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Keep Calm and Pass Him the Ball: Dimitar Berbatov, a retrospective

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.


 

112 Comments

  1. WeAreUnited says:

    CL Statistics, you have to go through Barca to be a champion. A coincidence? Maybe, but I don’t think so. this is an amazing fact since 2008.

    2006 CL winner Barca

    2007 Liverpool won Barca in the first knockout stage, reached the final and lost.
    2007 CL winner ACMilan

    2008 Semi-final ManUtd-Barca -> ManUtd
    2008 CL winner ManUtd

    2009 CL winner Barcelona

    2010 Semi-final Inter-Barca -> Inter
    2010 CL winner Inter

    2011 CL winner Barca

    2012 Semi-final Chelsea-Barca -> Chelsea
    2012 CL winner Chelsea

    2013 Semi-final BMunchen-Barca
    2013 CL winner BMunchen

  2. Ash says:

    Costas

    I will also add the fact that Sir alex was a bit hesitant in giving youngsters chance. Yes he gave De gea’s Jones chance to shine but In earlier days I doubt he would have continuously played Giggs and scholes. And Also I will add that we have seen many players play out of position. No need to convert a defender into a midfielder or a winger into a midfielder.
    But you are right injuries made our squad weak. I hope now we dont depend on Fletcher or Giggs. It pains me to say that Fletchers time is over. Cant expect him to come back play regularly.

    Saad

    Welbeck has talent mate. I feel he is not suited in wings. He does score goals when he plays for england. You cannot write him off especially after his great performance against Real Madrid. But jury is yet to be out on him. Like I said this season will be the key to his future. He can either become a great striker or just a squad player. But I believe he will score goals and will become a key performer to our team.

  3. King Eric says:

    Timbo. Good post. You ALWAYS post on Berbatov threads and I agree with your views on him BUT to say Rooney doesn’t produce in big games is a bit daft. Champions league final. Chelsea away in quarter final. City away two goals. Opener in 4 3 over City. Arsenal away two years back. Rentboys in FA Cup. I could go on all day. Right now I couldn’t care less about Wayne but a lot are making out he’s suddenly shit. On form he’s our best player, simple as that. Those thinking Rooney leaving wouldn’t make a difference could get a shock. United with a focused Rooney are a MUCH better side.

    It’s all well and good saying we should have signed Gundogan etc but how do any of us know we haven’t scouted thes players and perhaps they didn’t want to come to England. So many factors to take into account with transfers.

    As for Pogba leave it be. He’s gone. Couldn’t give a fuck. Why do some make out he was integral to United? He played about ten minutes. Fuck him. Showed his class couple of weeks back when he was sent off for spitting. We have loads of great young players who I hope get a chance, without worrying about that greedy cunt Pogba.

  4. Sparkz says:

    Some interesting comments. Berba was definitely one of the most talented players SAF signed but his biggest problems were not fitting in with the style (not entirely his fault though) and not having the right mentality (his fault). I watch him play for Fulham and he’s a totally different player. Seems more relaxed, more at ease, and I think that’s because there’s less pressure. I also don’t think Fergie used him in his right position in his first 2 years. He’s a Number 9 IMO, not a 10. It took 2 years for Fergie to play him as one.

    Definitely not a failure, but definitely not a success either. Even in his best season, he went on a long goal drought after the Liverpool game until the Blackburn game in December. Hernandez and Nani carried us during that period.

    What frustrated me was the fact he rarely turned up in big games, when the pressure was really on. RVP in one season has influenced more big games than Berba did in 4 years. Hell, even Owen did more in big games than Berba. His goal record in the CL for us was also very poor.

    And it seemed to me that when Rooney was injured/suspended – that’s when Berba shrunk the most. Think about the Chelsea game in 2010. Think about the goal drought that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Think about the City FA Cup semi. Whenever Rooney wasn’t playing, and there was added pressure on him, he shrunk. Really, a guy with his talent, our club record signing, should be relishing the opportunity to take centre stage

    It’s also ironic that people back Fergie’s decision to drop Wayne for the Madrid game but at the same time criticise his decision to drop Berba in 2011. Fact is, he didn’t treat either of them with disrespect. Both times the manager made a strategic decision based on that game and the way he wanted to play. In any case, Berba’s great performances had been in the League…he’d played a minimal role in our run to the CL final so I never saw the fuss. Big JOS had actually played a big role in us getting to the final (played 4 out of our 6 knockout games) – so if anyone was unlucky to miss out it was him

  5. Sparkz says:

    It’s not just a case of buying a player. Gundogen is quality but who says dortmund will sell, and who says he wants to even come?

  6. United till I die says:

    @ king Eric

    Well said especially with regards to Rooney.

  7. Mr C says:

    Berbatov is a supremely talented player. He was probably out of time in terms of his stay United; I’m sure Berbatov would have gelled well with intelligent players such as RVP and Kagawa, but in his time suffered in the backwash / politics of Rooney ambition-gate (more like shirt seller gate) given the harder running, less thoughtful game that skewing our play towards Rooney’s strengths and ego entailed. Thank God that particular chapter is over with the arrival of RVP. In over 40 years of supporting United I can’t remember a player of ours being treated as badly Berbatov; his exclusion from the CL final sucked big time. Barely playing next season your top scorer of the previous season, only to lose the title on goal difference, was the icing on the cake. Glad for Berba he’s moved on but would rather have watched him here and Fulham are shit.

  8. Mr C says:

    @ timbo May 25, 2013 at 16:52 - great comment, well said.

    Ditto Wayne – thanks for calling it as it is.

  9. CravenA says:

    Fantastic read (article & comments – most of them). All I can say is your loss our gain. I’ve loved watching him this season. For me, he is what football is all about.

  10. Take me to Old Trafford says:

    A lovely article by a creative writer. I’m a big Berba Fan.

  11. absolvent says:

    The article sounds like a lot of bollocks to me. Is this an apology, a eulogy or just a manipulative reason vs. emotions mishmash? Sorry I lost my time reading it.

  12. fred says:

    Being in the U.S. and subject to whatever BPL game is on I didn’t get to see much of Berbatov. That said, Rene Meulensteen told me in June, 2011 that Berbatov could be better than Messi. The only thing he said was missing was the desire. He must have been and absolute joy to watch.

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