Martin O'Neill has praised his Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov for transforming himself from a flop signing into one of his key performers ahead of today's Carling Cup final with Manchester United at Wembley. Petrov was O'Neill's first signing in August 2006 when he paid £6million (Dh34m) to be reunited with the player he had managed at Scottish side Celtic. But the Bulgaria international struggled to adjust to the Premier League and became the target of the Holt End boo boys.
O'Neill admits players of a weaker character would have quit Villa but Petrov slowly and surely won over his detractors in switching from an attacking to a holding midfield role. Now it would be a major blow for Villa to take the field without him, which is why O'Neill was relieved when he announced his recovery from a virus. O'Neill said: "It's really important for us to have Stiliyan fit. He's been really terrific and in the last two years he's been consistently brilliant. I'm delighted for him.
"When he came here, I envisaged him being the player I knew at Celtic. He was an attacking midfield player with Neil Lennon the one who did the holding to allow Stiliyan to get forward. "Here, he started off like that and his debut against West Ham was as good a debut as I've seen. "I thought we really had a player on our hands but he lost confidence and maybe just a change of environment was difficult to come to terms with immediately.
"He got a bit homesick for Glasgow - which is a bit strange considering he's a Bulgarian - and he took a long time to settle down. "He had to overcome the wrath of the crowd and all of those things. That's why I've got the utmost regard for him because he could really have chucked it in and felt 'well this club's not for me'. "But he was prepared to go and battle. I accept the fact that he's playing in a more holding central position, but he's done that so well over the last two years that he's deserved to be the captain."
* PA Sport