Meet Alex Petkov, the young Bulgarian excelling at Hearts

Alex Petkov made his competitive debut for Hearts against East Fife on Saturday. Pic: SNS
Alex Petkov made his competitive debut for Hearts against East Fife on Saturday. Pic: SNS
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The name suggests an exotic foreigner plucked from the continent to bring some much-needed panache to Scotland. In actual fact, young Alex Petkov attended Tynecastle High School, speaks with a Scottish twang and is an absolute brute of a boy for his age.

Hearts’ latest protege turns 18 today, but even a landmark birthday won’t eclipse the buzz still lingering from his senior debut on Saturday. A mere free-kick from his old school yard, Petkov made his first appearance at Tynecastle Park in the 3-0 Betfred Cup win over East Fife.

He looked assured, confident, skilful and strong during a 45-minute second-half outing after replacing the returning John Souttar. He will hope for more action tonight as Hearts continue their League Cup campaign with their first ever visit to Balmoor, home of Peterhead.

“It’s just brilliant, an amazing feeling to play for Hearts,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “It was just really good 
to get a game. I didn’t know I was going on at half-time but I got told to warm up because I was going on, so I just got on with it.

“I was just buzzing on the inside, really excited. I was also quite nervous but I think that’s pretty normal.”

It is only when you stand close-up and study his fresh face that you realise Petkov 
is little more than a boy in a man’s body. A hulking, 6ft 2in tall, man’s body. He is enjoying making progress in a man’s game, too.

He is Bulgarian by birth but arrived in Edinburgh two years ago after asking Hearts for a trial. He impressed enough to be taken on and signed a three-year professional contract last summer.

Article 19 of FIFA’s rules for international transfers involving minors states that any club signing a foreign youngster must “guarantee the player an academic education in addition to his football education, which will allow the player to pursue a career other than football should he cease playing professional football”.

So, the young Petkov duly enrolled at Tynecastle High. It would be fair to assume that is where he picked up his slight, but very endearing, accent.

“I came over here two years ago when I was 16,” he explained. “My agent is Bulgarian but he has lived here for a long time. He got me an opportunity here. It was a big chance for me.

“I came on trial and they offered me a contract, so I moved over. My family is still back home in Bulgaria. In the beginning, it was really hard. You don’t know many people and you’re away from your family.

“I had to continue with my education so I was going to Tynecastle High School, just across the road, for about a year. One of the FIFA regulations for me to come here was that I had to continue with my education.

“As time goes on, you just get on with it. I feel much better now and I feel good living here. My family have come here to see me twice. After the game on Saturday, I went to Facetime them to tell them about the game.”

The Hearts management team like Petkov’s composure on the ball and believe has the potential to cement a place in the first-team squad given time.

“I think Alex came on and looked very assured making his debut at centre-half,” said assistant coach Austin MacPhee.

“I think there’s a young player there who could also follow in John Souttar’s footsteps. We’ve been very impressed with him in training.”

Petkov isn’t actually a centre-back, though. He normally plays in midfield. “I’ve been playing centre midfield for the Under-20s but I’ve been more at centre-back since I’ve been involved with the first team. I would say centre mid is where I’m more comfortable,” he said.

Regardless of position, he won’t be lacking motivation. “My contract runs for this season and one more year after that. This year, I want to break into the first team and start winning. I’m aiming to stick around the first-team squad and play as many games as I can,” he stated.

“Everyone has helped me and all the boys in the first team have been so welcoming. I would say the older players like Don Cowie, Christophe Berra and Prince Buaben have all been great to learn from.

“I want to be the best I can be. I learn from all the players. They are really good players and it’s been amazing training with them over these last few weeks. When you first come in, you’re quiet because you’re a young boy. That’s normal.”

Petkov gives the impression he enjoys being out of his comfort zone and facing challenges head-on. MacPhee and head coach Ian Cathro feel they can enhance, and perhaps even accelerate, his development.

“I’ve really enjoyed working under them. Obviously it’s different from the Under-20s,” said Petkov. “It’s much faster and the tempo is higher so it’s really different. You need to get used to it.”