Dimitar Berbatov’s inevitable Manchester United exit, ignominious and embarrassing for the £30 million summer 2008 acquisition, has been a long time coming. A very long time. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to leave the player out of the 2011 Champions League final signalled the end of the Bulgarian’s time in the Old Trafford limelight, with only economics – and the striker’s ongoing dignity – preventing an earlier exit. Each left Berbatov stewing on United’s bench, or worse, over a final season at Old Trafford.
This was no dignified end for the hugely talented striker, albeit one who has so often failed over the past four seasons to provide that most Fergusonian of concepts: value. In truth it has been a period of dissatisfaction for player, manager, and supporters, who have enjoyed Berbatov’s outstanding quality, but seen too little output.
Berbatov will leave United this summer dismayed that he has seen so little action this season, nor in fact, in many of United’s bigger games over the past four years. For all the former Tottenham Hotspur striker’s comfort in possession and unsurpassed close control, Berbatov simply lost the trust of his manager, and failed to deliver too often to regain it.
Yet, as the season ends Berbatov will offer no Carlos Tevez-style rebuke despite the player’s frustration at warming the bench for so long. The talent, Berbatov must surely know, deserves better, but the player has held his tongue, apparently even in those frequent private moments with Ferguson over the past year.
“We talked 10 times, he told me there would be a place for me but I stayed on the bench,” the striker told Bulgarian TV this week.
“My time at Manchester United is running out. I no longer feel like a valuable part of this team. I think I did well in the few opportunities that I received. I am a little frustrated by the way this happened, I do not think I deserved it. But I have dignity and I stopped going to such meetings, it is clear that I’m leaving United. It’s obvious that I have to leave. I’m looking for a new place now. I know I can still play at the highest level.”
Berbatov has always been rebus though. Talented, yet unfulfilled. Loyal, yet accused not merely of being apathetic, but of outright lethargy. Fabulously well paid, but never greedy.
Money talks most of the time in football. Yet, when Berbatov chose United ahead of cross-town rivals City four years ago the striker was one of few to reject Eastland’s billions in favour of the glory on offer at Old Trafford. Here, one of the finest talents to grace the English game was heading north to strengthen the newly crowned champions’ already plentiful resources.
Indeed, the former Tottenham striker would join not only Wayne Rooney, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in a potent quartet of attacking talent. It’s a signing that clearly didn’t work out as Ferguson expected.
Loyalty to United also prevented the striker forcing a move out of the club last summer, although Ferguson’s intent to deploy both Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck more frequently was clear from the off. Nor, too, did the striker seek an exit during the winter when Turkish club Galatasary had a bid rejected by an Old Trafford hierarchy keen to reclaim at least part of the player’s huge fee.
“I had the opportunity to sign for City but I chose United,” adds Berbatov.
“City are the champions but to me they just bought the title. They bought so many players. I’m sure next year Manchester United will be on top again. Ferguson is honest. He knows how to talk to anyone. After meeting with him you go out so motivated. You want to conquer the world.
“Before the start of this season, I spoke with Ferguson and asked him if he’ll rely on me. He said to me that he needed me and that I’d play. I’m looking for answer myself why I was sitting on the bench. I spoke with Ferguson about ten times. I was fighting for my place and I was trying but obviously the team will rely on young players.”
There is no little frustration in Berbatov’s situation, coming a year after the striker’s finest season in Manchester. In total the Bulgarian contributed 21 goals to United’s cause in 2010/11 – 20 in the Premier League, which effectively won Ferguson’s men the title. But as the season drew to its conclusion Ferguson increasingly left the forward out of his side.
In that campaign Berbatov’s record of 21 goals in 42 games was fine, although it included none in the Champions League, nor any against the top four. What’s more, of Berbatov’s 20 Premier League goals the Bulgarian scored against just five teams in the top half of the table – Newcastle United, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham.
The season just gone has been even worse for the striker. In 21 games he has scored nine goals, although once again Ferguson used the player sparingly in the Premier and Champions Leagues, and hardly at all towards the business end of the season. In that there is the crux – Ferguson’s distrust that the player will deliver at the biggest moments is now total.
Indeed, the player’s record in scoring predominantly against lower-ranked teams – seven of 21 in 2010/11 came against relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool – is mirrored across his time at Old Trafford. In the campaign just finished Berbatov scored against Stoke City, Blackburn, Wigan Athletic, Fulham, Benfica and Aldershot. That strike in the Champions League was a rare one indeed.
Against other members of the current top five – Arsenal, City, Chelsea, Tottenham – Berbatov has just four goals in 32 games over his four years with United. Just two against the former trio. Include Liverpool in that list, and the Bulgarian has seven in 39. It is painful to admit, but Berbatov’s record at Old Trafford is little more than that of a flat-track bully.
Moreover, with Welbeck entrenched as Ferguson’s first choice partner along side Rooney, and Hernández available in reserve when not injured, Berbatov was never going to be afforded many chances to add to that tally this season.
In moving abroad this summer it will end one of the most disappointing periods of any player in United’s recent history. Bleak not because Berbatov failed, per se, but that a very special talent was unfulfilled. The fleeting moments will leave United fans with glorious memories, but frustrated that there simply weren’t enough of them.