Dimitar Berbatov frustrated as much as he excited the fans of Tottenham, Manchester United and Fulham during his time in the Premier League – but for those of us that didn’t have to worry about what he didn’t do, well, what a player.
The pass was firmly hit but slightly wayward. Perhaps if he’d been willing to stretch, Dimitar Berbatov could have reached it. But that would have required additional effort on his part, and the Bulgarian striker has never been keen to exert himself unduly. He’s far too important for that.
Berbatov was seething. He looked up at his team-mate and delivered an almighty bollocking. Tom Huddlestone just stood there and took it.
Berbatov knew he was better than that and had to make it clear. There would be no loose passes on his watch. If there were, he wasn’t prepared to put himself out on the offender’s behalf.
At his best, Berbatov was aloof and achingly cool. He inspired quiet awe and reverence from those around him. Raising his voice was a last resort. It shattered the illusion of his tremendous composure and self-control. It was something he scrupulously avoided, but occasionally needs must.
If Berbatov let this slide, who knows where it might lead. One poorly-directed pass was the start of a long, slippery slope. Huddlestone was told, in no uncertain terms, that what he’d done was unacceptable and should never be repeated.
I only once got to watch Berbatov in the flesh, and it was this moment that stayed with me. Seemingly innocuous, it said everything about him and his unwavering expectations. Tottenham Hotspur lost 4-1 to Birmingham City that day. Perhaps Huddlestone’s poor pass set the tone.
Tottenham had won the League Cup the week before, beating Chelsea 2-1 in the final at Wembley, and Berbatov had equalised with the most nonchalant of penalties. He ambled up to the ball, waited for Petr Cech to commit himself and then rolled in into the opposite corner to take the game into extra time.
He was in tremendous form all that season, his second in the Premier League. He scored 23 goals in 52 games in total, but his contribution was always so much greater than the raw figures would suggest. He gave Tottenham their swagger back and made them feel like a big club again.
United’s new maverick
Alex Ferguson saw that irresistible shrugging brilliance and was transfixed like the rest of us.
The comparisons to Eric Cantona were inevitable. Berbatov would surely rule over Old Trafford in the same way. He was the maverick that Manchester United needed.
After a summer-long pursuit in 2008, Ferguson finally got his man minutes before the transfer window closed. A newly-moneyed Manchester City had tried to hijack the deal at the last moment but failed. Berbatov was always more suited to the imperial grandeur of United anyway.
The goals didn’t flow as freely in his first two seasons, but such crude measures could never encapsulate his genius. Berbatov was all about jaw-dropping moments of skill and finesse more than anything else.
His almost indescribable act of escapology against West Ham was one of the best.
Sent towards the touchline with James Collins in close pursuit, there was nowhere to go until Berbatov invented his own exit route, effortlessly turning, rolling the ball and flicking it over the defender’s foot in one fluid motion. He then had the presence of mind to tee up Cristiano Ronaldo for a tap in.
What's the best tap in you've ever seen?
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) October 2, 2020
The goal might have gone down in Ronaldo’s name but, in truth, it was all Berbatov. The perfunctory finish owed everything to his creativity, a prime example of the assist completely overshadowing what came after it.
In his third season at United, Berbatov finished as the Premier League’s top scorer with 20 goals. There were hat-tricks against Liverpool, including a spectacular overhead kick, and Birmingham, as well as a five-goal haul at home to Blackburn Rovers.
A drawn-out decline
The season ended with the travesty of Berbatov being left out of the squad to face Barcelona in the Champions League final. Michael Owen was mystifyingly chosen ahead of him on the bench and United were comfortably beaten 3-1.
The decision sparked a rift between Berbatov and Ferguson, with the striker later claiming that such treatment caused the manager to lose his respect.
He played infrequently in his final year at the club, as United favoured a more direct and fast-paced style. There was little room for his languid elegance.
Berbatov played at a leisurely pace, moving around the pitch as if conveyed in a sedan chair by loyal servants. Rather than a tacky polyester football kit, he would have been better suited to slippers and a velvet robe, drawing slowly on one of the finest Cuban cigars. He was the ultimate luxury.
Leaving United was the beginning of a long drawn-out decline, a notable downshift in the gears as he gradually moved towards retirement. Moving to Fulham enabled him to be the undoubted star in a middling side and he relished the role.
There were plenty of goals but many better touches. One that stands out above the rest came against Aston Villa, when a crossfield pass was plucked out of the sky on the halfway line with unflustered poise. He killed the ball stone dead and waited to be put under pressure but none was forthcoming. Opponents were afraid to approach.
Dimitar Berbatov celebrates his birthday today. We're celebrating his first touch. pic.twitter.com/F0q4LxbcGC
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) January 30, 2018
After the departure of Martin Jol, the manager who first brought him to England and understood his mentality, Berbatov was released midway through Fulham’s relegation season and went to Monaco.
While there he scored one of the greatest goals of a stellar career, bringing the ball down inside the area at a tight angle, letting it bounce twice and then lifting it over the goalkeeper with a casual flick of his right boot. He walked away with a satisfied smirk on his face.
— AS Monaco EN (@AS_Monaco_EN) September 20, 2019
A spell at PAOK followed before Berbatov spent a year out of the game. He’s now with Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League, as the leading man of a squad that contains several exiles from English football – Paul Rachubka, Wes Brown and Iain Hume – and is coached by David James.
He hasn’t exactly been a roaring success there, but we’re betting he’d still boss a game of one-touch. After all, as he said during an appearance on BT Sport: “it’s not about the age, it’s about the quality.”
With the glorious Berbatov, that’s never been in doubt.
By Sean Cole