Remembering the pure brilliance of prime Dimitar Berbatov


New kid on the block

There he stands, all 6 ft 2 of him. Slender in build, gangly, you could say. Back slightly arched, his posture needs work there is no doubting that. Sinister eyes, they're dark and look through you. You wouldn't fancy meeting him down an alleyway after a night on the tiles.

He looks like an untrustworthy conman who claims he can do you a great deal on your double glazing, if you could just spare him a minute of your time. This is no conman, though, it is a Premier League striker about to make a name for himself in England. A man so smooth in possession who despite his appearance, stature and posture, can bamboozle the world's best defenders with staggering ease.

This is Dimitar Berbatov, he is a forward for Tottenham Hotspur and the Bulgarian national team. He is unheard of to many but has just made the switch to White Hart Lane from Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen for £10million. Everyone is talking about his arrival to the Premier League.

The year is 2006 and Martin Jol takes up the navy blue leather hot seat in north London, looking to better Tottenham's fifth-place finish in the top flight a year previously. His squad includes the likes of Paul Robinson, Pascal Chimbonda, Jermaine Jenas, Adel Taraabt, Aaron Lennon and Robbie Keane.

Ledley King is at the top of his game; he can't stay fit, Ledley, can only train a few times a week in isolation but is still one of the best defenders in the league. Danny Murphy is pulling strings in central midfield while Steed Malbranque proves a nuisance out wide on the left.

Jermain Defoe is banging them in when he's given half a chance, like he always does and when Keane scores he rolls, and rolls and rolls, then produces an imaginary gun with his fingers. The UEFA Cup is still called the UEFA Cup, Spurs are currently mainstays in the competition; their Thursday evening's rarely ever free. Berbatov is raring to go; he's ready to get started, ready to show what he can do at his new club. He's excited, though never shows it. Ice runs through the Bulgarian's veins, fans hold high expectations for their new arrival.

It's 2006, he is ready.

Bulgarian brilliance at the Lane

It takes him little time to adjust to life in England's top flight, the world's strongest division. Tottenham's second game of the season, at home to Neil Warnock's Sheffield United ends in a 2-0 victory and it's all down to the club's newest recruit. One goal, one assist, job done.

Things flatlined for a short period after that game against the Blades, though, and the fresh-faced then-26-year-old went on an eleven game run without finding the net - four of those games he was dropped from Jol's squad completely.

A convincing 3-1 home win against Paul Jewell's Wigan Athletic in late-November was to reignite Berbatov's confidence - he went on to finish as Tottenham's top goalscorer, netting 23 goals in all competitions during his debut season at the Lane. Simple tap-ins at the back post were rife for the lanky front man, effortlessly guiding that glorious mid-noughties Nike Premier League ball, the one with the rings around it, into the net with his cushion-like feet.

Berbatov's twists, turns and everything in between were so unique to anything that had gone before. He never looked like he was trying; he never, ever looked like he was bothered. But he was, that was just his thing. He'd stand there and wait for the game to come to him, not the other way around.

Football was so easy for this man.

At times i'm sure I saw him light up a cigar mid-match, but maybe that was just my young, under-developed mind playing tricks on me; maybe it was just what I wanted to see. His touch was bordering on offensive, it was almost like the ball was made from felt and his boots were covered in velcro.

That goal against Wigan was sensational, he nutmegged poor Matt Jackson like he wasn't there before bending it past Chris Kirkland into the far top-corner of the net. It was all so effortless for the Bulgarian conman; it was all so, so majestic.

That's when I realised I loved Dimitar Berbatov. Sure, it was a good goal, every striker scores those from time to time but it wasn't just the goal I was transfixed on it was his whole aura. He was ultra-cool and never broke a sweat; maybe if he did then he would've possibly been an even greater player and done more with his career, but then he wouldn't have been Berbatov, would he, not really.

The volley against Middlesbrough was sensational. The mark of a great goalscorer is to know where the net is at all times, even when he is not looking at the goal - this proved that point. A swing of the leg, just like Berbatov's that day, would have resulted in an ambulance being called if I tried it, but for him the ball just glided so beautifully over the keeper and into the net. Next.

The chest-swivel-volley, all in one motion, in Spurs' last-16 clash against Braga in the UEFA Cup was a thing of pure beauty. As a kid you try and replicate that in your back garden and it results in a sheepish visit to your neighbours house to reclaim possession of your ball. As an adult it's the exact same outcome.

Not for super Berb, though, not for my mate Tovvy. He did it with so much relaxation, of course he did. This lethargic magician took it down, let the ball run across his body and settle perfectly halfway down his wand of a right leg and blasted it home, again into one of the two White Hart Lane nets that he became so accustomed to seeing ripple, like a stone had been thrown ferociously into a garden pond.

Another season of greatness followed Berbatov throughout the 2007-08 campaign, as he finished on exactly the same goals tally as he did the season before - 23 in all competitions, 15 in the league. This showed that he wasn't just a one-season wonder, he was the real deal and he was here to stay.

His performances throughout that season eleven years ago earned him a big-money move to Manchester United, then under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. Berbatov arrived at Old Trafford with a hefty £30million price tag, he had a lot to prove but was ready for the challenge.

Magic in Manchester

14 goals in all competitions - nine of which came in the Premier League - assured Berbatov's welcome in the north west. Wayne Rooney was in his prime, so were United as a whole. Ronaldo was doing step-overs like they were going out of fashion in those sensational black & yellow Nike Vapors, Nemanja Vidic was heading anything and everything in his path alongside Rio Ferdinand in the heart of defence.

Carlos Tevez was, well, being Carlos Tevez, with his bulldog-like approach. Patrice Evra was overlapping Ryan Giggs at every opportunity. Federico Macheda scored that goal against Villa, the one that made everyone think he would do something with his career, he sadly never did.

The feel-good factor at Old Trafford was firmly in place, the club had just beaten league rivals Chelsea on penalties in the Champions League final and even made John Terry cry doing so. The Red Devils were unstoppable in the league that year, winning the division on 90 points - four ahead of runners-up Liverpool. They also made it back-to-back appearances in the Champions League final, but fell short against a strong Barcelona side orchestrated by Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o.

Berbatov wasn't the main man at United, not like he was at Spurs, with a whole squad of huge names to contend with at Old Trafford he was never going to be. But he still chipped in with his fair share of goals and mainly assists - eleven to be precise.

Dimitar Berbatov
Five goals in one gave vs Blackburn. Five.

He's always lived life as more of a second striker, unselfish in possession but devastating in front of goal. His five goals against Blackburn Rovers during the 7-1 drubbing in November 2010 will forever stick in the memory. United were emphatic that day but it was all down to the Bulgarian hitman doing what he does best: ruthlessly finding the net with complete ease.

20 goals in the Premier League was Berbatov's best return during his time in England, it came during that memorable 2010-11 campaign, where Manchester United again won the division, but was to be Berbatov's last prolific spell at the club. A seven goal return from just twelve league starts was impressive in 2011-12, but signalled the end for him as Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were preferred up front.

Berbatov left United in the summer of 2012, joining Fulham on a two-year deal. He went on to score 19 goals in 51 appearances for the Cottagers before departing England for Monaco. His career in the Premier League was over but the legacy he left will live on forever.

There have been so many phenomenally talented footballers grace our unforgiving shores in recent history, many of which are talked about much more than this once so deadly marksman, who actually looked like a genuine deadly, undercover marksman from a budget Eastern European gangster film that went straight to DVD in 2003. He doesn't get the recognition he deserves, in my opinion.

Thanks for the memories Berb, they were, and always will be, superb.


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