September 1, 2008. Dimitar Berbatov arrived at Manchester United after a prolonged transfer saga, Sir Alex Ferguson breaking the club transfer fee record by splashing out £30 million to land the Bulgarian striker from Tottenham Hotspur.
August 31, 2012. Dimitar Berbatov parts ways with Manchester United as he heads to Fulham, having rejected the advances of Fiorentina and Juventus.
Berbatov and Manchester United’s was always an uneasy marriage, often straining the boundaries but somehow remaining loyal to the cause. But the telling blow came in the Champions League final of 2011 when Berbatov was omitted from United’s 18-man squad to face Barcelona in Rome. He admitted he felt ashamed to face his friends and his team mates after that incident, a hurtful indictment by his manager who could not be won over by the Bulgarian.
There was always a feeling of glorious frustration when it came to Berbatov, the United fans often left wondering whether they should love him for his languid style or hate him for his apparent lack of work rate.
Berbatov’s majestic ball control, the way he traps the ball, is one of the most beautiful sites in football. Those who have played the game will know how difficult the skill of controlling a football is, let alone a raking 50-yard diagonal from the boot of Paul Scholes. The apparent ease with which he kills the ball dead is characteristic of a man who plays the game at his own pace, slowing the play down to suit his own tempo while bringing others into play.
Ironically, it was precisely that quality which prompted his fall from grace at Old Trafford. One moment he was resplendent in the glory of a sublime hat-trick at Old Trafford against United’s bitter rivals Liverpool, the next he wasn’t even on the bench for their most imporant game of the season.
One of his most exquisite (and surprisingly under-rated) goals was at Goodison Park against Everton. Unite were 2-1 up in the second half but had their backs to the wall as the hosts bombed forward for an equaliser. Everton won a corner and pushed numbers up hoping to crowd out United in the penalty area. Berbatov, typically, was strolling around on the half-way line being casually marked by Sylvan Distin. Vidic won the first header, Neville back heeled the ball to Scholes who pinged a quite magnificent 60-yard diagonal pass to Berbatov who had made a run on the blind side of Distin on the right wing. Berbatov killed the ball dead with the touch of an angel which took him past the onrushing Distin with consummate ease and quite delightfully, with the outside of his right boot, he glided the ball past Tim Howard from 25 yards out into the left-hand bottom corner of the Everton net.
It was one of the most wonderfully crafted goals I have seen, the purity of the touch and finish laid bare on the glorious turf of Goodison Park. United went on to squander that lead to draw 3-3, but post-match, that moment of genius left a feeling of triumph among the onlookers.
Berbatov has endured a lot of criticism for his style of play and lack of work ethic, but this is no time to look back on his United career and label him a failure. No, this is the time to appreciate a player who brought back the innocence of the beautiful game in all it’s resplendent glory. Someone who, with the non-chalant grace and elegance of a ballet dancer, glided around Old Trafford while making supporters fall in love. It is impossible to put into words the pure unadulterated joy of having watched Berbatov play in a United shirt for the last 4 seasons. The end may be heart-breaking, but the journey has been breath-taking.