It started with a follow request on Instagram. The slim hope of interviewing a player who was built up as an exciting prodigy, the next big attacking talent from Bulgaria and someone who would lead the line for Heart of Midlothian. A hopeful message was sent enquiring if he would be interested in talking about his time at Tynecastle Park and his career afterwards.

The reply arrived within a couple of days. “Hi I would love to.” Followed by: “When it comes to Hearts, there is no question.”

Now 34, Branimir Kostadinov is back in his homeland where is an important member of Ludogorets Razgrad’s second team. And, 14 years after leaving, he retains an affinity to a city and club which was his home for four years and set him on his way to a career that continues in the Bulgarian second tier, part of one of the country’s biggest teams.

“I’m not saying I’m following them like I used to before but this is a club which built me as a player so a lot of things I do now are because of Hearts and the coaches there,” he said in an exclusive interview with Hearts Standard. “I can’t lie, Hearts are still in my heart. It’s normal, I spent four years there and had a lot of friends. I’m sometimes looking at their Instagram to see what is happening with them and their football careers, personal life also.”

Ryan McGowan, Andrew Driver, Matthew Park and David Templeton are some of those former team-mates he still follows, struggling to get his head around the fact they are now all in their mid-30s, still seeing them as the 17, 18, 19 year olds he knew.

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With excellent English, aided by watching movies “only in English” without subtitles, Kostadinov chats via Zoom prior to an afternoon training session with his team. He recalled how the move from Austrian side LASK Linz to Hearts transpired, how he grew close to Park when he first moved to Edinburgh and how John McGlynn emerged as a father figure.

“I was in Austria at 15 or 16,” he said. “We had qualifications for the national team. This time I was playing in Austria against Austria, a special game. In this game we beat them 4-0 and I scored three goals, actually four but the fourth was offside.

“There were scouts from Hearts, from Manchester City and some other teams as well. Before I went to Hearts I went to Man City for a trial for three or four days. It went really good but it was 2005, Bulgaria was not in the European Union so I couldn’t play for at least one year. The agent who was with me at the time told me they wanted me to stay but they didn’t want to pay anything. I understand that. Then the Hearts offer came, I went to Edinburgh for maybe four, five, six days. Everything went good. 

“The Scottish federation had this option to put somebody on trial. You could play in three official games as a trialist. These were the only three games I played in my first year. 

“It was difficult. At the time of the move I was only studying German in school which I can’t speak now because I didn’t practice. It is a difficult language! Maybe if I stay with someone for a week I remember everything! At this time I only spoke German and Bulgarian. The only word I spoke in English was ‘yes’. I was easy to be manipulated. You could say anything and I would say yes! 

“I remember John McGlynn. He was a big figure for me in the first six, 12 months. He was picking me up from the house I was living in. I think maybe two or three months ago my father told me that every time on birthdays with John McGlynn they send each other messages. It is nothing special but there is that connection. 

“In Austria I was living in a building with other players, no adults beside one guy. From this place to moving in with a Scottish family was really new for me because I couldn’t speak English. At this time they were like my family because they were inviting me to meals. They told me that I should feel at home. It was difficult. You sit for dinner with these people, they smile, they were really good people but I couldn’t speak with them. I can say in the first six months it was difficult. After six months team-mates helped me, the coaches helped me, where I went to learn English helped me. The biggest part of my English teaching was my team-mates because I was with them everyday. I remember I walked home with Matthew Park, he was living not too far from me. He never had this language barrier but he helped me a lot.”

When you speak to some football players, they can struggle to remember details from games they played a week ago. Not Kostadinov. He remembers the three houses he stayed in during his time at Hearts. The first on Elliot Road in the south of the city, another near Hillend where the bus would turn around and then, finally, one near Riccarton. With a gentle nudge he can also remember the only goal he scored for the club’s first-team, during a pre-season fixture in Germany in 2007. 


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“I think it was a good attack from me, Gary Glen and Dumitru Copil,” he said. “I was on for 15-20 minutes. As a young player I was really excited that I was going to play for the first team so when the time went on I was like ‘come on, when am I going in’. When the coach called me in, I can’t say I was angry but I just really, really wanted to play and show myself. I had a good opportunity to score a goal. If you look in pictures, maybe my face looks angry, I was just expressing my feelings. It was a really good experience with a lot of good players.I remember Craig Gordon was on the training camp but after he went to England. They were all good people, not just good players.”

Such was the size of the squad, the 2-1 pre-season defeat to Cloppenberg at the Stadion an der Friesoyther Strasse was the first of two games played in consecutive days. The Bulgarian forward was part of an eclectic bunch which included future Hearts boss Robbie Neilson, Steve Banks and Juho Makela, as well as Portuguese trialist Rui Baiao, Eggert Jonsson, who captained the side despite being just 18, and Kostadinov and Copil.

The excitement, anticipation and expectation was high for the latter two. Brought to the club with huge potential. This was a chance to impress with fans eager for them to do so in the hope they would make the step up to the first-team.

“I was really excited, I was giving everything I could,” Kostadinov remembered. “I wanted to show everybody what I could do. Everybody had expectations about me. For a young player, coming from Bulgaria, living for two years in Austria before that, it was big pressure for me to be honest when I think about it. Maybe a lot of things I didn’t do right but that’s life. At this time I was trying to give my best.”

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To provide an indication of that hope and expectation, a few months after they featured in pre-season, World Soccer included Copil in a list of the ‘Top 50 most exciting teenage footballers’. At number 16 were the names ‘Dumitru Copil’ and ‘Heart of Midlothian FC’, sandwiched between Karim Benzema of Olympique Lyonnais and Fabio Pererira da Silva of Manchester United. Others to be named on the list? Angel Di Maria, Gareth Bale, Sergio Aguero, Toni Kroos, Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Quite the company. In the write up there were comparisons to countryman Gheorghe Hagi.

To Kostadinov, Copil was a “best friend” while at Hearts, coming from neighbouring countries in Bulgaria and Romania. He was best placed to provide an insight into what both he and Copil were experiencing, what was going through their mind.

“We were living together, going everywhere together,” he said. “I remember he was really homesick. He went home for a month one or two times. For me, he didn’t show 30 per cent of his abilities. It’s easy when you are 15, 16 when you are a big talent, everybody says you are a great player, have a great future, all these things but for me when you are young, you need good people around you so they can navigate in the best ways.

“I think this way because now as the most experienced player in the team I play for I am surrounded by young players. I try to give to these players what I didn’t receive at this age. Especially in this era where everything is Facebook and Instagram. You need to be popular on social networks so you can feel like a human being. I really don’t understand that but this is reality.

“Everyone wants to be 20, the most famous player, the most likeable player. I just try to tell them that everything is coming with time. You need to think about football and nothing else. When you are the best in football everything will come. Everything. When you think ‘I need to post this photo so I can be liked one thousand times’ then your focus is on something different.”

After that Cloppenburg clash, Kostadinov would play twice more in pre-season, against Heracles Almelo and Moroka Swallows, his second and final outings for the Hearts first-team. There was a hope, a realistic chance even, of featuring in the glamour friendly against Barcelona at Murrayfield ahead of the new season. A carrot was offered to Kostadinov and to some of the young players, only to be taken away late on...

Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Branimir Kostadinov will be released tomorrow morning. He talks Barcelona disappointment, how his time at Hearts ended, his career since and even the old Tynecastle Park Main Stand.