As Hearts play for their first pre-season friendly of the summer away to Livingston today, they are likely to come up against a buoyant young man on a mission to force his way into their first team.
Nikolay Todorov, the imposing 20-year-old centre-forward, recently signed a new one-year contract at Tynecastle before being loaned back to the Lions for their upcoming campaign in the Championship. Amid this, he had the thrill of making his debut for Bulgaria Under-21s in early June.
Although he is yet to pull on a maroon jersey in a competitive match after his first season at Hearts was spent predominantly out on loan – at League Two strugglers Cowdenbeath in the first half of the campaign and with League One champions Livingston from January onwards – Todorov is content with being farmed out once more as he senses he is edging closer to his target.
“It’s another step for me in the learning process,” Todorov said of his return to Livingston. “I started in League Two last season, then went to League One and now I’m in the Championship, and I’ve just been called up by my national team. Step by step, I feel like I’m going forward so hopefully that continues and I can get into the Hearts team. That’s my main target.”
Todorov is physically well developed for his age, so Hearts felt he would benefit from being exposed to first-team involvement rather than deployed in the development league after arriving last summer following his release from Nottingham Forest. Management have seen enough in the Bulgarian thus far, both in his loan stints and while training at Riccarton in the first half of last season, to deem that he is a player worth retaining. Having earned his new deal at the end of last season, he is upbeat about his prospects of making it at Hearts.
“I always trust the staff at Hearts because they are very professional,” said Todorov, who hopes to get the all-clear to face his parent club today. “I was told after signing I would go on loan again but I see it as another step closer to the Hearts team because I will be playing in a higher division. Last season I jumped from the bottom of League Two to the top of League One. People might look at me and think I’m 25 years old, but they need to remember I am still only 20 – I need to gain experience. It’s better when you walk slower but you learn to do everything the right way.”
Todorov made almost 40 appearances and scored nine goals across his two loan spells last season – five for Cowdenbeath and four for Livingston.
“Both of the loans were really good experiences,” he said. “I played a lot of games for Cowdenbeath at centre-back because of their injuries, so that was hard. In the whole season for both teams, I had about 18 starts as a striker and scored nine goals. People will say it was only in League Two and League One, but I think I brought other things to the team as well. I think I did well at Livingston – from seven starts there, I scored four goals. I did well enough for them to want me back and I’m really happy to be back.”
The campaign was capped by an unexpected maiden call-up to the Bulgarian Under-21 squad for friendlies against Georgia and Greece in Sofia. “It’s every footballer’s dream to represent their country,” said Todorov. “When I first got the call-up, it took me a couple of hours to realise what had actually happened. It was a really proud moment in my life.
“It was really emotional for me. All my family and lots of my friends were there to watch me. To listen to the national anthem before the game, it was an indescribable feeling.
“I started against Georgia and we won 1-0. In the second game against Greece, I came on at half-time. We lost that game but I felt I performed better in that game. I gave my all in the training sessions and showed what I’m about, and I hope I have left a good impression.
“I had played under-15, but this was different because under-21 is closer to men’s football. It’s basically the second team for your country. I really want to play for the full team in the future because they have had some great strikers in the past, like [Hristo] Stoichkov and [Dimitar] Berbatov.
“I’m working really hard to get there. As I said, it’s step by step. If I got into the Hearts team and started scoring goals, I think that would help get me into the full Bulgaria team because Hearts is a big club with very big history. If I do well at club level, that will help me get called for the national team. My main focus for now is to do well with Livingston, and if I do that then Hearts and the national team will be watching.”