Alan Smith was much loved by our fans because of the effort he put in to every game. His tackles would come flying in, he would track down any ball and he was rewarded with his name being sung week after week.
However, he was supposed to be a striker and the best he could manage was 6 goals in 31 games (9 goals in 41 games in all competitions). This didn’t dampen the affection from the fans though, but it did mean he had to play in central midfield. It wasn’t all bad from there. His Man of the Match performance against Chelsea, when we put a stop to their 30 game unbeaten streak, saw him boss a midfield containing Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. His hard work and tireless running paid off every now and again, in games like that, but sadly there were far more appearances like his hapless effort against Middlesbrough where he had no idea what he was supposed to be doing or where he was supposed to be standing.
The last goal Smith scored for United was against Roma in April 2007. He hasn’t scored a goal since that since moving on to Newcastle either. Yet he was a striker adored by our fans.
Carlos Tevez was so well liked at Old Trafford that large portions of the ground felt it was appropriate to chant “Fergie, sign him up!” to drown out Sir Alex Ferguson’s end of season speech, after we had just equalled the record of 18 league titles. After a good first season when he had no competition in the starting line-up, Tevez struggled to make an impact when he was rotated following the purchase of Dimitar Berbatov.
Tevez played for 1856 minutes in the league and scored just 5 goals, an average of 1 goal per every 6 hours 11 minutes on the pitch. That was irrelevant to our fan base though. Like Smith, he ran around all over the place, he chased down every ball, he’d do anything he could to put the tackle in, so our fans were desperate to keep him. His name was sung every week.
Towards the end of his United career, he frequently voiced his displeasure at being left on the bench. He criticised the manager whilst still a United player after the European Cup final. He had a strop whenever he was subbed off. But that didn’t matter to our fans.
Then we have Dimitar Berbatov, a player whose skill shouldn’t even be mentioned on the same page as Tevez and Smith, who was offered more money from Manchester City but didn’t even bother to meet them, so intent was he on signing for United. He doesn’t just talk the talk, claiming to be loyal to United when really he has his eye on more money elsewhere. He proved this when he left the airport with Sir Alex two summers ago, knowing that even just a meeting with Mark Hughes would have raised the salary offer from United.
September 3rd 2008: “If I want to play for the money, I would accept the Manchester City offer or Chelsea. The red shirt is the really big thing for me. I want to play for the biggest club in the world.”
October 2nd 2008: “I feel happy playing in this team. It is everything I thought it would be. Ryan Giggs has been here since the beginning and says he never wanted to go anywhere else. I don’t want to go anywhere either.”
November 16th 2008: “I am just myself. I don’t want to be compared with anybody else – especially a legend like Cantona. If you ask some of the guys here, I am the quiet one. I don’t talk much. I prefer to listen and watch. I’ve been like that all my life. I don’t play for myself, I play for the team. You have 75,000 people supporting you every game, the most successful coach in the world and the best players in the world. What more could you want to try and improve?”
September 6th 2009: “I would not say my playing style is laid back, it is just a different style. I like time on the ball and I like space. If I can get that, then I know I can free up players like Nani and Wayne Rooney, who do lots of running. I am ready to sweat blood for this club.”
October 2nd 2009: “I am a footballer playing for the best club in the world. I am playing with legends like Scholes, Giggs and Rooney. Being coached by a man like Sir Alex Ferguson. How can I not be happy?”
Berbatov is aware that sections of the fans still don’t like him but he is quite happy to take that criticism on board.
“Then that is my fault, not theirs,” he said. “It is me who must change. Manchester United is their club. They have treated me perfectly since I came.”
Football is very much about statistics these days but Berbatov would like to see his statistics put him on top for work rate.
“I don’t run for no reason,” he added. “I am always alert and ready. I will be honest. This criticism did affect me, but not in a negative way. I looked at our ProZone stats and saw that I was 9th in distance covered. I am kind of a nerd. I looked at them too much, maybe. By the end of the season I was 4th. Maybe this season I will be 1st!”
May 13th 2010: “I have arrived where I wanted to be, I have reached the summit. United is the biggest team and I will fight to stay there until the end of my contract.”
May 18th 2010: “By joining Manchester United I have achieved everything I wanted.”
September 20th 2010: “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. I’m not tired. I feel alive. I have always said I am so lucky to play here. For these people. For this manager. For this club. With these players. I can’t describe it.”
September 27th 2010: “I write things down about the way we train and how he treats people. It is like a school. You work with the best manager and play with the best players. I try to learn. I am at the biggest club in the world. If I can learn anywhere it is here.”
But it didn’t matter that he loved playing for the club more than he did earning the top salary, it didn’t matter that he created more goalscoring opportunities than any other striker in the league, it didn’t matter that he never complained about being left out of the team, it didn’t matter than he was scoring more than the much loved Smith or Tevez, because Berbatov was “lazy”. Berbatov didn’t run around enough, he didn’t track back enough, he didn’t sprint after lost causes, and he had poor “body language”.
Berbatov hasn’t changed his style. He still doesn’t run around like a headless chicken, he still doesn’t waste energy by exerting more effort than he feels is needed, he’s not sliding in making tackles left, right and centre. His touch is as good as it ever was, he keeps possession as well as he always has, but now that the team is playing in a formation to get the best out of him, he’s scoring goals. Now the fans are encouraging him by singing his song (still too infrequently for my liking), instead of jeering and grumbling, he has the confidence to have a go in situations where in the past he would have looked for the pass.
Even the Berbafans knew that our Bulgarian had to score more goals to be better appreciated. With the price tag he came with and his role as striker, 12 goals wasn’t enough. However, the 12 goals was more than double what Tevez scored in his last season when he was adored.
Now Berbatov is currently the Premiership’s top scorer with 14 goals, his “languid” style isn’t a problem for most fans. It doesn’t matter that he appears “lazy”, it doesn’t matter that he spins around in a circle and waves his hands about when the ball doesn’t come where he wants it, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t aimlessly sprint around the field. But it is a sad state of affairs that, whilst attitudes are changing, both Smith and Tevez were treated so much better by our fans than Berbatov still is now, despite the fact he massively outscores them and absolutely loves being a Manchester United player.
So, now that he’s scoring, does it matter than he’s “lazy”? If not, why did it matter so much before, when he was still scoring more than Tevez and Smith had done?