Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a striker who was easy listening music for the eyes.
Amidst the hi-octane hurly-burly of top level football Dimitar Berbatov played even the most knife-edge game as if it were a testimonial; as if everyone had come to see him and him alone. The elegant Bulgarian caressed every pass and shot, believing a thwack to be the reserve of a brute. A simple drift into space was a softly spoken rendition of a favourite poem. A give-and-go meanwhile was avante-garde performance art. Just to be clear, Berbatov was always the recipient of the one-two. Being the goer would have meant movement.
It is hard not to be pretentious when describing the football played by the boy from Blagoevgrad because the football he played was pretention itself. It was all swooshes and swoons and nonchalant allusions to greatness. Unlike so many of his Premier League peers his highlights reels on YouTube are not sound-tracked by ear-bursting hard NRG and nor should they be. Easy listening would suit him best, with cigar smoke wafting from a nearby ashtray and a dog-eared copy of Being And Nothingness next to the laptop.
In case there is no opportunity to include this later on let’s get to it now: at no point during his 20-year career did Dimitar Berbatov compromise one iota. Partly he deserves an enormous amount of credit for this. Partly though it was because the good side to his game was so good that the bad could be over-looked, and over-looked by some managers who didn’t usually cede to half-measures.
Sir Alex Ferguson was one such man, a coach who thought nothing of drumming out quality fare the moment their commitment dipped a few per cent. Yet he loved the rakish forward. Hristo Stoichkov, his international gaffer, wasn’t exactly slow to air strong opinion either. The former Barcelona ace always had Berba’s back.
What they responded to was what we responded to: an economy of movement counter-weighted by an abundance of thought. Berbatov was a chess grandmaster in boots so why waste energy and yardage when the ball can do the work for you?
He arrived on British shores in 2006, signed by Tottenham for £10.9m from Bayer Leverkusen. An instant hit, he scored 12 goals that season and won the club Player of the Year award by a fine margin. Additionally too he struck up a harmonious partnership with Robbie Keane that worked beautifully well with one quick-witted and agile, the other cerebral and dropping deep.
A second season of cultivated forward play at the Lane was enough to convince Ferguson to go all-out the following summer, with United eventually splashing out an inflated £30.7m to secure his services ahead of an interested Manchester City. Yet initially Berba struggled with mixed displays not helped by the expectation of many that here was another Cantona in waiting.
In time he settled – because class always does – and when his precision passing and expressive craft began to click, aiding and abetting an array of strike partners ranging from Tevez to Welbeck, United had themselves a luxury to revel in, a rare slice of genius.
This was no better illustrated by an outrageous piece of skill shown off against West Ham in October 2008. With the Reds already one up the ball is slid by Anderson into the channel; an adroit pass if somewhat over-hit. It looked for all the world like it would run out for a goal-kick and even if it didn’t James Collins was there shepherding. But Berba had other ideas. In one movement he stood on the ball, pirouetted, and flicked the ball over the perplexed Hammer. Without hesitation – and frankly no-one would have blamed the Bulgarian for pausing and admiring his work – he then scampered alongside the goal-line and squared to Ronaldo to finish from close range.
It was mesmerizing. It was inventive. It was Berbatov in a nut-shell.
His laid-back style is deceptive when the stats are totted up. During four years at Old Trafford Berba scored 56 goals (including five in a single game v Blackburn) and contributed 22 assists. And then he was off, coolly and on his own terms as always, to the sunset over Fulham.
We may never see his like again.