It was approaching 11:30pm on Monday 22nd April 2013 BFR. (Before Fergie Retired). The pubs – The Trafford, Sam Platts, The Tollgate – had been cleared and staff were starting the long, hard clean-up operation. The last, straggling cars in the many unofficial car parks surrounding Old Trafford were gunning their engines, preparing to leave. Some of them pipped out a jaunty tune on their horns as they left. At the Metro stations fans were trying to wedge their new ‘Champions 20’ flags through the doors of the trams. Some were heading into town to find pubs which might be open. Others headed for the station, for a longer journey home. Most of them were rowdy, and full of song. Others were quietly smug, happy in the knowledge that United were back.
It was cold, but not bitterly so. Most Reds had had their cockles warmed by the evening’s main event, Manchester United serving up a 3-0 victory against Aston Villa which secured the Premier League title.
And already, even as the dust was settling on Manchester United’s English record-extending twentieth championship title – their thirteenth under Sir Alex Ferguson – even as the fans and players were still celebrating, even as the possibility of the club finishing with an all-time record points-haul remained in the offing (we soon pissed that one away), commentators and journalists were beginning to turn their attention to the quality of the side. The internet message boards and the radio phone-ins were full of chatter:
How good are this current incarnation of Manchester United?
How would they compare with previous Ferguson teams?
Which players of the current squad, if any, would make it into Fergie’s greatest ever United side?
Some of the chatter was fatuous, aimed at belittling United’s (and Ferguson’s) achievement. They said this was far from being a vintage United x11. They said the competition were no great shakes: Manchester City’s defence of their 2011-12 title had been – at best – inconsistent; Chelsea were in transition; Liverpool were lurching from disaster to disaster; Arsenal… Well, United had pinched their star player.
Some of it was better informed. Some observers pointed out that Robin Van Persie had had an absolutely fantastic season, that Michael Carrick had been imperious in midfield, that Rio Ferdinand was back to his historic best in defence and that, in young players like David De Gea, Rafael Da Silva, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, United had the foundations for a very good future.
Sir Alex Ferguson, when asked after the game for his thoughts on the respective ‘greatness’ of the 2012-13 United said: “It must bear comparison (with United sides of the past). I’m trying to think of a player who has scored a goal like that (Van Persie’s second goal of his hat-trick was described by Fergie as the “goal of the century”). Rafael will end up being compared to Gary Neville. Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are comparable to all the defenders we have had. I’m not saying they are better but great players are great players. Nostalgia does play tricks.”
He also said: “I’ve had some great strikers, maybe 10 great strikers.”
Which made my job all the more difficult. You see, I had been commissioned to write a book on Sir Alex Ferguson’s Greatest United x11 (even before Fergie announced his retirement I’d been commissioned – his retirement merely hastened the publication). The publisher wanted me to consider 2, or 3 players for each position. And 10 into 6 won’t go. 10 into 2 – the ultimate 2 strikers I would select – definitely wouldn’t go.
I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much by saying that Dimitar Berbatov didn’t make the cut. Cantona, Yorke, Solksjaer, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Robin Van Persie all deserved their mentions and I just couldn’t squeeze Berbatov in. Perhaps if I’d have made it an ‘Andrew Kirby’s Favourite United x11’ he might have made the bench, but my book was supposed to contain ‘Fergie’s Finest’, and as such he simply hadn’t done enough.
What’s more, I simply couldn’t find enough people willing to make a case for him. In selecting the eleven greats, I canvassed a wide variety of opinions. I interviewed the editors of fanzines (like your very own Scott), merchandisers, proud Mancs and supporters clubs from around the world. I spoke to ex-players, like Norman Whiteside, and top journalists, like Neil Custis from The Sun. I sought out the opinion of Ken Loach, the film director who worked with one Eric Cantona on Looking for Eric. I also interviewed various fans and representatives of rival teams to get a ‘view from the enemy’: after all, the players they fear, and hate, are likely to be the real United greats.
Dimitar wasn’t exactly the name on everybody’s lips.
But somewhere amid the sadness of last Sunday – with Fergie and Scholes taking their final bows, with Becks signing off for PSG in tears a couple of days previously, with even Michael Owen hanging up his boots – I felt another twinge when I watched Match of the Day and saw Dimitar Berbatov scoring a lovely goal for Fulham in their away win against an already-on-the-beach Swansea side.
I miss Dimitar. And, watching him in full flow against Swansea (well, he trickled) I imagined, for a heady moment, Dimitar and RVP playing up-front together. I dreamed of the flicks, the nonchalance, the beauty. I imagined the goals they’d conjure up for each other. I imagined neither would kick it ‘properly’ for a whole season if they lined up in the same x11. For them, it would be all about the existential beauty: between them, they might just make up one Cantona.
And I wondered whether a case could have been made for Berbatov staying at Old Trafford another season. After all, with 15 goals for struggling Fulham, he’s been the top-scoring striker in London this season (Bale has more but he is not a striker, and he’s won enough awards in a team which has won nothing.)
In The Guardian the football journalists lined up to select their best player, goal, moments of the season. Bale won ‘Player’. Van Persie won ‘Goal’ (for the over-the-shoulder beaut against Villa). But I was delighted to see Dimitar Berbatov getting not one, but two mentions (more than any City player). David Hytner nominated the Bulgarian as “the best player to watch and the best player to write about.” Which I imagine he is. Journalists love caricaturing Dimi. Making out he is this gloomy oddball obsessed with death. Or else taking the piss out of his “Keep calm and pass me the ball” T-shirt.
RoM ‘favourite’ Sachin Nakrani was the other journo to give Berbatov a shout. He said it was “a left-field choice but then Berba is a left-field player. Languid, highly-skilled, hilariously ratty…”
Berbatov would have been a perfect fit for Arsenal, or maybe Spurs – how they’ve lacked a striker for most of this season. And yet he chose Fulham. Maybe he liked Al Fayed’s Michael Jackson statue. Maybe he knew the only way after leaving United was down, so he just fancied being a big fish in a small pond all over again.
I can’t seem to get away from the fact I feel Berb was harshly treated at United though. Being dropped from the entire squad for that Champions League final springs instantly to mind. I feel guilty about it. In the first half of that nineteenth league championship-winning season, he scored goals at a Van Persie/ Van Nistelrooy rate. Helped himself to a hat-trick against Liverpool at Old Trafford. Brought down skewed long passes as though they were things of beauty. Then there was his back-heel against Fulham. There was his shrugging. His smoking.
Damn it, I miss him. And I’m sorry I left him out of my ‘Fergie’s Finest’ book. Certainly I’d rather have written about him than a certain Wayne Rooney… Maybe I’ll write an updated version.
Or just write a whole book on the Bulgarian.
Most of us love to compare and contrast. We love to select our own ‘Dream Teams’, our ‘Fantasy Football x11s’. We talk about it in the pubs – The Trafford, Sam Platts, The Tollgate – and on the radio. We talk about it over family dinners and in the car on the way home from OT.
Sports fans in general love to do this. In America, baseball fans make studious cases for their team’s best ever line-ups. They quote reams of statistics to back up their arguments.
Football, however, is a far more subjective sport. We let our hearts rule our heads. We choose one player over another because of personal feelings, because a certain goal they scored, in maybe a meaningless match, made our heart beat faster, made us love the world, or the game of football again. We choose another player because they might have celebrated a certain goal with the fans, and maybe they high-fived us and us only, amongst the maelstrom.
In the case of Dimitar Berbatov, I wish I’d listened to my heart more. I still love to see him on Match of the Day, with that seemingly lackadaisical style of his and his lethal finishing and his T-shirts. (I’m not sure I could say the same for Rooney if I saw him lining up in another shirt.)
My book, ‘Fergie’s Finest’ was published the week Sir Alex retired. We rushed it out. If I could make one change to the text, I’d at least give Berbatov an honorary mention. He might not have been every fan’s cup of tea, but he was my measure of absinthe. Complicated, sometimes surreal, sometimes downright hallucinogenic, he was a player could go to your head. Make you drunk with joy – witness that Liverpool hat-trick.
Yeah, I miss him.
Andrew J Kirby is the author of ‘Fergie’s Finest’ which was released this month. His sports writing has featured in BBC Sport magazine, and on the Radio Five Live website.