At the precise time of writing, it’s too early to say for sure whether Dimitar Berbatov has gone to Manchester United or gone to Manchester City, or whether he will stay at White Hart Lane and rot in the reserves for the next five months. What we can say with a degree of certainty, however, is that we have learnt a lot about how the Premier League works today. Just when you think that they’ve topped themselves in the avarice stakes, they manage to scale new heights. Berbatov’s move from Tottenham Hotspur has seen a new low reached in the behaviour of Premier League clubs with regard to the transfer of a player.
Manchester United, just a matter of weeks after they crying and sobbing over the likely move of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, stand accused of behaving in exactly the same way towards Spurs as Real acted towards them. They have been quite open in their courtship of a player that is still under contract to a rival club. It’s pretty difficult to feel too much sympathy for Tottenham Hotspur, though. Spurs hardly covered themselves in glory when capturing the highly rated youngster John Bostock from Crystal Palace during the summer. One could probably say the same thing about Crystal Palace, if one looked hard enough. Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that they are all as bad as each other. The only thing that changes is the extent to which a club can flex its muscle in the first place.
if our moral expectations of clubs are so low, are we being over-optimistic to expect better behaviour from the players? On one hand, no. Footballers have been mercernaries since the 1880s and if they get what they perceive to be a better offer, they’re going to take it. This isn’t unique to foreign players, either. One of the peculiarities of being a young footballer is that they don’t have the chance to form the same attachments to clubs that the rest of us do because they’re too busy playing football. You’d be surprised how many players don’t really care about the game but just happen to be pretty good at it. The open hostility towards foreign players is, however, occasionally mystifying. Why should anyone expect a Bulgarian playing in England who previously played in Germany to have formed a sentimental attachment to one Premier League club over another. The harsh truth is that Dimitar Berbatov probably wants to play in the Champions League more than anything else in the game, and he wouldn’t have been doing that any time in the near future if he’d stayed at White Hart Lane.
In this case, however, Berbatov has played his hand spectacularly badly – even worse, perhaps, than Cristiano Ronaldo did earlier in the summer. At least Ronaldo had picked up an injury which meant that he wouldn’t be starting the season, while the wounds that he partly caused were still raw. Berbatov, however, has behaved even more petulantly, sulking his way through Spurs matches on the subsitutes bench with the look on his face of a child that has just been denied their third Kinder egg of the day, to the extent that Juande Ramos has given up on him, telling him just to not bother turning up. It is a massive mistake for any player to burn their bridges with a club before the signature has been confirmed on the dotted line. Cristiano Ronaldo could have told Dimitar Berbatov that. It does, however, remain surprising, in an age in which players are given PR training from such an early age, that such basic errors are made by players.
I would have cost Dimitar Berbatov nothing to have played his heart out for Tottenham Hotspur in their opening matches of this season, thanked the club for giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his ability in the Premier League, and gone to Old Trafford. Spurs fans are, by and large, realistic about the size of their club. They are aware of the fact that they occupy a strange hinterland between the ordinary wealth of the Premier League and the super rich exalted air of the Champions League Four. When a good offer comes in, though, they generally accept that they have to take it. When, for example, Michael Carrick went to Old Trafford last summer for £18m, it was generally considered to be a good bit of business. What has been most irritating about Manchester United’s behaviour throughout the last few weeks is their disrespect in being so flagrant about it. United have been completely complicit in making Berbatov’s position at White Hart Lane utterly untenable. It’s difficult to look, when trying to establish a motive for this, beyond trying to get the price down by a few million pounds. It’s pretty shabby behaviour, whichever way you look at it.
The arrival of Manchester City into the fray today with their frankly absurd £35m bid for him. City, who are set to be purchased by The Abu Dhabi United Group (despite their unfortunate name), have been spent the day chasing after players like an ageing lothario in a town centre nightclub at closing time. They’ve been linked, in the space of twenty-four hours, been linked with almost every footballer in Europe, including Robinho and David Villa. It seems difficult to believe that they would be throwing good money after bad just to spite Manchester United, but it would be at least mildly amusing if they were. Their two successive 3-0 wins in the Premier League would seem to indicate that Mark Hughes is starting to get things city at the City Of Manchester Stadium, so the question that needs to be asked is whether they actually need enormous amounts of extra spending above and beyond the extra dimension that Shaun Wright-Phillips seems to have given them since his return from Chelsea. Are they just allowing themselves to be used to push up prices elsewhere? Are they seriously chasing all or any of these players? Truth, occasionally, can be stranger than fiction.
The stories emerging this evening are taking a turn for the bizarre. Spurs have reportedly accepted only City’s bid for Berbatov, but Berbatov was said to have been picked up from Manchester Airport by United and taken for a medical. One wonders whether anyone at Old Trafford has seen this photograph. It will interesting to see who is suffering the biggest hangover when this madness ends and we get back to something approaching normality tomorrow morning. Manchester City supporters, however, may wish to take a moment to wonder whether throwing money around before they’ve even completed due diligence is the most sensible way for their prospective new owners to be behaving.
Post Script: So, it’s Berbatov to Old Trafford for £30.7m plus Frazer Campbell on loan for a season, whilst Manchester City, strangely, have to make do with Robinho, signed from Real Madrid for £32m. Truly, the world has gone mad.