Nikolay Todorov boarded a flight to Tallinn this morning hopeful of building on a start to his Hearts career that has already exceeded expectations.
The 19-year-old Bulgarian striker hadn’t envisaged making the squad for a Europa League match within weeks of signing for the Edinburgh club primarily as a development player. Todorov didn’t get off the bench in the 2-1 home win over FC Infonet last Thursday, but could yet find himself handed an unlikely competitive debut on the continental stage tomorrow as Hearts bid to secure a path to the second qualifying round by avoiding defeat in the Estonian capital.
“It was an amazing experience to be on the bench in the Europa League last week,” the former Nottingham Forest youngster told the Evening News. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It was very good to see the crowd and be part of such a big tournament. It was very pleasing that we won. We need to be positive after last Thursday and go and try and win the game in Estonia. It’s up to the manager if I play against Infonet, but I’m working hard and, if the coaches feel I can help, I’ll be ready.”
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson explained that Todorov is “a development player who’ll be round about the first-team squad”. With Conor Sammon and Juanma Delgado the only senior strikers currently on the books, the Bulgarian, who has featured in pre-season friendlies against TNS, Aberdeen and Cowdenbeath over the last fortnight, is likely to be on the bench alongside fellow young forward Robbie Muirhead tomorrow.
“You have to ask the coaching staff if they see me as a first-team player or a development player – I will just do what is asked of me,” he said. “I’m working hard and I enjoy being part of the team. I will leave it up to the staff to decide where I play. I’ve been training with the first team in pre-season and I was on the bench last Thursday. It’s been brilliant so far. The staff and the facilities, everything has been perfect. The team spirit is very good in the changing room. It’s still pre-season and we are looking to improve our fitness and our relationships on the pitch.”
Todorov moved to Britain from his native Bulgaria as a 15-year-old in 2012 when he got a place at Brooke House Football Academy in Leicestershire. Within two years, he had been picked up by Nottingham Forest, then managed by former England defender Stuart Pearce. Although he was unable to make the breakthrough at the City Ground and ended up being sent out on loan to non-league teams Worcester City and Hemel Hemsptead Town last season, Todorov feels his four years in Britain thus far have steeled him for the task of trying to make the grade in Hearts’ first team.
“At Brooke House, we played in a college league and we had a couple of friendlies against professional teams like Reading and Blackpool,” he explained. “I got spotted in one of these games by Forest and got invited for a trial. I signed as an Under-21 player there. I was in and around the first team but I never got a chance to play.
“Stuart Pearce brought me in – he was a very good man firstly and as a coach he was brilliant. I can’t say enough about him. He was very good to me. When I needed to talk to someone or get advice, I could go to him. I like the passion he has. He was very good at encouraging me. To have a manager like that who had such a big career was very, very good for me.
“After that, Dougie Freedman became the manager, and then I went out of contract. Everything happens for a reason, though, and I’m happy that I’m here. I can’t wait to train every day and play for Hearts. I am very motivated to do well here. I will give lots of hard work and hopefully everything will come after that.”
Todorov signed a one-year deal at Hearts last month. He describes himself as a wholehearted centre-forward.
“I will leave it up to the coaches and the fans to decide what type of player I am but I am very passionate and always want to win,” he said. “I will give everything and run as much as I can. I scored nine goals in my first season at Forest and I scored a couple last season so I am a striker who can score and also link up. I’m working on being able to play in all different areas. My main quality is that I’m a hard worker and, if you work hard enough, everything comes after that. I have always played through the middle but I will play wherever the coaches want me.”
Todorov’s willingness to go in where it hurts is illustrated by a nasty head wound he sustained in Saturday’s friendly at Cowdenbeath. “It’s my twelfth cut in my head in three years,” he boasts. “It’s okay, though.”