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.

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! 

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“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. 


“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.”

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.

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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.

“It was my dream. I can’t lie, it was my dream to play for Hearts. To be a fan of this club, from 16, 17, 18 going to watch the games, you see the fans, the atmosphere. You dream about these things. It was my dream to play for them, not just a thought in my head but it didn’t happen…”

Kostadinov got further than most who dream of pulling on the maroon. A lot further. His first-team involvement would be restricted to three pre-season outings and a goal. He may not have got the chance to run out at Tynecastle Park but he came ever so close to featuring for Heart of Midlothian at Murrayfield in the glamour friendly with Barcelona in July 2007.

“I remember when we came back [from the pre-season trip] we went back to train with the under-19s,” he told Hearts Standard. "When you come back from first-team experience to under-19s you feel like you are flying, physically, mentally, everything. You could do anything. You feel faster, stronger. They told us we had a friendly against a team from the lower divisions. If we played good, we will be in the squad for the friendly game against Barca so it was a massive, massive, massive surprise for us.

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“When the game came with Barcelona three players from Lithuania came so the players who came out of the squad were me, Dumitru and I think Matthew Park because these players were in our positions. So it was really disappointing because in my head I was thinking ‘my god, I'm going to be on the pitch with Barcelona!’. Even though I didn’t play I was in the stands then we went to the dressing room and saw Iniesta, Eto’o, Ronaldino. Even to see them it was a massive feeling.”

Audrius Ksanavicius, Ricardas Beniusis and Kestutis Ivaskevicius were the three Lithuanians drafted in ahead of the 2007/08 campaign. For Kostadinov, it was back to the youth team. There was an opportunity to go on loan to Cowdenbeath and another with Livingston which didn’t materialise. By the time Csaba Laszlo was leading Hearts to third place the following season, the forward had already decided his future lay away from Gorgie. A return to Bulgaria was “not a fixed idea” but an exciting project at Chernomorets Burgas, managed by Bulgarian footballing legend Krasimir Balakov, was presented to him.

“I wasn’t homesick, at this time my thoughts were English,” Kostadinov said. "It was difficult for me to explain something in Bulgarian because all the words were coming in English. In the position I was at the time, I didn’t want to stay because a lot of changes happened. I didn’t feel happy. At the time Csaba Laszlo was coach and I was training with the first-team in the last month. Me and a couple of other young players. We were training really good, I felt really good, I didn’t have any pressure because I knew I was going to go. When you don’t have pressure, you play and enjoy yourself. I remember he put me in the 20-player squad. When I went to the kitman ‘Goggsy’...”

At this point Kostadinov stopped with his story. He wanted to ask if Gordon Paterson, better known as ‘Goggsy’, was still at the club. “I remember his name and hope he is okay. This guy was awesome. He was so kind with everyone.”

He then continued with his story.

“I went to the boot room and he asked me ‘do you know you are in the squad?’ What squad? He told me to go and look at the list. I saw my name, I was surprised. Everybody knew I was going to leave. I didn’t make it to the 18 players in the squad but I thought maybe they want me to stay and give me a chance. After this game nothing happened. We didn’t discuss anything about me staying.”

Kostadinov is considered, honest and reflective of his time at Hearts, perhaps even regretful, albeit reluctant to delve into some of the external factors which may have impacted and impeded his progression.

“From my point of view I could have done better 90 per cent of the things,” he said. “At this time I was trying my best. Maybe I didn’t give everything. I don’t blame this on the fans, on the press or on anybody else because it’s me, it’s my head, my abilities. When something is not going the way you are expecting it to go, most of the time the first thought is yourself. Some players will try to give excuses. ‘I didn’t play because of this, this and that’. You have to be in control of your abilities, of your head. When you don’t have this control, don’t have control of your feelings, maybe it goes terribly wrong for you and you don't show your best in training or in the games.

“I can say there were a lot of things beside me and football which were against me which I would prefer not to discuss. But most of the things were my fault.”

Kostadinov has been back in Bulgaria ever since aside from a loan spell in Slovakia and a trial at St Johnstone in 2012. It was in 2019, however, when he found his purpose having been without a club for six months. Ludogorets, champions of Bulgaria for the last 12 years, required experience for the club’s second team, players who would help their young talent succeed on and off the pitch, act as a leader and strong presence in the dressing room.

It was an opportunity which arrived after turning down a lucrative move to Kazakhstan, the player opting to put family ahead of both football and family.

“I needed only 10 minutes,” he said. “I sat down with my wife, my second child had just arrived. I played Europa League in Kazakhstan so I know how far away this place is. If I stayed there you would need to travel six, seven hours on the plane. My wife is really scared of flying. She didn’t say no, she didn’t know what to say. [I said] ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to decide’. The most important thing for me is family. Imagine you go for one or two years and your baby is growing up, nobody can give you this time back. Even if you become a millionaire you cannot buy this time with your kids.

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“I was ready to come here for one or two years, I didn’t expect I would be here for five years. If you look up on the internet you would see the environment of Ludogorets, it’s the best in Bulgaria and maybe one of the best in Europe. It is top-level facilities, you have everything you can imagine. If you are a young player this is the best place to be. When I came I saw these talented players, they were hungry to learn, to copy something you can show them. It was something new for me. I can say these last four years I learned a lot of things from them. When I finish football I want to be connected with football, as a coach or technical staff, it has to be with football. For me it’s important to know how the young players are thinking now because they are thinking really differently from the time I was this age. How they are mentally because they really care about social media and how they are performing there which is absurd for me! I learn a lot of things, I think I have helped a lot of players to develop and get new views of their football careers.”

At Hearts Kostadinov was a quick forward who could play through the middle or out wide. Now?

“I can play any position! When I was at Hearts I was a striker but even at this time coaches were looking for stronger physical qualities. 1.90-2m, 90kg. I was a fast player but I cannot play this role. Even in Scotland I was playing on the wing. This is the main position I was playing in my career. In the last three or four years I play also as a right or left-back. Not because I cannot play winger but because when I joined our right-back was injured and nobody could play right-back so the coach came and asked ‘hey, as experienced player can you play right-back’. I’m here to help you, you can put me anywhere!"

Over the course of the 45 minute conversation, one which finished with Kostadinov expressing his hope Hearts would be “champions of Scotland”, and disappointment at the redevelopment of the Tynecastle Park Main Stand - “One of the things I liked in Scotland is you can see stadiums with old stands. It gives you this history. You can feel the history from 100 years ago. Football has changed, everything now is business also” - it is clear he has found real fulfilment in his career and life. Happy with his wife and children, happy with the role in his team and happy to have had the experience at Hearts.

“I cannot regret anything in my life besides these things I told you when I was young,” he said. “When you are a young player and everyone has big expectations about you it is difficult to control them, to know where the line is. Sometimes you think you are more than everybody else. It is bad for you and bad for young players to think they are special. When you don’t develop as you think you would or don’t show the things everybody expects you to show it is bad. From here you go down and everybody is going after you. ‘Come on, you’re a talent, what’s wrong with you, why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that, why don’t you score goals, everyone expected you to score 20 goals, you score five’. When you are a young player you are thinking ‘what the hell is happening’. I regret these things but I can’t do anything about them.

“If I go back and think the way I am thinking now it would be easier. I am thinking like this now because of my life experiences. You cannot pass the time and be a 20-year-old player but think like a 40-year-old player. Everything comes with experience. With games, with life. My family is giving me all the love I had. Life is not only football, it is a big part of my life but family is the most important thing in my life.”

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