Updated: May 10, 2020
Of course, I lost all respect for Dimitar Berbatov when he refused to play for Spurs because the club was allegedly denying him his “dream move” to Manchester United. The striker did himself no favours with his lack of respect for the club he was then playing for and the apparent sense of entitlement his public comments conveyed. But in the wake of the comments Berbatov is reported to have made following his move from Manchester United to Fulham, it’s worth thinking on a few things – and not just observing wryly that what goes around comes around.
Berbatov was one of the most gifted players I ever watched regularly – and I’ve been lucky enough to see some very gifted ones. One goal he scored against Charlton showcased everything he had, a sure touch, an ability to read the game, quickness of thought and foot, and an eye for goal. There were plenty of examples during his time at Spurs of his immense talent. But even then, some were put out by his languid style, his apparent lack of industry and excitement – a case of believing too strongly that it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it if ever there was one.
It brought back memories for me of how Glenn Hoddle was criticised for not tackling back, or Gary Lineker for being lazy. It’s funny how easy it is too overlook the greatest talent when it’s in front of us.
The Bulgarian’s style was what it was. It was languid, and he just has one of those faces that doesn’t light up with joy at every moment. Andy Garcia, who I always thought bore more than a passing resemblance (come to think of it, I’ve never seen them in the same room) rarely looks full of the joys of Spring either, but it hasn’t done him much harm. What mattered about Berbatov was how effective he was on the pitch. And he was very effective indeed. At Spurs he did much to help the club back to compete at the top end of the game. And at Manchester United he was top scorer in one season, and became the first player since Ruud Van Nistelrooy to score three hat-tricks in one season for the Reds.
And yet he never seemed appreciated by United’s fans, and he’s certainly not considered a club legend – not despite his many goals or many assists. I’ve heard it said that Berbatov was seen as, that word again, lazy, and that ‘he only scored against the poor sides’. It’s an enduring football cliché that you can only score against the sides in front of you, but it surely applies here. I never really understood why Man U didn’t take to Berbatov, and I agree with much of what Scott the Red says in this piece written for the Republik of Mancunia website in 2010. This was his conclusion then. “The number of goals Berbatov has scored and created this season is of a higher rate than any of his four years in England, higher than both Carlos Tevez’s years at United as well as Alan Smith’s first year at United (and only year he played as an out and out striker).”
But Berbatov had clearly fallen down the order at Old Trafford, and what’s now being said is that the team’s style of play changed to one which did not suit the Bulgarian hitman. That may well be true, although there are some questions that would surely be asked of any manager who wasn’t called Alex Ferguson. One is why a place could not be found for a talent such as Berbatov’s. Another is whether paying £30m for a player but never really making him your first choice is good business or good management. Those and other questions may well be asked of, to take a random example, a young Portuguese manager who did the same thing, but for reasons I think we know all too feel, there are legitimate questions not being asked about Ferguson’s role in all this.
Of course, Ferguson has more than proved himself as a manager over a long period, and both Berbatov and his agent have reputations for lashing out and being generally ham-fisted with their attempts at PR. But I still say there could be some questions asked about whether Berbatov is totally the villain of the piece here.
But there’s another question that intrigues me, as a Spurs fan, more – one that I wonder if Berbatov ever really considers. And that is this. If he had stayed at Spurs there’s a very good chance he would have helped the team onto the next level, and been part of both a challenge for the title and regular participation in the Champions League. He would have done so as the centre point of a team built around him. And he would have achieved true legend status, not just at Spurs, but perhaps beyond. It’s all supposition of course but, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols, I wonder if he ever feels he conned himself?