First Division. Back to the familiar ‘normal’… a battle between Levski and CSKA, no matter what their current names, and the rest far behind. Perhaps Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) sums the situation: Georgy Vassilev was already recognized as one of the leading coaches in Bulgaria and he had Krassimir Balakov, Trifon Ivanov, Illian Kiryakov, and Boncho Genchev, the first three already playing for tha national team. Tzanko Tzvetanov was just added to the squad from the Etar’s youth team. Etar played formidably at home – 10 wins and 5 ties. Away… a total disaster: 14 lost games and 1 tie. The worst away record in the league! That was the big return to the old tradition… the two grands dominating and the rest playing with care only at home, looking to secure mid-table position and nothing more. Why bother when the top is reserved and nobody else could win anything? Why bother when your efforts will be cut off by legal or illegal means? The two grands had too powerful official backup to dare challenging them… and the whole game suffered as a result. But the game was played, it had its ups and downs and interesting moments.
Spartak (Pleven) – last with 21 points and relegated. True, the peak of the team passed about 3 years ago, but looking at the squad it is hard to believe they were so bad. Top row from left: Marius Urukov, Harry Kazakov, Angel Marinov, Georgi Tzvetanov, Blagovest Petkov, Veni Nikolov, Kalin Pekhlivanski.
Middle row: Dinko Dermedzhiev – coach, Dimitar Todorov, Robert Petrov, Yulian Garev, Emil Minchev, Aleksander Markov, Vachko Marinov – assistant coach.
Front: Emil Tzvetanov, Milko Gavrailov, Plamen Getov, Marcho Bogdanov, Ruzhdi (at the time renamed Ruzhen) Kerimov, Metodi Tomanov, Zhivko Gospodinov.
Plamen Getov one of the best and perhaps the most entertaining Bulgarian player of the 1980s, Zhivko Gospodinov, who along with Getov played at he 1986 World Cup, Ruzhdi Kerimov and Aleksandar Markov, former national teams players, when playing for CSKA and Lokomotiv (Sofia). Plenty of experienced players: Tomanov (formerly of CSKA), Bogdanov (formerly of Lokomotiv Sofia), Kazakov, Nikolov, Garev; promising young talent – Urukov and Petkov; a coach already considered among the best – Dinko Dermendzhiev – with well respected experienced assistant… hardly the names to go down. Most likely the problem of Spartak was that they built their strong team of the first half of the 1980s on a core of experienced players from elsewhere – that approach continued, replacing aging players with other veterans from out of town. Such approach in entirely risky and backfires in a long run: new recruits tend to become older, burnt out, and of lesser quality. Along them local classy players age and settle in comfortable mediocrity – 7-8 years ago both goalkeepers, Kazakov and Nikolov, were hailed as incredibly promising, possibly even a national team material. Right now they were just experienced and somewhat reliable, but not great. And nothing could shake up nether them, nor the club – they were not yet considered too old, so the club did not see a reason for risking replacing them with unknown talent. As for those coming from other cities – they were not going to stay, they were only temporary with the club and there was no way to pursue long-term rebuilding with them. Point in case: the squad in the next season – not a single ‘mercenary’ remained after Spartak was relegated. Even Plamen Getov left.
Chernomoretz (Bourgas) – 15th with 21 points. Essentially, the same case as Spartak – the team aged and the club missed the right moment for rebuilding. Unlike Spartak, Chernomoretz depended on their own talent – but on one generation, which reached its peak compactly. Since nobody was about 30 at the time of team’s peak, no radical measures were taken – the players were still young enough – and deterioration was slow – losing players one by one, but still it looked the group was big and sufficient enough. Well, the crash eventually happens – and Chernomoretz was relegated.
Vratza (Vratza) – Botev (Vratza) was renamed at that time – 14th with 24 points. Sitting from left: Kraev, Danov, Voynov, Tzvetanov, Radoslavov, Strashimirov, Emilov, Toshkov.
Middle row: M. Shaldupov – assistant coach, Nakev, Iliev, Garev, Petrov, Valov, Ya. Gelov – coach.
K. Kostov – rehabilitation specialist, Konov, Yu. Nikolov, Lyubenov, Nikolov, Kirchev, Marinov, Tzvetkov, Mironov – doctor.
Although they had strong core (Danov, Valov, Voynov, Toshkov), the team was in decline for quite some time. This, slipping down the table. This season was nothing new and the rot was going to continue for sure – Toshkov and Danov were already old, Valov and Voynov were almost surely to move to bigger clubs (and all this happened – Danov went to play abroad, Valov and Voynov moved to CSKA).
Lokomotiv (Gorna Oryahovitza) – 13th with 25 points. Sitting from left: Levent Gavazov, Tzenko Gavazov, Nako Doychev, Angel Minchev, Boris Iliev, Lyubomir Russev, Dimitar Balabanov.
Middle row: Ivan Vassilev – assistant coach, Sasho Mikhailov, Petar Bikarski, Angel Chervenkov, Dobromir Zhechev – coach, Valeri Ganev, Nikola Velkov, Dimitar Pechikamakov, Zhivko Zhekov – doctor.
Top row: Teodossi Sotirov – administrator, Kiril Rabchev, Valeri Milkov, Manol Manolov, Christo Kanchev, Toshko Arssov, Assen Velinov, Bogomil Bratoev – masseur.
Not a great finish, but this team deserves a special note: a nice story of modest newcomers. Lokomotiv played briefly in the First Division in the arly 1960s, but they essentially ‘eternal’ Second Division club. Probably rightly – as a team from smallish city, they were for ever in the shadow of the club of the regional capital, in their case Etar (Veliko Tirnovo). Hard to become ambitious when your best players will inevitably go to the regional center. Hard to be ambitious with modest budget and located in distant unattractive town. Their promotion came as a surprise – Dobromir Zhechev took coaching the team in the previous year and his own stated goal was 6th place. However, the team performed very well in the fall and new goal seemed possible – and eventually achieved. Zhechev knew that he does not great players, so he emphasized on collective work, not mentioning anybody above the rest of the team. No stars. The approach worked fine and was continued in the First Division – and worked again. However, the team needed reinforcements for the top league and it was done somewhat. Considering the modest means of the club and its location – it was modest reinforcement and also unusual. First of all, Lokomotiv lost key players immediately after winning promotion to the regional center: the future 1994 hero Boncho Genchev and Georgi Georgiev. But dealing with regional centers worked both ways – true, the center was taking young talent and giving back no longer needed veterans, but veterans were often helpful. Kiril Rabchev came earlier and was instrumental in winning the promotion. Nikola Velkov also joined Lokomotiv for the top league season. That were the typical movements between regional clubs in which the coach probably had very little to say. However, coaches – especially coaches from Sofia – usually brought players from their old clubs to their new ones. Dobromir Zhechev , spending years as player and coach with Levski-Spartak, did something unusual – players from Sofia were recruited, but none originated with Levski. Boris Iliev and Nako Doychev played for Lokomotiv (Sofia), Angel Chervenkov, Toshko Arssov, and Nikola Velkov used to play for CSKA. True, not everybody was brought by Zhechev – some were already there when he took coaching the team – and none was great player, but that was perhaps even most interesting – that he used discarded players from other clubs, but not from Levski, not a single one! Perhaps that was the secret of the successful season in the top league: players from Sofia were typically jaded. Better take those, who were modest and rather desperate to play, for they failed to succeed in their former clubs (and Velkov and Arssov, both with short spells with CSKA, were not from Sofia, but provincials). Giving chance to modest players worked great – Rabchev was practically reborn at 34, Arssov, Doychev, Iliev were back in First Division after considered hopeless some time back, Velkov was happy to play in the top league at the end of his career, Chervenkov had a good chance to be noticed again, after CSKA let him go for better or at least more promising players. There was disruptive ‘star’ behaviour splitting the team apart and the goal to stay in First Division was achieved. Also a good foundation for further team building was firmly established. Sometimes less is more, but Zhechev did very thorough work with the team , thinking only how to use best limited resources and finding the best concept for solid future.
Lokomotiv was the pleasant story of the season and had a good prospect for the future.
Pirin (Blagoevgrad) – 12th with 25 points.
Minyor (Pernik) – 11th with 25 points.
Spartak (Varna) – 10th with 26 points.
Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) – 9th with 26 points.
Sliven (Sliven) – 8th with 27 points.
Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) – 7th with 28 points.
Beroe (Stara Zagora) – 6th with 29 points.
Lokomotiv (Sofia) – 5th with 32 points.
Slavia (Sofia) – 4th with 38 points. Sitting from left: Petar Bozhkov, Mladen Radkov, Miroslav Mironov, Ivan Marinov, Roumen Bayrev, Pavlin Dimitrov, Valeri Grekov.
Middle row: Simeon Simeonov – assistant caoch, Plamen Tachev, Ivan Khaydarliev, Oleg Bazilevich 0 coach, Iliya Velichkov, Petar Karadaliev, Yordan Kostov, Georgi Kharalampiev – assistant coach.
Third row: Georgi Iliev, Plamen Simeonov, Mario Kalpushkov, Ivaylo Venkov, Antonio Ananiev, Dinko Gosposdinov, Petar Aleksandrov.
For the first time since 1970 there was a foreign coach in Bulgaria – Slavia hired Oleg Bazilevich. Back in 1975 he was considered the mastermind of Dinamo (Kiev) with Lobanovsky more like assistant coach. However, time passed and now Bazilevich was almost forgotten and everybody knew and praised Lobanovsky. Slavia, hoping the stabilize its performance at least, hired the Soviet specialist – no miracle happened and Bazilevich was out at the end of the season, only to find himself at the helm of the Bulgarian national team.
Trakia (Plovdiv) – 3rd with 39 points. Top row from left: Vangel Delev – steward, Ivan Glukhchev – coach, Ivan Mikhailov, Todor Zaytzev, Trifon Pachev, Dimitar Vichev, Slavcho Khorozov, Mincho Minchev, Nikola Dafinski – assistant coach.
Middle row: Lyuben Blagoev – masseur, Ivaylo Stoynev, Zapryan Rakov, Milan Karatanchev, Boris Khvoynev, Simeon Kostadinov, Ivan Kochev, Georgi Chakarov, Lyubomir Dobrev – doctor, Petar Baldzhiev – secretary.
Sitting: Blagoy Blangev, Antim Pekhlivanov, Atanas Pashev, Georgi Georgiev, Petar Zekhtinski, Marin Bakalov, Dimitar Mladenov.
CFCA Sredetz (Sofia) – the current name of CSKA. Sitting from left: Kostadin Yanchev, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, Nedyalko Mladenov, Christo Stoichkov, Lachezar Tanev, Lyuboslav Penev, Krassimir Bezinski.
Middle row: Stoil Trankov – assistant coach, Emil Kostadinov, Aleksandar Chavdarov, Iliya Dyakov, Dimitar Penev – coach, Roumen Stoyanov, Petar Vitanov, Stoyan Stoyanov, Petar Zhekov – assistant coach.
Top row: Bozhin Bozhinov – administrator, Aleksandar Lyubenov – masseur, Sasho Borissov, Roumen Apostolov, Preslav Getov, Ivaylo Kirov, Krassimir Dossev, Yordan Murlev, Petar Chervenkov – doctor.
CFCA Sredetz – more often written CFKA Sredets – won the first half of the season, but its small lead was beaten in the spring and they ended 2 points behind the champions. It was the old CSKA vs Levski battle and the Army lost. They finished with 46 points and to a large degree the championship was decided in the direct clashes between the two old rivals – 2-2 and 2-3. The coaching abilities of Dimitar Penev are more than debatable, but two things cannot be denied: he had a sharp eye for young talent and was easy going, letting his players to do pretty much all they wanted on and off the field. His lax approach to discipline was working, for it was attuned to the times – the players in the second half of the 80s wanted freedom in everything, to do whatever they were pleased. Penev, however, lament to this very day the disaster of 1985, leaving – according to his mind – the club impoverished and unable to build strong squad. This may have been true for one season, right after the Party punishment of Levski and CSKA, but no longer. True, for a short time CSKA lost its power to get whoever they wanted and also lost its attractiveness to provincial players, and also some players left as soon as CSKA was paying equally or less than other clubs, but the biggest losses were of players going to play abroad. Aging players, as it was, so it was a matter of building a new team anyway. A shaky time, which is shown in the squad of 1987-88: unbalanced team – incredibly strong attack (Tanev, Stouchkov, Kostadinov, Penev, Kirov and the new recruit from Dimitrovgrad Doncho Donev), but weak defense and particularly goalkeepers. The strikers scored most goal this season – 76 – but the title was lost by the defensive line. The problem was serious enough, if one looks at two central defenders: Sasho Borissov was brought from Spartak (Varna) – a well known name, but late bloomer, who was already over 30. Yordan Murlev was quite a surprise, largely because he was out of the picture for a long time – he was one of the Pirin (Blagoevgrad) players involved in the rape scandal in the early 1980s. They were all sentenced to jail and whether they actually served time or not (at least one of the group seemingly never ended in prison, for he was playing in the 4th Division) is not important. The fact is they were all banished from playing football for life – but such punishment was really a joke (well, Stoichkov was banished for life in 1985). What was real was that those Pirin players disappeared from top football and the sudden reemergence of Murlev in red jersey only speaks of desperation: why hiring a player out of big football for years? He did not establish himself, though, and the next season was playing for Vitosha (Levski), but still his presence showed a big problem without ready solution in defense. And it was absolutely certain that the current captain and (mostly) left fullback Krassimir Bezinski and right fullback Nedyalko Mladenov will go to foreign clubs soon. It was more desperate between the goalposts: Georgi Velinov went to play abroad and already mentioned Yordan Filipov was let go to Cherno more (Varna). Young Roumen Apostolov was brought in from Spartak (Varna), but neither he, nor long-time back-up Krassimir Dossev were convincing. Season over and the problems were solved by the old familiar Army way: Dossev, Borissov and Murlev were out; 4 national team players were in – the goalkeeper of Vratza Iliya Valov, the center-defender of Etar Trifon Ivanov, the midfielder of Trakia Georgi Georgiev, and the phenomenal striker-midfielder Plamen Getov from Spartak (Pleven). And the great defender Georgi Dimitrov was back from ill-fated spell in France. Bezinski and N. Mladenov were kept at least for one more season and add one more fullback, who was part of the 1986 World Cup team, Iliya Dyakov (Dyakov reached the national team as Second Division player and practically was a debutante in the top league – but he never reached expectations and today is almost entirely forgotten). Anyway, all that is for the next season – currently CSKA had problems and to a point, those problems made them 2nd.
Vitosha – the current name of Levski-Spartak, or Levski (Sofia) – won the title. Their 15th! Depending on who recognize what – their first victory since 1984 or 1985. At the time, they were still stripped by the Communist Party from their 1985 title, thus, the total was 15 and not 16. Sitting from left: Georgi Iliev – doctor, Krassimir Koev, Kiril Vangelov, Sasho Nachev, Petar Kurdov, Georgi Yordanov, Dinko Gospodinov, Stoil Georgiev, Sofroni Sofroniev – masseur.
Middle row: Vassil Metodiev – coach, Nasko Sirakov, Nikolay Iliev, Dimitar Markov, Christo Ayandelev – deputy chairman of the club, Bozhidar Iskrenov, Petar Petrov – captain, Stefan Kolev, Stefan Aladzhov – assistant coach.
Third row: Emil Velev, Borislav Mikhailov, Roumen Kitanov, Rossen Krumov, Vesselin Lichev – assistant coach, Georgi Donkov, Vlado Delchev, Georgi Slavchev.
Plamen Nikolov and Emil Spassov were also used.
The key for the success was the great coach Vassil Metodiev – after the big tremor in 1985 the suspended players rather quickly were restored, but Metodiev was more difficult case: he had frictions with the state powers well before 1985, the biggest was in 1978-79, when he was coaching Lokomotiv (Sofia) and eliminated Dinamo (Kiev) against orders to lose. His suspension for life in 1985 was going to be dismissed – since the players were restored, he was going to be too and he was, but coming back to Levski (Vitosha) was more difficult. Finally, he was back and his presence was immediately felt – and the title won. To a point, Vitosha (Levski) was in better position than CSKA – most players were club-products, all of them fierce fans of Levski since early childhood and born and raised in Sofia. Nobody left the club even when it was badly shaken and money were scarce. Moreover, the youth system continued to produce promising youth, so the inability of grabbing provincial stars was not a big problem. What was missing was Metodiev – once he was brought back, everything clicked again. But the future was not very bright: clearly, the stars were going to play abroad and soon (Kurdov, Sirakov, Iskrenov, Mikhailov, Petrov) and behind them were mostly inexperienced youngsters. There was more talent in the second team – Zdravko Zdravkov, Velko Yotov, Iliya Gruev, Ivaylo Yotov – but it was clear that the lack of experience and still fragile psyches would be negative factor. But the future was not present concern – the present was joy. Victorious again and not juts one trophy.