World Cup icons, need for patience and lack of aggression - Feeney's Bulgaria insight

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Warren Feeney
Feeney was appointed manager of Bulgarian side OFC Pirin Blagoevgrad in November 2019
World Cup European Qualifying, Group C: Northern Ireland v Bulgaria
Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Wednesday, 31 March Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Ulster and the BBC Sport website; text updates and report on the BBC Sport website; highlights on BBC One Northern Ireland 22:45 BST

Warren Feeney's immersion in all things Bulgarian football was cranked up a notch at the weekend.

The former Northern Ireland international is on course for promotion to the country's top flight in his first full season in charge of Pirin, with his side sitting top of the Second Division.

Ahead of Bulgaria's visit to Windsor Park for a World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland on Wednesday, the country's new manager Yasen Petrov invited Feeney to lunch, with the added bonus of a meeting with an iconic World Cup star for the east Belfast native to enjoy.

"We were having a meal and chatting about the famous Bulgaria team that reached the 1994 World Cup semi-finals, when in walked Yordan Letchkov," said Feeney, whose hugely committed displays during his 46-cap Northern Ireland international career made him a fans' favourite.

"He is on the committee of the Bulgarian Football Union. I shook his hand and we got talking about how he and many of the other great players from that side, such as Hristo Stoichkov, played their club football outside Bulgaria.

"They were at the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Stuttgart, and that is something they want to get back to. Obviously it is going to be difficult but they want to improve and it was an interesting conversation."

Early frustrations but new boss will 'get it right'

Yasen Petrov
Petrov previously managed sides in the Chinese Super League

A side of the calibre of the 1994 vintage, which lost to a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy in the last four at USA 94, must feel like something of a pipedream for Bulgaria supporters currently.

There was a positive response from the public to Petrov's appointment as new national team manager in January, but their long run of poor results has continued in his first two matches.

His reign got off to a disastrous start with his side 3-0 down after less than 20 minutes at home to Switzerland in their opening World Cup qualifier last week, before losing 3-1, which they followed up with a 2-0 loss to Italy in their second qualifier on Sunday.

While still getting used to the Bulgarian public's reaction to losing football matches, Feeney backed Petrov to turn things around, though he is hoping that will not begin against Northern Ireland on Wednesday.

"Some people are getting frustrated but they have got to remember he is a new manager with new ideas, and he will get it right. Like football fans anywhere, they want a quick fix," he said.

"Bulgaria got off to a terrible start against Switzerland but once they got a foothold in the game after about half an hour, they came on strong. They got a goal back just after half-time and then the Swiss keeper made a fantastic save with about 25 minutes to go, which could have been a huge turning point in the game.

"I thought they then put in a very good performance against Italy. People are disappointed with the two results but supporters have to realise that those defeats were against probably the two toughest teams in the group."

A technical side lacking in aggression

Spas Delev
Spas Delev has won 31 caps for Bulgaria

One of the features of Bulgarian football that has struck Feeney most glaringly - and one that he has tried to address in his Pirin side - is the lack of aggression in their style of play.

He believes this has been reflected in a national side which is 23 positions below 45th-placed Northern Ireland in the Fifa rankings, but they do not travel to Belfast without a warning from the former Luton Town and Bournemouth forward of the threats they pose to their hosts.

"The Bulgarians are very technical and comfortable on the ball, but they they like to play the game a lot slower than the fast pace that is usually played in the UK," he observed.

"I think Petrov has recognised this and has looked to got more legs and more pace in his team, with a better mix of youth and experience. They are a good side and, similarly to Northern Ireland, will be looking to this game as a big opportunity to get a win.

"Spas Delev is a wide player who is very quick and has got good ability while Dimitar Iliev, vice-captain of the country, is very intelligent and can play as a striker or a number 10. One thing in Northern Ireland's favour is that I think Bulgaria could be missing their two best players - Anton Nedyalkov and Todor Nedelev."

Never one to try and over-complicate the game, Feeney - who says his Scottish physio will be his only fellow Northern Ireland supporter watching the game in Bulgaria - is clear on what Baraclough's men need to do to get a win.

"We have to be typically Northern Ireland from the off. It's Windsor Park, go and enjoy it, get off to a fast start and play our own game. Our players have a better mix of technique and aggression than Bulgaria, which they can use to their advantage."

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