The Spurs goalkeeper who won away to Lokomotiv Plovdiv...
Wed 16 September 2020, 13:31|Tottenham Hotspur
Almost 15 years ago to the day, a modern-day Spurs legend went to Bulgaria to face Lokomotiv Plovdiv and came away with victory – but only just!
Goalkeeper Ian Walker hadn’t played in the UEFA Cup since our premature exit at the hands of German side Kaiserslautern in November, 1999, when he lined up for Bolton Wanderers against Plovdiv in their first round, second leg clash in September, 2005.
Our first-choice goalkeeper throughout the mid- to late-1990s, it was Ian’s debut for the Trotters following his move from Leicester City a few months earlier, with the added interest of the match being Bolton’s first-ever competitive away European fixture.
Having qualified for the UEFA Cup via a sixth-place finish in the Premier League the season before, Bolton had beaten their Bulgarian opponents 2-1 at the Reebok in the first leg a fortnight earlier, with Ian watching on from the substitutes’ bench as Jussi Jääskeläinen kept goal.
Our former stopper got the nod for the return match, which had to be played 200 miles away from Plovdiv at the Naftex Stadium in Bourgas, a port city on the Black Sea, because the hosts’ stadium didn’t meet UEFA regulations at the time.
Ian remembers the trip well for two reasons – the atmosphere, and how close Bolton were to crashing out of the competition...
“There are a few things that come to mind when I think back to that game,” Ian told us from his current base in China this week. “It wasn’t in the same stadium that Spurs are going to now, so that’s a bit of a shame, but the main thing I remember, even though it was only a 14,000 or 15,000-capacity ground, was that their fans were really loud.
“They were quite passionate and I seem to remember the start of the second half was delayed because about 100 of the fans in the stadium were holding up flares and all the smoke came across the pitch, so we had to wait to kick-off the second half! Obviously Tottenham’s game will be behind closed doors, but the atmosphere when I went there was intense.”
Plovdiv certainly made it difficult, with Bolton needing two late goals to scrape through to round two. Georgi Iliev’s 25-yard strike had given the Bulgarians the lead on the night and had them going through on away goals via a 2-2 aggregate scoreline with 10 minutes left. But a late Aleksandar Tunchev own goal and an 85th-minute effort from Kevin Nolan saw the Trotters win 2-1 on the night and 4-2 overall.
The first of only eight games Ian played for Bolton towards the end of his career, all of which were in cup competitions, ‘Walks’ added: “We won the game, 2-1 if I remember rightly, but it was interesting to go out there because you don’t immediately think of many Bulgarian teams, especially Plovdiv, when you get into Europe.
“When we got drawn against them, especially back in the day, we weren’t expecting too much but the crowd were really into it and we managed to scrape through really, so obviously you don’t want to underestimate anybody. Of course, we’re talking different levels – Bolton and the mighty Spurs – so our boys should have enough to get through on Thursday, but it won’t be easy at all.”
We’ve never previously played a Bulgarian team in our history, but a couple of our current players rubbed shoulders with Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s players on the international scene just last season.
Goalkeeper Martin Lukov was on the bench for Bulgaria as they fell to a 4-0 defeat to England in a Euro qualifier at Wembley in September, 2019, a game that saw Harry Kane involved in all four goals with a hat-trick and an assist. Danny Rose also played while Harry Winks was an unused substitute for England.
The following month, Plovdiv’s left winger Birsent Karagaren was among the substitutes as Bulgaria lost the return match 6-0 in Sofia, with Kane again among the scorers and Winks joining him in the starting line-up.