Joining Manchester United in 2008 always felt like the wrong move for Dimitar Berbatov’s career. Although unquestionably talented enough to impress at Old Trafford, he seemed out of place in the ultra competitive, cutthroat environment that prevails there.
Still led by superhuman wrecking ball Cristiano Ronaldo, they were a team of almost unseemly athleticism, punchy attacking and pacy breakaways. This is decidedly not Berbatov’s style. Neither is playing a supporting role to an already all-star cast.
Despite these constraints, he made valuable contributions to United’s success after his arrival, but nowhere near enough to justify a £30 million transfer fee. Instead he carved out a niche as the beguiling flat track bully who exuded effortless cool, hitting five against Blackburn on his way to the Golden Boot.
Increasingly marginalised thereafter—and surprisingly left out of United’s squad for the Champions League final in favour of Michael Owen—he made just 21 appearances in all competitions last season as Welbeck and Rooney became the preferred pairing.
Strained relations with Alex Ferguson and a desire for more football made Berbatov’s summer departure inevitable, and since Fulham landed the languid frontman, he has thrived on being given top billing at a smaller club. Rather than a diverting sideshow, he is now the main attraction once more.
Like Matt le Tissier before him, Berbatov simply seems more at home as the leading man in a less demanding and trophy-driven team. The headline grabber and lone maverick in an unspectacular Fulham side, deprived of both Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, Berbatov has the cult following he craves.
The T-shirt the Bulgarian unveiled after scoring on Boxing Day, which proclaimed “Keep calm and pass me the ball," even showed an awareness of the status he enjoys at Craven Cottage. For that priceless aura of unflustered elegance, they will indulge his every ambling whim.
Carrying the burden of existential angst and his own teammates’ inadequacy, the film noir styled soloist plays the part of flawed genius to world-weary perfection. The shrug of despair—that gesture of profound helplessness that Berbatov gives after another wayward ball from Chris Baird—is like watching a master craftsman forced to work with the crudest of tools.
Aside from all the graceful touches and pirouettes, the essence of Berbatov lies in his response to these misplaced passes. They are an affront to his refined sensibilities and emphasis on economical movement. He is an inflexible idealist, and we love him for it.