Dimitar Berbatov – a footballing enigma in the truest sense – has not been the happy recently. His quest for contentment begins now...
“When I'm happy great things happen”. Not my words – the words of Dimitar Berbatov: the man, the mystery. Positively aglow in front of the cameras following a stirring home debut for Fulham against West Brom, everyone's favourite brooding Bulgarian perhaps finally dispelled the myth that great suffering breeds great art. Berbatov – a footballing enigma in the truest sense of the term, perceived by turns as surely, detached or just icily collected – is a player of inarguable natural gifts but one appearing at times to be floating through the footballing world forever shrouded in an aura of spiritual displacement. Shorn of game time and, by extension, inspiration, Berbatov has not been the happiest of bunnies in recent times. But was it always like this? Let's refresh our memories.
Arriving at Tottenham in the summer of 2006, Berbatov, after a patchy start, formed a short-lived but prosperous partnership with travelling goal-salesman Robbie Keane, soon winning the hearts of the White Hart Lane faithful. The high point of his stay surely came when – displaying nerves of wrought iron – he slotted away an equalising penalty in his sides' 2008 League Cup final defeat of Chelsea. Berbatov amassed 27 goals in 70 appearances for the Londoners, solidifying a reputation as more of a game-influencer than a goal-scorer, but it was this very quality which drew envious glances from one Sir Alex Ferguson.
Basking in the post-coital afterglow of a Premier and Champions League double, Ferguson called on Berbatov to reinforce United's frontline. Eventually brought to Old Trafford in the dying light of deadline day following an arduous and unpretty transfer farrago, Ferguson doubtlessly saw his new acquisition as something of an heir to the magisterial lineage linking the likes of Eric Cantona and Teddy Sheringham, players who offered something different, the stock phrase of choice plucked by football’s intellectuals when tasked with defining the indefinable. What Berbatov brought to the table was deftness of touch and technique, an alertness of mind as well as body, perhaps in contrast to the more obvious physical traits of thunderous raging bulls like Wayne Rooney or Carlos Tevez.
This intangible footballing manner is one which Ferguson has long sought in his forwards and Berbatov was heralded as the next in line – an introspective auteur in the Cantona vein; a man of both goals and provision like Sheringham. But whilst the former wore his heart firmly on his sleeve (and on his studs. And fists), Berbatov exhibited a certain fragility, never quite slotting into Ferguson's side as seamlessly as either of the aforementioned duo. As such, one question still lingers: can Berbatov's inability to influence proceedings at United be causally linked to some underlying malaise, one which many believe his perma-maudlin manner hints at?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. It seems fair to say that much of this oft-painted image of Berbatov as some kind of fanciful footballer-dilettante most likely stems as much from his laconic playing style as it does from any deep-seated melancholia. This contrast was exaggerated further still by his stationing alongside United team-mates blessed with pace and penetration. His rare traits were meant to complement the brio of those around him. Instead, they merely ended up setting him apart.
Having slipped down the pecking order at Old Trafford, Berbatov has seemingly spent the past eighteen months' worth of Saturday afternoons wandering the streets of Salford, lost in a thick existential fug. Never a natural fit amidst United's velocious attacking puzzle pieces, the Bulgarian has cut an increasingly lonely figure on and off the field – a master without a muse; an athlete with an aesthete's heart searching mournfully for poetry and purpose. It's a tough mental image to shift, as resonant and narrative-defining, as possibly-true, possibly-not, as Ashley Cole's avarice or Cristiano Ronaldo's rampant narcissism.
Of course, the presumed inertia of his time spent warming the Old Trafford bench could be interpreted in one of two ways. On one hand there's the distinct possibility that he caught a bad case of the Winston Bogardes: a debilitating malady afflicting highly paid, pampered stars whereby the sufferer appears content to see out his contract and collect a hefty pay cheque along the way, all with minimum effort and maximum reward (financially, at least). The alternative take is slightly more altruistic. Berbatov may quite simply have decided to put the needs of his club and his team-mates before his own, redefining himself as the unselfish squad member ready to offer what he could when called upon. I like to think of our Dimi as the latter. He rarely aired any public grievances about his reduced role, and his protracted deliberations when finally leaving – rejecting first Turin then, controversially, Florence in favour of west London – were reportedly due to family considerations.
Now reunited with Martin Jol – less a father figure, more a patron of the arts – Berbs may finally have found himself a suitably nourishing head-space within which he can thrive. Surrounded by willing runners like Damien Duff and Bryan Ruiz, the hard yards won't be required of him as they were under Ferguson. Instead he will find himself the attacking focal point of a side which, when it clicks, is capable of producing some eye-pleasing stuff. As a fan of Berbatov the player, I want to see him create and flourish rather than languish and stagnate.
Having said that, it's always strange watching your favourite players depart. You trumpeted their arrival with hope and expectation. You cheered their stellar turns with unbridled joy. You rolled your eyes and threw your arms skyward when they spurned chances. You nursed proud, confusing erections when they bamboozled opponents, as Berbatov so memorably did against West Ham early in his United stint with a piece of slick trickery so gracefully nonchalant and yet so mind-bendingly bamboozling that those present are probably still untwisting their necks.
And then, gradually, they fall out of favour, replaced by some young buck or another, and before you know it they've slipped away in the night. The ones who betray the club feel the full force of the supporter's wrath, but it is the ones who entertain, frustrate, but ultimately warm the heart who are most painfully mourned. But the fact is United have moved on without Berbatov. It was a marriage that never really worked – there was kindness, security, but the spark had long-since diminished. His quest for contentment begins now.