How I Fell In Love With... Dimitar Berbatov

​To mark the start of the new football season, we're celebrating heroes from the past and present of the Premier League. Here, Finlay Renwick remembers the mercurial Bulgarian with a magic first touch

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There is a theory within certain circles of popular psychology that talent is but an illusion, that only the hardest working may reach the apex of their chosen discipline. A theory made popular by bestsellers like Bounce and Outliers. Ten thousand hours of practice and you'll be there, apparently.

They've obviously never seen Dimitar Berbatov play football.

I am a Tottenham fan and, as you likely know already, Tottenham Hotspur are a perennially underachieving Premiership football team. The nearly boys, the choke artists, the team that loses out on a Champions League spot on the last day of the season because all the players get food poisoning from a dodgy lasagna …that kind of football team.

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But, despite this (justified) reputation, Tottenham have been blessed over the years by the employ of some of the games' great mavericks: Gascoigne, Ginola, Klinsmann, Bale and the high priest of them all: Dimitar Berbatov; he of that first touch, the Black Sea conductor of sullen football voodoo. Three steps ahead and knowing it … just knowing that he was better than anyone else on that pitch.

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Arriving in the summer of 2006 from Bayer Leverkusen for a Bulgarian record fee of £10.9 million, Berbatov looked like a sallow-skinned matinee idol and moved like a wraith. He was cool and handsome and effortlessly, endlessly elegant.

The thing with English football fans is that we love a hard worker, but we love a maverick more. You can keep your James Milners and their reliability and their assuredness and their loyalty, the mountain goats of the game. Players like Berbatov are what make it so irresistible. A louche, aloof show Afghan Hound who was in cahoots with the ball, manipulating every inch of its surface: inside of the foot, his chest, his head, a deft turn and he's gone. 

But like all great mavericks of the game, Berbatov was temperamental and flawed, prone to sulking and bouts of restlessness. In the timeline of a Tottenham fan's mind he was a White Hart Lane stalwart, but in reality we had nothing more than two seasons of fleeting magic together: 102 appearances, 46 goals and then a big money move to Manchester United, and Fergie's sweltering winning machine. The balance had been restored, Tottenham had danced too close to the sun of success and it was back to (mediocre) business as usual (at least until Gareth Bale came good a few years later).

From there Berbatov never quite reached the halcyon days of 2007 again. An ignominious descent to Fulham, Monaco and PAOK Thessaloniki followed his time at United, his flowing locks receding and his efficiency fading. But you could still see glimpses of that touch, that savant movement. You never lose that.

You imagine that Berbatov was born to be a world class talent, that he arrived into this world wearing an Alice band, turned down socks and a bored scowl; his foot already itching for an outside of the boot screamer, or a velvet header, or a lazy glide past three defenders. It all seemed so innate, which made it all the more pleasurable to watch as a fan.

Players like Cristiano Ronaldo are forged in labs out of iron will, six hour free kick practice sessions and a relentless desire to win. Whereas a man like Berbatov just was and is. And while he might have never quite reached the true crest of his bewildering natural ability, for two beautiful seasons in the arse end of North London he was a hero and a god and every fan in the country wished that he was theirs. 

What do you think?

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