Dimitar Berbatov was a player who split opinion among Manchester United fans, following his £30 million transfer from Tottenham Hotspur.
He was supposed to be the missing piece of the jigsaw. Sir Alex Ferguson saw him as the player to fire United to a few more Champions League titles, following their win over Chelsea in Moscow a few months before Berbatov signed.
United did reach a further two finals over the next three seasons, yet Berbatov was a second half substitute in one and didn’t even make the bench in the other. United lost both.
It wasn’t ability that let the Bulgarian down, but his mindset. He probably didn’t think the way you would expect from typical United players, as revealed in an interview with ESPN ahead of the clash between his two former teams on Saturday.
What did he want to say to the Spurs fans who were singing his name during his two seasons at White Hart Lane? ‘Please, please shut up.’ He didn’t like the attention. He didn’t like the pressure to perform. He didn’t want his family to watch him in the stadium because he felt the expectation and nerves would get to him.
This sort of mentality was seen during United’s FA Cup semi-final against rivals Manchester City when Berbatov crumbled under the pressure. Wayne Rooney was suspended for the game because he swore, meaning Berbatov had to come up with the goods. He had two golden opportunities to give United the lead but fluffed both of them. City knocked United out and went on to win their first trophy in 35 years.
Two years earlier, it was Berbatov’s atrocious penalty against Everton that saw United knocked out of the semi-finals, with plenty of fans insisting their mum could have taken a better penalty. In her slippers.
Yet for all the concerns about his mentality, there were other occasions when Berbatov rose to the challenge and delivered.
In that same season where he blew it against City, he scored a hattrick against Liverpool to see United win 3-2. No United player had scored three goals in one game against Liverpool for 64 years. His goals put United 2-0 up, the second a sublime overhead kick, before Steven Gerrard pegged it back to 2-2. With five minutes left to play, Berbatov popped up with the winner.
In fact, while he may have cost United their shot at the FA Cup, he can be credited with helping United win their record breaking 19th title that year.
Rooney handed in a transfer request, recanted, and went on to play appallingly for the team. By the end of January, Berbatov had more Premier League hattricks than Rooney had goals.
The Bulgarian finished the campaign with 20 goals, the league’s top scorer, with some really important strikes along the way.
With eight games left to play and just two points ahead of Arsenal, who had a game in hand on Ferguson’s team, United faced Bolton. With 15 minutes left to play and the score line at 0-0, United went down to 10 men. Yet with just two minutes left on the clock, Berbatov scored the winner.
A few weeks earlier, United found themselves 2-0 down at half-time against Blackpool. Less than 20 minutes were remaining when Berbatov pulled one back for United, only for Javier Hernandez to equalise minutes later. With supporters feeling the relief of salvaging a point, Berbatov popped up to make it 3-2 in the 88th minute.
Berbatov wasn’t the perfect player but he was incredibly talented and loved the club. He didn’t hesitate on signing for United, despite rivals City offering him more money.
“When United wanted me I was like a horse with blinkers on. I was not interested in anyone else,” Berbatov revealed this week. “I wanted to win trophies and play for the biggest club and the biggest club in England is Manchester United.”
In four seasons at United, Berbatov won two Premier League titles and one League Cup, which is more than he could have even dreamed of when playing in north London.
Spurs are much better than they were when he was there though. When his agent told him that Tottenham wanted to sign him in 2006, Berbatov’s response was: ‘who?’. They’ve come close to winning the Premier League over the last few seasons, showing their improvement, but they haven’t had what it takes to cross the finish line yet.
In contrast, this current United side can’t compete with the one Berbatov played in. League titles were the norm for that team yet United have gone four years without one now.
A win for Spurs will see them leapfrog United in to second place, while a win for United will see them extend their lead on Mauricio Pochettino’s men to three points. Listening to the way the Bulgarian talks about United, there’s no doubt who he will be supporting this weekend and, with Harry Kane ruled out, Berbatov may well have plenty to cheer about on Saturday.