He was a World Cup star for Bulgaria, but totally bewildered by two years playing for Reading. Roger Titford recalls the man with football’s most famous wig
Borislav Mihailov is the greatest footballer in the history of Reading FC, according to the most objective of criteria. No one else in the club’s record books can boast of a World Cup semi-final appearance or more than 100 caps, many as captain of his country. Yet, in a recent internet poll, fans selected him as the most inept or underachieving player of all time.
It’s an odd tale. Bulgaria were the surprise packet of the 1994 World Cup and Mihailov was voted keeper of the tournament. Surely little did he think that, a year later, his reward would be a move to Reading. From the Reading perspective this was the most surreal of transfers. He did not seem the natural taste for joint managers Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding. Legend took root that Mihailov must have mistaken the video of Reading’s Division One play-off final defeat to Bolton at Wembley for an ordinary home game.
Implausible though the deal appeared, it did finally happen. The work permit unexpectedly took ages and then there was request to “call me Bobby” (perhaps Borislav didn’t look right on the sponsored car) and the well known wig, of course. Then somehow he was between marriages and wouldn’t move out of a hotel, wasn’t quite fit, couldn’t kick very far and it all began to smell a bit fishy.
If you Google “Borislav Mihailov” you get a picture of a national hero, a well respected ambassador of sport, a Trevor Brooking-like figure with a David Beckham-like marriage. If you Google up Bobby Mihailov you get the impression of an Inspector Clouseau-like klutz, cut hopelessly adrift in Berkshire. Are they actually the same person? Had Borislav rumbled the “Wembley” trick, gone home and sent back a body double in his place? Who exactly was the “Mick Hayloft” who appeared in the Reading line-up in one away programme?
On reflection, it has to be the same man but one in his self-imposed wilderness years. He may have been with us in body but he left his heart in Plovdiv. He played only 25 league games, studded with more ghastliness than brilliance. But you could tell that, somewhere very deep down in his locker, the class was there. Interestingly (or rather irritatingly) he played 14 times for Bulgaria during the same period; the kind of internationals-to-league appearances ratio generally found only in Manchester United reserves. It was a struggle to get him on the pitch at all at club level. In each of his two seasons at Reading, seven different men donned the keeper’s jersey.
The main “battle” was between Mihailov and Simon Sheppard. Shilton v Clemence it was not. Reading may have been the nadir of Bobby’s life, but it was the zenith of Shep’s career, on its low trajectory from Watford reserves to Boreham Wood. Sheppard was a blond, English-looking, wholehearted trier who, to put it over-politely, had competency issues. By contrast, Mihailov was irredeemably, unapologetically, almost provocatively foreign: from the tips of his prancing feet, past his smart tracksuit bottoms (even in August) to the top of his immaculately and artificially coiffed head. He would have looked more at home riding a unicycle, no hands, along his crossbar than defending the muddy ground beneath it. Despite the narcissism, the physical frailty, the lack of rapport, he was our hope and our despair in the less-than-epic struggle between the trier who would but couldn’t and the star who could but wouldn’t.
It was quickly clear that this was not a transfer made in heaven. While the Wembley story was a myth, Mihailov was almost mortally shocked that he had to wash his own kit and dismayed by the adulation-deficit from colleagues and fans. In his defence, he was taken aback by the physical nature of the English game and his time at Reading was ended by an injury sustained diving at a forward’s feet. In a violent cup tie against Gillingham he looked utterly intimidated. Following one particular wound to the head his team-mates were torn between consternation and mirth as they speculated if the wig would have to come off during treatment. No wonder the poor man was worried.
After his final injury both he and the club were delighted to pay up the contract and part ways without animosity. Today in Bulgaria some keen fans seem unaware of this two-year interlude in the life of a national hero. But in Reading, he never amounted to more than a local zero.
From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month