplary players. But even if he won the prize, it would not have been a precedent – a brutal player already won it in 1969. Stoykov was not even close to the animal on the pitch Sapinev was.