Some things, however unlikely they sound, are true, and this, dear reader, is one of those things: Alex Ferguson makes the odd mistake now and then. It’s not that he isn’t close to managerial perfection, but it is that he isn’t there yet. It’s like Phillip Schofield (look him up) and a passable physical or mental state: he aspires to it manfully, but you question if it’s actually possible for him to get there and secretly wonder if it’s best for all concerned that he doesn’t. Ferguson didn’t, for instance, get The David Beckham situation right ten years ago—the boot he kicked at him barely grazed Beckham’s deserving-but-admittedly-well-groomed face. He’s also never spoken out against the Glazer’s wrecking-ball financial strategy at Manchester United, which is a tad embarrassing.
And, onto the issue of the day, most people will tell you that he hasn’t got Dimitar Berbatov right either. How could it have come to the events of last week, where the only mercurial talent in his current squad announced that he was available for a move away from United for just £5 million, if he had? Berbatov wasn’t just announcing it, he was telling the world that he was actually worth less than the £10 million the gutter press had him marked him down for: “I read the papers and I see they say 10 million pounds is my price. I go and talk with Sir Alex and he says to me 5 million, so who is talking the truth, what do you think?” he asked, proving once and for all that of all things known to man, there ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a handsome maverick insisting he’s of no real value.
Four years ago Ferguson bought Berbatov from Tottenham for £30 million, and if the difference in price tags then and now doesn’t bring up the possibility of a rare Ferguson error, then the Berb’s meagre 110 first team starts in that time must do. In four years Berbatov has all but sat out two Champions League finals (a 25 minute cameo at the end of his first one probably doesn’t count, as only Barcelona players touched the ball in that time) and has been given equally naff opportunities in most of United’s biggest games. He has, quite patently, never made acquaintances of Ferguson’s trust.
Instead, his United career has become a comprehensive ‘How-To’ guide: How To Humiliate a Footballer. Step One is to set up the requisite expectation, because you can’t have a punchline without a setup. Berbatov’s sublime talent did a lot of the work for this one in advance—there isn’t a player with a better, more sensual, touch in the league—but just in case, United made him their most expensive signing ever and did it on the last day of a transfer window, with the manager himself collecting him from Manchester airport to make sure of keeping him away from Manchester City’s new money. Expectation: created.
Step Two involves immediately binning the player’s confidence by using him less than some of the star names around him: United obliged on this front with the aforementioned 2009 Champions League final.
Step Three is about reinforcing this negative message by not giving the player any more of a chance once a couple of those star players leave: despite Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo wandering off in the summer of 2009, Berbatov appeared as a substitute more often in his second season at United than he did in his first.
Step Four requires the most commitment: watch the player thrive and become the league’s top goalscorer, but ensure that all of the glory is taken out of the accolade by giving him still less time on the pitch. United proved themselves committed to the programme here simply by ignoring Berbatov’s astonishing goalscoring form throughout 2010 and 2011, but they really hammered home the message by leaving him out of their Champions League final squad altogether that season. To make room for Michael Owen. For Michael Owen. FOR MICHAEL OWEN.
The Fifth and final step is to give the player one last season—seemingly for no reason at all—on your books; a season in which you will hardly play them at all: Berbatov started 11 games for United last season. And then, the punchline: having your player announce on his own Facebook page that he is all-but worthless. Ta-dah!
Now, this can’t have been what Ferguson was going for really. Well, we can be 95% sure it wasn’t. Minimum 90%. So, assuming that he has no plans to publish this simple but effective How-To guide (leaving a gap in the market…), Berbatov’s prolonged dignity-sapping goes down as a mistake on his manager’s part. It goes down as another cock-up to go alongside misusing Juan Sebastien Veron and allowing himself to be seen on the touchline in one of those hilarious inflatable coats. Another regret to go with missing that shot at Beckham’s head when he had the chance.
According to Berbatov’s agent, “Sir Alex wants to change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game,” which gives us an idea of what’s gone wrong, what’s caused the poor judgement in a man generally so incapable of it.
Just timing. That’s all. Miserable, miserable timing. Pretty soon after signing Bulgaria’s perpetual Player of the Year for a massive amount of money, Ferguson realised that he didn’t need a player like him at all, because at Glazernomically-enhanced Manchester United, efficiency is the new skill and looking like you’re trying is the new looking like you’re not.
And that’s the lot. It’s a disappointingly insubstantial explanation for a mistake that has probably cost Youtube thousands of clips of Berbatov doing ridiculous things with a football. It boils down to: Oops.
What, then, can Ferguson learn from The Berbatov Experience? That’s what’s supposed to be asked in these situations. ‘Don’t ever change your mind?’ Nope. Unfortunately, it will probably have to be nothing, because that sounds more like the dogmatic teachings of one Phillip Schofield as he spends his morning shows praising Daily Mail columns than it does a healthy footballing lesson.
That being the case, there really doesn’t seem to be much to take from the ruining of Berbatov’s career, which, ironically, will have to go down as yet another disappointing footnote to it. Seemingly, the humiliation never ends for The Berb.