By January of last season, Dimitar Berbatov had scored more hattricks for Manchester United than Wayne Rooney had goals, as we chased down that historic 19th title. Berbatov ended the season the league’s top scorer with 20 goals and United knocked the scousers off their perch.
After failing to fully justify his massive price tag in the first two seasons it was great to see our Bulgarian play such a vital role in such a massive season for the club. The hattrick against Liverpool, five goals against Blackburn, and the two goals against Blackpool after we had gone 2-0 down, were the highlights of his best season with the club.
“I will go nowhere,” he said on the day we won the league. “Now I am part of United’s 19th title and I want to be part of the 20th, that’s my plan. I am the happiest man in the team.”
There was no bitterness from him, no sense of trying to prove people wrong, or being smug about turning things around after being written off. His attitude was second to none, the kind of behaviour you would expect from one of our homegrown players, not a foreigner who had only been at the club for a few years.
“I have said before the people of Manchester United are the judges and that is the way it should be,” he said. “It is their team. I am a guest. A privileged guest. I am so lucky to play here. For these people. For this manager. For this club. With these players. I can’t describe it.”
However, after lifting our 19th title, his situation took a turn for the worst, when the manager bizarrely didn’t include him in the squad for the Champions League final. Michael Owen, who had scored just 5 goals that season, was preferred to our top scorer, who was left in the dressing room crying.
The obvious assumption was that he was going to leave the club. Clearly he wasn’t in the manager’s plans and there was no way the league’s top scorer could or should tolerate being left out of the squad for such a big game. However, true to form, Berba was a class act in his dealing with the situation, so determined was he to stay at United.
“Smaller clubs might be able to match Manchester United with the way they play, with their organisation, everything. But Manchester United are at the top,” he said. “Where can you go from there? Maybe Barcelona. At the moment, I don’t see anything else. If you go somewhere else it is a big step down. I have the good fortune to play for Manchester United. For the time I am here I try to do my best and win everything there is to win. There is no other way I can play.”
Then, after losing his starting place in the team towards the end of last season, he started this season fourth choice, behind Danny Welbeck as well as Chicharito and Rooney. He has played 100 minutes in the league out of a possible 540 and has had just 8 minutes in the Champions League, coming on against FC Basle last week when we were 3-2 down.
On the same night, Manchester City were getting a battering in Germany and Roberto Mancini wanted to change things up. Edin Dzeko had a strop about being replaced before Carlos Tevez, who has already had two transfer requests rejected in his two years at the club, refused to replace Samir Nasri. Tevez, who is reportedly earning £250k a week, was begged to come on for the last 20 minutes, only for him to remain seated on the bench. Mancini claimed if he had things his way he would never play the Argentinian again.
Whilst I don’t think we should be celebrating the fact that Berbatov isn’t behaving like the strikers at City, I think the comparison should serve to remind us how lucky we are to have players like Berba who think too much of the club to show disrespect towards it or the manager. If anyone was entitled to have a bit of a sulk it is him, going from the league’s top scorer one season to the club’s fourth choice the next, but we haven’t seen any petulance when being subbed off and nothing but positivity in the press.
According to the manager, it isn’t just a public front from Berba, with him grafting in training too.
“Dimitar has been training terrific,” the manager said last week. “His attitude is spot on. He will get his game time as the season wears on.”
Whilst Tevez couldn’t care less who he played for, or even if he played at all apparently, playing for United actually means something to Berba.
“My mind was always set on joining Manchester United,” he told Crerand this week. “How can you not go to United? I don’t play for money.”
Before joining United, despite City agreeing a fee with Spurs, which allowed Berbatov to come to Manchester, the Bulgarian didn’t even bother meeting with Mark Hughes’ team, despite knowing that it would certainly put pressure on United to pay him more. He has reflected on the conversation he had with his agent back then.
“He called me to say we have interest from Manchester United. I said: ‘Don’t joke with me’ but he said he was serious. So I was speechless. When the biggest club contact you, it’s a big deal.”
Tevez slagged off the city massively, claiming once he leaves he will never return, and bizarrely, that we only have two restaurants.
“I’m happy here,” said Berbatov, in contrast. “I hear people complain about the weather, there’s nothing to do and the food. But, for me, it’s not like that. I play for a club I love, the biggest club, and everything else doesn’t matter.”
Over the past few years I have written several articles on these players, comparing their attitudes and contribution to the team. Chances are, this is the last one I’ll get to write, as both players should leave in January.
Tevez should go under a cloud of shame, with both blues and reds happy to see the back of him, another mercenary exposed. In contrast, the disappointment that surrounds Berba’s exit should be massive. One of the most talented players I’ve seen at United, who never quite clicked fully, but whose attitude towards the club is exemplary.
Of course, there is the possibility of Berba staying until summer, or even beyond if the club choose to activate the one year extension clause in his contract, but it seems ridiculous prolonging this. He isn’t an impact player like Chicharito or Solskjaer, ready to come off the bench for the last ten minutes after not playing for a fortnight. Aside from that, he is so much better and deserves so much better than that. So if the club can’t offer that to him, he should leave.
Berbatov won’t be remembered by all the way I would like him to, that classy Bulgarian fella who won us our 19th title, but I do hope our fans can respect him for the contribution he has made and way he behaves. When you look at how players like Carlos Tevez, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mark Hughes left our club, or the things they went on to do and say, we should be thankful for a player who genuinely seems to get United. We got rid of that horrible Argie troll and replaced him with a proper gent who loves playing for this club. Whatever happens next, whether at United or elsewhere, I genuinely hope he gets all he deserves. Top player, top bloke.
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. Everyone who buys a copy enters a competition to win the new home shirt. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.