Exclusive Interview: Tonev hoping to be a shooting star
The claret and blue faithful used to urge Thomas Hitzlsperger to "shooooot" at every opportunity. Aleksandar Tonev needs no such encouragement.
The 24-year-old Bulgarian midfielder is desperately seeking his first Villa goal, and is willing to try his luck from any distance.
And although a few of his attempts have been well off target he is most definitely edging closer and closer.
Against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he curled a shot narrowly past the far post. And he was closer still in our home match against Fulham, his superb 25-yard drive being tipped away at full stretch by keeper David Stockdale.
"I like to shoot in every game and I love to score goals," says the man who was on target eight times for Polish club Lech Poznan before his move to Villa last summer and has also netted four times for Bulgaria U21s and three for the full national side.
"I thought I was going to score when I hit both those shots. The one at Manchester United wasn't very far wide, and I hit the one against Fulham really well but it was a great save by their goalkeeper.
"It's a brilliant feeling to score and I can't wait to get my first goal for Aston Villa."
While a Tonev goal looks increasingly possible, his long-term aim is to be featuring more frequently in Villa's middle ground.
He has had to settle for just eight starting appearances, plus 12 from the bench, since his transfer from Lech Poznan last summer.
"I hoped I would play more but I obviously needed time to adapt," he acknowledges. "But now I feel far more confident.
"It was difficult when I came here. I was in a new country and had to learn a new language. But I'm far more comfortable with everything now.
"Maybe I still need more time but I feel much better. I really enjoy training and I love to play in games. The Premier League is very hard but I feel I have settled in.
"It was a big step to come into the best league in the world after playing in Bulgaria and Poland. Football here is much bigger than I imagined - English football is brilliant.
"You have the best players, great stadiums, great fans - and the game is much quicker than I had been used to. I've had to work very hard in training in order to adjust."
When Tonev arrived, he leaned heavily on fellow countryman Stiliyan Petrov, who nursed him through his first interview with AVTV and subsequently acted as a translator when the newboy spoke to the club's official website several months ago.
His English has now improved to such an extent that he no longer needs such assistance from Villa's former captain, who has retained his dry sense of humour throughout the trauma of overcoming the acute leukaemia which ended his career.
"I speak to Stiliyan every day, but not about football," says Tonev.
"We are good friends. Stiliyan helped me to understand about the club and about English football. He's a legend, both in England and in Bulgaria, and he's my best friend here. He's very funny and he makes me laugh a lot.
"I would like to think that I will one day be at his level for both Villa and Bulgaria. All young players in my country want to be like Stiliyan."
Tonev's immediate priority, though, is to establish himself as a regular member of Villa's starting line-up.
Although he hasn't yet been as dynamic as Paul Lambert envisaged when he made his first signing of last summer, the manager remains confident it won't be too long before we see Tonev at his best.
Lambert's verdict could hardly be more emphatic, the boss stressing that Tonev has blistering speed as well as being equally effective with either foot.
The player is determined to justify the faith shown in him.
"I'm confident I will have more impact next season," he says, "and hopefully also in the final games of this season.
"I've enjoyed it every time I've played for Villa, but my first game was the most special so far. It was fantastic to go on as a sub at Chelsea at the start of the season. Even though we lost, we played really well that night.
"To be playing against such big-names, players I had seen so often on television, was unbelievable."
Before his spell in Poland, Tonev helped CSKA Sofia to Bulgarian Cup glory in 2011, and he would love to enjoy similar success with Villa.
"Why not?" he asks. "This season has been disappointing but I believe we will do much better next season. It's a pity we went out of the two cups at an early stage but in those competitions there is always the chance we might win a trophy."
Back in Bulgaria, children in an orphanage near his home town of Elin Pelin are already enjoying a few "trophies" - the shirts Aleksandar sends them every few months, with his name and number on the back of each one.
"It makes the kids really happy," he says.
"These kids want to play football but they have no boots and no kits. I'm a footballer but I appreciate where I have come from."
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