This summer will see the departure from Old Trafford of an iconic player who has broken several records on his way to becoming one of the most recognisable names in world football.
Yet this parting will gain only a fraction of the column-space and media attention that was afforded to Carlos Tevez, Eden Hazard, Wesley Sneijder and Fernando Torres, to name but four.
Cast your mind back four years; Man United had conquered Europe, complementing their re-found dominance of the domestic game. Cristiano Ronaldo had blossomed into one of the game’s greats, Wayne Rooney was demonstrating the perfect blend of quality and determination required to join him, and they were complemented by a cast of stars which included Hargreaves, Tevez, Ferdinand and Vidic, all helping establish United as the number one team on the planet.
Yet there was still something missing; that player who was unpredictably brilliant, who could win matches with unfathomable pieces of skill and mastery. Perhaps there was a desire to finally fill the void left by Eric Cantona from a decade previously. It was a maverick, a nonconformist who deviated from the blandness and uniformity of the modern day footballer, who Sir Alex longed for. United thought they had found that player at the eleventh hour, minutes before that summer’s transfer window slammed shut.
From an outsider’s point of view, it may have seemed somewhat peculiar that Ferguson plummeted to splash over £30 million on Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov. The wiley old Scot had arguably the most distinguished counter-attacking team in living memory at his disposal, yet he opted for the languid and often apathetic-looking Bulgarian.
Becoming the Red Devils’ most expensive signing ever alongside adding another dimension to their plethora of attacking potential may have proved too much pressure for many to handle, yet characteristically Berbatov took it all in his stride. A mere three minutes into his United debut at Anfield, he supplied Carlos Tevez with the perfect assist to put the visitors a goal up, even though they went on to lose the game. He went on that year to become the first Bulgarian to win the Premiership.
However, his first two seasons were far from prolific, with a mere 26 goals in 83 appearances. The United faithful were growing restless, regularly voicing doubts over his work ethic and determination. Rumours grew that the manager had lost patience with his record signing and was prepared to cut his losses.
The sale of Ronaldo in 2009 ensured that the Red’s main goal threat lay with Wayne Rooney, but the former Everton prodigy’s year in 2010 was disrupted by injuries, a subsequent loss of form and then an eventual shock transfer request. Just when it appeared that United were in crisis and fears grew the Ferguson dynasty was at an end, the Bulgarian stepped up to the plate in sensational fashion to silence his critics, for the meantime at least.
He dragged an indifferent United side to a 3-2 victory over Liverpool with a magnificent hat-trick; the second goal being particularly memorable: an overhead kick which would become a contender for goal of the season. He was the first Man United player to register a hat-trick against Liverpool since Stan Pearson 64 years previously. That was record number one.
In November, he notched five goals against Blackburn, becoming the first non-English player to hit five goals in a Premiership encounter. A month later, he became Bulgaria’s Footballer of the Year for the seventh year in succession, surpassing the legendary Hristo Stoichkov’s record. Berbatov went on to score his third hat-trick of the season in a 5-0 romp over Birmingham City, which helped him to share the Premier League Golden Boot with Carlos Tevez, and partner his former Argentine team-mate in the PFA Team of the Year forward line.
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But doubts remained. Berbatov was often left out of important matches, with the young Mexican Chicarito often preferred to partner the now fully-committed Wayne Rooney in United’s front line.
When Rooney was suspended for the 2011 FA Cup Semi-final against Man City, Berbatov was surprisingly given the lone striker role. This match illustrated the major downfall of his stint in Manchester. He inexplicably squandered two golden chances within a minute in the opening stages: the first a one-on-one with Joe Hart, the second an open goal. United limped to a 1-0 defeat.
The situation came to a head in the Champions League final against Barcelona, when the Bulgarian was left out altogether of United’s squad, prompting him to storm out of the stadium and seemingly signal an end to his tenure at Old Trafford.
While he has remained at the club for the twelve months since, he has been used only sparingly and once again predominantly either in matches where Man United were expected to cost to victory or where injuries and suspensions forced Ferguson’s hand. The emergence of Danny Welbeck forced the 31-year-old yet further down the pecking order.
For the last few months of the season, both parties have sent out clear signals that Berbatov will be moving on this season. Ferguson has pointed to his desire for greater tempo in his attack, as he appears to attempt to return to the counter-attacking phenomenon of the 2008 side.
As the door looks set to close on Berbatov’s career at Old Trafford, it is still unclear as to whether or not it was a success. Search through any forum or social networking site and you’ll see opinion split right down the middle. He was never predictable, and his performs ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. He infuriated and inspired in equal measure. At times anonymous, at times astonishing, it is fair to comment that he was a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.
Coming with such a hefty price tag, he looks set to go down as a flop, though it is not as set in stone as that. Going through the 2010/11 as the joint top goal scorer in England was his most notable achievement, yet Ferguson didn’t trust him enough to include him in his 18-man squad for the Champions League final that year. He never quite managed to tick all the boxes to nail down a place in the starting eleven, with particular question marks over his ability to perform in the showpiece matches.
Instead of being Cantona-esque, he was Cantona-lite. A player blessed with skill and grace on the pitch, but the consistency and hunger were often conspicuous by their absence, too often. Despite making the game look outrageously straightforward, he never became a talisman or a rousing, motivating centre-point.
A return to Germany is most likely; Bayer Leverkusen have already expressed their interest and his availability has alerted many other clubs in mainland Europe. His exit will struggle to make any headlines, the regret for both player and club is that they certainly should have done.
Written by Colin Millar