There will be plenty of people who are relieved that Dimitar Berbatov has now left United, myself included, but there will be varying reasons behind this feeling. Relieved because he wasn’t good enough, relieved because he deserved to play week in week out, relieved not to have to hear the same moronic criticisms or relieved because he was already on borrowed time. Berbatov has signed for Fulham and I’m pleased he’s got another chance to show off his talent before his career comes to an end.
Berbatov was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle, just like Juan Sebastian Veron was, but it just never really worked out that way. Whilst his ability could never be doubted, his mentality came in to question, with the Bulgarian rarely doing the business in the big games. Whilst it could be argued he was rarely given a chance in the big games, those two early misses in the FA Cup semi-final against City in 2011, before they beat us 1-0 and went on to win their first trophy in almost four decades, was probably the final nail in his coffin. There was also that awful penalty miss against Everton in another FA Cup semi-final two years before that which lead to some of our fans turning on him, and set the tone for the appearances he made in our biggest matches.
I used to bleat that if you don’t get Berbatov, you don’t get football, and I stand by that. For whatever reason, players like Alan Smith and Carlos Tevez get far more appreciation by our fans, because they run around a lot and look like they care. Smith hated Manchester United, Leeds through and through, once claiming that we were the only club he would never play for. He didn’t care about us and he was a bit shit. That didn’t stop our fans singing his name from the roof tops though, because he would go flying in to tackles and was all too happy to put an opponent in the stands. Then there was Tevez, who was explosive for us in his first season, but did very little in his second, managing just five goals in the league (averaging out at one goal every six hours he was on the pitch). He left the club under a cloud, slagging off the manager for not starting him in the Champions League final in 2009, joining our hated rivals, and behaving like a dick there instead. This summer he was asked what his favourite goal for City was and he replied: “All the ones against United.” Really? Those three goals he scored against us in the League Cup semi-finals in 2010 when we knocked them out anyway is the peak of his City career? The bitter little troll didn’t care about us either and his attitude should prove to all that he is not a Manchester United player, no way. But that didn’t stop our fans drowning out Fergie’s end of season speech, after we had equalled Liverpool’s record eighteen titles, with chants of “Fergie, sign him up!”
Then you get a player like Berbatov, who didn’t even bother to meet with City before signing us, despite knowing just saying “hello” to Mark Hughes would have put pressure on United to offer him a higher salary. Whilst all players are there for the money, there are some players who don’t just go wherever the highest salary is, but for the shirt they will get to wear too.
“If I want to play for the money, I would accept the Manchester City offer or Chelsea,” he said after signing. “The red shirt is the really big thing for me. I want to play for the biggest club in the world. I am 27 now, I am at the biggest club in the world and maybe this could be the last step in my career. I know I can develop here in the way I always wanted. I always believed.”
Berbatov spent his first couple of seasons treading water, scoring 14 goals in his first year and 12 goals in his second. Whilst Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres have redefined the meaning of the word flop (Torres has scored 15 goals in 71 games, Carroll had 11 in 58 before being shipped off to West Ham on loan), no one could claim that his return matched what you would expect of a £30m player. He was great at keeping possession, had brilliant vision, a beautiful first touch, was thoroughly entertaining, but he wasn’t banging them in. However, he was scoring more than the likes of Smith and Tevez had, but because he didn’t chase endless lost causes (largely because he didn’t boot the ball five yards away with his first touch, needing to run around trying to win back possession), he was unpopular with some. You would have thought United had more cultured fans than that, who would appreciate a quality footballer when they saw one, but too many reds wanted a less talented player who looked like he cared.
Our Bulgarian did care though and anyone who doesn’t judge a player’s passion purely on how many inches of grass they cover in a game could see that.
“People talk about the north and the south but I don’t make comparisons like that, I am just interested in my football,” he said. “People say it is not sunny here and it rains all the time but that doesn’t bother me. I like it the way it is. In fact, I like it better here. But the city is secondary to the team I play for. Now I play for the biggest team in the world, so it doesn’t matter where I live. My dream was to come here, now I can see how the biggest stars are working and I can compare and measure myself against the best.”
Then came the 2010-2011 season when Berbatov wasn’t just measuring himself against the best but becoming one of the best himself. He ended the season the Premier League top scorer and United were crowned champions for the nineteenth time, more than any English club in the history of the game. By the turn of the year that season, Berbatov had scored more hattricks for United than Rooney had goals, following his strop and U-turn on a decision to leave us for City, including the one against Liverpool. Having gone 2-0 up, we were pegged back to 2-2, before Berba won us the game, becoming the first United player to score a hattrick against them since 1946.
Whilst the critics’ voices became quieter, they were still there. Now that he was scoring goals, their problem was that he supposedly wasn’t scoring them in enough games. Have you ever heard anything so absurd? When you compared his goal distribution with the other top scorers that year, there was nothing in it. Oddly, there are some football supporters who would rather be right than see certain players do well. After slating Berba for two years, which was understandable to a certain degree, some people just found it too difficult to acknowledge that he was just a better player now, an important player, and one that contributed to arguably the greatest success in our club’s history, becoming the most successful English club of all time.
When you compare Berbatov with United’s other highest scorers during the Premier League years, again, there is nothing in it. His goals to game rate worked out at him scoring in 48% of the games that he started. This was a better rate than 13 of our other 18 top scorers in the Premier League years at the time. The five occasions when his rate was bettered are: Rooney (09-10), Ronaldo (07-08), Van Nistelrooy (05-06) and (01-02) and Solskjaer (96-97).
Berbatov scored goals in 11 different games that season, one less game than Cantona scored goals in during the 95-96 season and one less than Ronaldo did during the 2008-2009 season. Can’t remember anyone complaining about those players not scoring often enough during those seasons, can you? Berbatov scored match winning goals in 7 games in 2010-2011, which earned us more than a quarter of the total points we accumulated that season, without even looking at the difference his other goals made.
No United fan should take issue with fair criticism of our players but the nonsense that was levelled at Berbatov became embarrassing. Not just because it was completely untrue but because our own fans became desperate to make him look worse than he was. It’s hard to remember a player who has split opinion so much, but the more one side argued he was rubbish, the more the other side, myself included, argued he was the best thing since sliced bread. In actual fact though, neither were true.
At United, Sir Alex Ferguson has the right to demand more than just scoring goals from his strikers. You need players who will be there on the big occasion and that’s why Javier Hernandez, who had joined us in the summer following goals against Argentina and France in the World Cup, forced Berba out of the starting line-up towards the end of 2010-2011. In the last two months Chicharito scored both goals in our 2-1 win over Marseille to book our place in the Champions League quarter-finals, he scored the opening goal in our 2-1 win over Chelsea in the next round, the only goal in our 1-0 win over Everton, five minutes from time, and then probably my favourite goal of the season, scoring within the first minute against Chelsea in the game that more or less won us the title. Would Berba have scored all those goals? Even as a big fan of the Bulgarian, I can’t argue with the fact that Chicharito was just far better suited to how we played.
Berba’s last season at the club at the club saw him score 7 goals in 12 games but the writing had been on the wall since his Champions League final snub. It was incredible that our top scorer wasn’t even named on the bench and it was completely understandable he was devastated by this. But he’s never spoken badly about the manager, he’s never complained about being left out of the team and instead just got on with it. His attitude is a cut above and it’s a shame for him that he’s more or less wasted a year of his career sticking it out at United when he probably should have left last summer.
Berbatov’s silky skills and lovely touches were a pleasure to watch but the manager never found a way to consistently have him involved at his best. He never became the player we hoped he would, although his strike rate was better at United than it was at Spurs, and that will always be a regret. It’s a shame that the regret seems to overshadow what he did achieve at United for some though. Rooney’s decision that United didn’t match his ambition at the start of that season could have cost us the 19th title if not for Berbatov and we would have still been here, teetering on 18, watching City win the league. He won’t go down as a legend, he doesn’t deserve to, but his name is rightly in our history books. No amount of negativity or criticism can change that.
Maybe in years from now he will be more greatly appreciated, particularly with us likely to endure a mercenary or two who doesn’t give a fuck less about the club. Berbatov was a supremely talented United player, who was our top scorer during our record 19th title winning season, who never said a bad word about the manager after being dropped and loved playing for us. United was the pinnacle for him and in an age when money is god, it is refreshing to see a player who still cared about wearing our shirt. He is a class act and one of my favourites. Farewell, Berba.
“I am lucky. I have loved my time here. I was disappointed with myself that I could not please all the supporters. I have said before the people of Manchester United are the judges and that is the way it should be. It is their team. I am a guest. A privileged guest.”