Stiliyan Petrov rates his struggle with leukaemia as being “worse than hell” and says retirement is the least of his worries.
His former Aston Villa team-mates are putting the final touches to their preparations for the Premier League campaign.
But Petrov, 34, is simply grateful to be alive, with .
His worries are not yet over as he still has two more years of less gruelling treatment to endure.
But Petrov has proved a stoic character under the strain and his fortitude serves as an inspirational tale on the eve of the season.
He remains in the game, having taken on a new role at Villa after announcing his retirement in May following the devastating diagnosis in March last year.
The ex-Bulgaria midfielder, and Villa captain, to help mentor youngsters after his playing deal expired.
Petrov is enjoying the challenge of his new role at , but primarily loves spending quality time with his wife Paulina and sons Kristiyan and Stiliyan junior after his horrendous experience.
He told Mirror Sport: “I don’t know what Hell is like, but this has to be worse, I tell you that.
“It has been very tough but we never give up as a family, you can’t.
“There were a lot of questions going through our heads through all this period but we hope all the treatments are still going the right way and that is the main thing.
“I married the right woman and have two incredible kids, they have been wonderful, and my parents too.
“The strength and support they give me through these months has been amazing. They have pushed me to the limit because they knew I needed to fight.
“As a player you fight to be in the team but this you are fighting for your life and that is the main thing.
“My wife knew that, so she was pushing me as well.
“Through this period I knew I needed to have enough strength. Sometimes with the chemotherapy you change your appetite.
“My taste completely changed but I knew I needed to eat and take fluids and be disciplined.
“If I was too tired and couldn’t do anything, she was feeding me.
“Now I wake up every morning happy to see my family.
“I am trying to get a little fitter and back to normal to what I used to do but these things take time – I have two years left on the tablets.”
Petrov has received phenomenal support from Villa and their fans, Scottish champions Celtic – the club he left for Villa – and his Bulgarian countrymen since the blood disorder was diagnosed.
He complained of feeling ill at Arsenal two seasons ago, when he played 90 minutes under former boss Alex McLeish in a 3-0 loss.
It was dismissed as just flu, but blood tests revealed the devastating reality.
The hammer-blow realistically meant Petrov’s retirement was inevitable.
But he added: “Some of the boys were saying I was getting slow and needed to retire!
“It is tough, I wanted to become a footballer and worked so hard.
“To give up was really hard for me but it is a bigger prize here to fight for your life to be closer to your family for longer so I had no choice.”
Petrov is now passing his experience, mental strength, shrewd advice and admirable character traits on to Villa’s next generation working alongside development coach Gordan Cowans.
And he is quick to thank Lambert – who was a team-mate at Celtic – for his support.
Petrov, who has set-up a foundation to help those affected by Leukaemia, said: “I am working for Villa now and go in every day to see the boys.
“It is going to be a exciting season with a young, exciting first team.
“I am working with the reserve team and Sid Cowans. We try to make them ready to make the big step into the first team.
“At this age there are lot of ifs – if they can make it – but I want to help in this way and Paul Lambert who is my boss now.
“He is an incredible man who supported me so much.”
In return, Petrov also advised Lambert on potential first team signings, such as fellow Bulgarian Aleksandar Tonev – a 23-year-old winger who joined this summer.
He said: “Tonev is really exciting and I recommended him. Villa had a look for a couple of months and they have signed him.
“I think the fans will fall in love with him the way he plays. He plays with his heart and works for the team. He is two-footed and has something to offer to this team.
“I am very happy there is still hopefully a Bulgarian in the team but it is the manager’s decision.”
Villa fans would, of course, prefer to still see a fit-again Petrov back in the side, pulling the strings in midfield.
Those days are over, but the likeable Petrov is still clearly making an impact at the club. And long may that continue.
* Petrov was speaking after meeting Pete Gough, 40, who had run from Celtic Park in Glasgow to Villa Park, Birmingham, in 13 days in aid of Cure Leukaemia.