Aston Villa have confirmed the heartwarming news that former captain Stiliyan Petrov will train with the club's first team during pre-season. The Bulgarian midfielder made 218 appearances in a six-year stint at Villa Park after joining from Celtic in 2006, but was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March 2012 and subsequently announced his retirement from professional football.
After entering remission, "Stan", who also won 105 senior international caps, later took up a role as assistant to development coach Gordon Cowans. He returned to playing at Solihull Sunday League level with the Wychall Wanderers over-35s and earlier this year began training with Villa's U21 side, while informing the club that he was ready to start the summer with them.
"Aston Villa is pleased to confirm Stiliyan Petrov will take part in pre-season training at first-team level," the club confirmed in a statement released via their official website on Thursday (23 June).
"Manager Roberto Di Matteo has revealed the former club captain will travel with the group to Austria as he joins the squad at their training camp. Stan will report next week with the rest of the group."
Such an announcement marks a remarkable recovery from Petrov, who established a charitable foundation in 2013 seeking to "develop a safer, more practical and effective process for treatment, relapses and prevention of cancer and leukaemia". A charity match to raise funds for the organisation attracted a host of legendary players, celebrities and 60,000 supporters at Celtic Park.
The entirety of Petrov's initial Villa career was spent in the Premier League, but any full-time return would see the 36-year-old embark upon a first season in the Championship. A humiliating 2015/16 campaign for the Villains saw manager Tim Sherwood sacked and replacement Remi Garde leave by mutual consent before they finished bottom of the table, with just three victories and 17 points.
After a brief period under caretaker boss Eric Black, also now departed, the former European Cup winners appointed Di Matteo, Steve Clarke and Kevin Bond as their new backroom team earlier this month. Much-maligned owner Randy Lerner also sold 100% of the club to Chinese businessman Tony Xia and his Recon Group.
On Monday (20 June), Villa, who begin next season away to Sheffield Wednesday, completed their first signing of a new era with the £3m ($4.4m) addition of Bournemouth skipper Tommy Elphick on a three-year deal. The squad were only initially supposed to spend three days in Austria, but the July trip has now been extended to a full week as Di Matteo seeks to assess his players.