By Nathan Thomas.
Dimitar Berbatov’s four million pounds move to Fulham on Friday brought to an end a rather peculiar Manchester United career.
In every essence, Berbatov should have been the quintessential United player. Calm, charismatic and above all a maverick who plays the game his own way. The Bulgarian forward, bought from Tottenham Hotspur for an eye-watering sum of £30.75 million pounds during the summer of 2008, arrived at Old Trafford with a reasonably impressive goal scoring record of 27 in 70 for Spurs but more importantly brought with him an alternate dimension to the art of attacking football.
Ferguson, famed for carrying the mantra that failure to take a step forward inevitably means taking two steps back, parted with a club record fee to prise Berbatov from the sticky grasp of Tottenham and Daniel Levy. Despite being the champions of Europe and possessing the best player in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson clearly felt that Berbatov was worth the hefty sum.
At the time, Berbatov was viewed as the final piece of Ferguson’s proverbial jigsaw. It was a signing that polished off one of the most fearsome looking forward quadruplets ever seen at Old Trafford. Berbatov joined Carlos Tevez, the aforementioned Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in a line-up uttered in the same breath as the hallowed names of Sheringham, Solskjaer, Yorke and Cole from the 1999 treble winning season. It could be attested that in terms of out and out quality that the line-up which Berbatov became a part of trumped even those illustrious bastions of the United ethos of victory.
On paper, things looked nigh-on perfect, but football is not played on paper. Berbatov’s subsequent career took on a shape that can be generalised as one of frustration – and disappointment. That is not to say it was a failure. During the Bulgarian’s tenure as United’s number nine he won the Premier League twice, the Club World Cup, the League Cup aswell as sharing the Golden Boot award in the 2010/11 season. Berbatov scored 48 goals in 108 United appearances, which again, is a record not be sniffed at. However, for what the signing of Berbatov appeared to promise upon his arrival there is no denying that he, the fans and the manager would have wanted more.
As someone who cites the spark of his Manchester United passion being in part, down to Eric Cantona, I for one was excited with the comparisons that some were making between Berbatov and Le Roi back in 2008. Although some scoff at comparisons such as these, the child inside of me becomes a semblance of giddy anticipation as to what such a player may be able to do at Old Trafford. The comparisons weren’t without foundation, both on and off the pitch.
A quiet, conservative man who was clearly much happier in his own company lived life in a rather ‘left-of-field’ manner. He strayed away from any form of a playboy lifestyle that some footballers chose to court and this sort of persona often appeals to fans more than someone who spends their money on wine, women and song. Despite the frustrations that he would inevitably bring during his time at United, when he was on his game Berbatov was one of the most stylistic players I have ever had the privilege to watch.
Football fan culture in different countries throughout the world never ceases to fascinate me and although I am not saying that Berbatov was under rated I am saying he was under appreciated. Fans of the British game often prefer a player who gives everything, loves a meaty tackle and leaves every sinew of sweat on the pitch. Subsequently, Berbatov’s elegance and poise was often mistaken for laziness.
Now, Berbatov was not perfect – not at all. He went missing in Europe and was too frequently a peripheral in crunch clashes against United’s biggest rivals. In fairness to Berbatov, he was often left on the bench in Europe – however this was in part down to the fact that Ferguson did not seem to trust him on the big occasion.
Still, as far as I see it, football fans are often guilty of forgetting why they started watching football in the first place. Yes, we want to win and winning is all important, but we also want to see our team winning with class, style and panache. We want to see exciting inter-play, not route one long balls. Berbatov is clearly a sumptuous footballing technician; even today, making his debut for Fulham at Upton Park he showcased on numerous occasions his sublime first touch and vision.
I think Berbatov will do well at Craven Cottage, he will have to kiss goodbye to challenging for the Premier League and playing in Europe, but he may be able to resurrect his name as a true footballing maverick. The fact that United did not build their team around Berbatov, as had been the arrangement at White Hart Lane, hindered Berbatov from the offset. With Ronaldo’s mercurial talent insistent on its need for lauding, Berbatov had to dance to United’s tune and not the other way round. At Fulham, he should get this opportunity once again, but at United it just wasn’t meant to be.
It is unlikely that Berbatov will be remembered amongst the likes of Law, Cantona and van Nistelrooy, but what he did do was play the game in his own way. Towards the end, he refused to criticise the manager and worked hard in case he was called upon, knowing full well that he would be on the bench at best. In a modern age where players get itchy feet at the slightest of discrepancy, Berbatov’s attitude should be applauded. As should his footballing ability, which really is truly special.
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