From the distance of time, the Bulgarian championship appears in good health, even at its peak – 40 clubs in the second division (soon to be increased to 44), and dramatic first division championship, decided in the last round. And the decisive match was a derby between the best clubs – Levski-Spartak and CSKA. But numbers and drama look better now then in real time. Second division clearly indicated stagnation – the league, divided into two groups of 20 each, provided mostly a room for so-so teams. With two-three good players they were able to stay in mid-table for years. Hardly any club really tried to build a strong squad – the solution of any problem was simply getting a couple of good players from elsewhere. In turn, many players preferred to offer their services to some unambitious small club and live in tranquility for awhile, knowing that no much effort was required from them. With good players dispersed among 40 clubs, there was no concentration of talent anywhere and even the winners were shaky. This affected the quality of first division as well, for the newly promoted clubs were seen as outsiders and likeliest candidates for relegation the next year. Meantime, a few previously strong clubs were in decline and the promising young squads of others were simply that – a promise. The biggest two suffered as well – both had hard time finding new strong players, the rebuilding of CSKA was not going well for quite some time, and now Levski had similar problem. And climbing to the top of the pyramid, the problems were very clear – the Bulgarian national team suffered defeats and was very unstable. Players came and went, often old ‘discarded’ stars were recalled again in desperation. The dramatic end of the championship was great, but hardly enough to cover deeply embedded ills.
The Southern Second Division was ‘decided’ even before the championship started: there was no competition. The few clubs from big cities, which played top league, did that in very distant time and were in decline for years. No other club was rising… thus Minyor (Pernik), relegated in 1977 from top flight, was seen as a sure winner. Of course, there were ups and downs in the league: Rozova dolina (Kazanlak) was steadily among the best teams for a third consecutive season. Dimitrovgrad, once upon a time a member of first division, also climbed up. Another club from a small town, Chepinetz (Velingrad), bravely competed for second place – and lost it to Dimitrovgrad on goal-difference. But none was a potential candidate for promotion and the reason was obvious, when one looks at their squads: Dimitrovgrad depended on two players – the defender Rasho Rashev (formerly of Beroe) and Stoil Trankov (one of the ‘eternal’ reserves of CSKA in the early 1970s). A third player eventually had a very strong season – the 20-years old goalkeeper Vlado Delchev, who was in CSKA the year before, but never played a match and was dispatched to second division. It was clear that Delchev was not going to stay in Dimitrovgrad – and he did not. Rozova dolina was the same – two or three known names, who did not make it in top flight, but had enough talent and experience to keep the team among the top. Chepinetz was the same – the veteran defender Vangel Delev was their star, playing his last days after years with Trakia (Plovdiv). The rest of the league was the same, which pretty much explains why clubs from small towns performed relatively well.
Clubs like Slivnishky geroy (Slivnitza). They finished 9th, which was yet another solid season for them. For a small city, it was great – they were among the good teams in the second division and dreaming of something bigger was unrealistic. As long as they were not threatened with relegation, everything was fine.
No wonder Minyor (Pernik) were considered without competition: to the two-three ‘stars’ of the other clubs, they opposed astonishing number of 7, including one the best Bulgarian sweepers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Evlogy Banchev, often included in the national team. Sheer numbers made the difference… Minyor won as predicted, leaving the rest of the league far behind, and securing promotion earlier than the winners of the Northern group. Confident superiority? By the numbers – yes. Minyor finished with 50 points, 6 more than second placed Dimitrovgrad. They also scored the most goals in both second division groups – 71.
The team returning to top flight after 2 years in the purgatory. Dressed in unusual white shirts too – actually, the coaches are dressed in the standard yellow-black. Curiously, Malinov is the captain here – not Banchev, who captained them for years. Standing from left: Dimitar Kontev – coach, Amgel Slavov, Evlogy Banchev, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, Simeon Velinov, Krassimir Kovachev, Vladimir Naydenov, Georgy Ganev, Ivan Todorov, Slave Malinov, Petar Stefanov – assistant coach.
First row: Svetlin Slavov, Grigor Grigorov, Georgy Yordanov, Valentin Boyanov, Lyusien Baltov, Georgy Dorbrev, Zhorzh Staykov, Krassimir Kirilov.
The winners were not really strong and their potential was more than questionable. In post-season interview, their coach Kontev spoke with more than reservations: the key note of his answers was instability and he listed about half of his starters as moody. He praised only his three stars – Banchev, Yordanov,and Slavov, and cautiously spoke of the future – his players were young, he said, they had some potential which could be developed. He hoped not to make some impact in first division, but to survive. The uneven squad forced the coach to use very unusual tactical scheme – unusual for late 70s, unusual for a winning team, and unusual even for the traditions of Minyor:
5-3-2, with 2 sweepers, center-forward moved back as playmaker, and no left winger. Kontev hardly had a better option… his stars were aging, his better players were defenders, and he had a goalkeeper, described largely as ‘a good person’. At 28, Naydenov had plenty of experience, but his best days were already in quite a distant past – 4 years ago. He settled for comfortable mediocrity, knowing very well that he had no competition. Malinov, #2, was formerly a right full back, transformed into a sweeper. 33-years old, he was one of the most experienced players of the team with over 200 matches in first division. Tall and with intimidating look, Malinov was actually not tough defender at all and was afraid of moving into attack. Very rarely and reluctantly he joined attacking efforts, preferring to stay deep back. The other sweeper was entirely different – Banchev, also 33 years old with 200 matches in top flight, was not only a great defender, but a modern one too – he frequently went ahead and scored goals. Normally he played with number 3, but for some reason used number 5 this season. Long time captain of the team and inspiring leader, Banchev was one of the only three players really praised by their coach. As for the unusual duo of sweepers, the reason most likely was aging and the absence of good playmaker – Kontev had to improvise and with Malinov firmly in the back there was a sense of security. Banchev was free to go ahead and help midfield and attack and if slow in returning, there was a cover. Ganev, #3, was the right full back. 25-years old, he was half-praised by Kontev for having no problems with his form. Alas, his abilities were limited… he was already considered run-of-the-mill player, reaching his best a few years back when he played briefly for Levski. The left full back was a trouble – Todorov was considered a regular, his greatest asset was energetic play. However, an injury took him out for a bit of the season. He never established himself as firm regular – and was dismissed after the end of the season. The midfield was entirely uncertain – Dobrev, #8, was placed as something between a stopper and defensive midfielder. Like Ganev, he played for Levski a few years back and let go – at 24, he was also run-of-the-mill and nothing better was expected of him. As a playmaker, he was nothing – perhaps that’s why Kontev moved him further back. Kovachev (#11) and Boyanov (#6) were playing at the sides of the midfield line – both were young: Kovachev was only 20, and Boyanov – 22 – but not really promising players. They also lacked experience. Kovachev was more attacking kind of midfielder, Boyanov struggled to keep regular place. With shaky and pedestrian midfielders, the center-forward Yordanov (#9) was moved back to organize attacks. Partly, the move was dictated by his age – at 31 he was no longer the energetic striker of few years back. Vastly experienced with nearly 250 first division appearances in whihche scored about 70 goals, he contributed still well to the team’s effort, but there was a bitter taste too: without him in front, Minyor’s attack was less dangerous. With him in front … he was getting slow and not effective as before, but the real trouble was that there was nobody to actually organize attacks and give him a ball to score. At the end, Yordanov played back, as a midfielder, which left the attack disjointed – there was no center-forward and the left wing Angel Slavov (#10) was given freedom to operate on vast front, covering as center-forward. 26- years old, technical, strong, and very dependable player Slavov was one of the stars of Minyor and adored by fans. A star, but a local one… his perhaps greatest time was 4 years back, when he was taken by CSKA. And soon dismissed… May be not star on national scale, but certainly the best striker Minyor had – he scored a lot and generally was the most dangerous player of the team. The other striker was a right winger – 22-years old Baltov, who showed some promise, but was not expected to become a great player. To a point, he was just completing the starting team, stitched to the right wing, which limited the strength of the attack: better defenses concentrated on Slavov, and with him covered well, Baltov was rather useless – he was not a scorer, nor skillful enough to penetrate the enemy lines. He was mostly running on the wing and passing a high ball in front of the gate – monotonous, predictable, and hardly dangerous. The reserves were even weaker than the starters – only one was regularly used. Grigor Grigorov, a versatile player, able to play as a left full back and as midfielder, 21 years old. A physical player, hearty, usually in excellent condition, but lacking technical skills. Age was not the whole reason he was left as back-up player – rather, the constant problems of a moody and not so great squad. He was the only one able to cover different positions – so Kontev used him wherever there was an urgent need. Without even slightest competition in the second division, Minyor’s squad and tactics worked, but it was clear the club urgently needed new players – and many. The veterans were inevitably approaching retirement and there was nothing much behind them. Not even reserves at the weak level of the regulars. In fact, only one player became a known name – Grigor Grigorov. The rest were quickly forgotten.