Ten years on: How Dimitar Berbatov made Spurs – then broke them

While hindsight paints the Bulgarian's two years at White Hart Lane as a doomed relationship, it was a holiday romance that got Spurs playing the field again - as Raj Bains explains...

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Although it might not feel like it, a decade has passed since Dimitar Berbatov joined Tottenham Hotspur.

The £10.9m purchase from Bayer Leverkusen sparked an evolutionary period at the club that is still ongoing today. And yet, away from glimpses in the Champions League – including the 2002 final at Hampden Park – and encouraging reports from Bundesliga experts, Spurs fans weren’t all that familiar with what they were getting. This was a pre-Twitter, pre-podcast world, and even as recently as 10 years ago, insight into German football was nowhere near as accessible as it is now.

Fortunately, a very useful website had entered the public consciousness not long before Berbatov’s arrival. YouTube offered Spurs fans some surface insight into the Bulgarian international, showcasing his flicks, tricks and goals. Berbatov was, in a way, one of the first YouTube footballers – a player discussed earnestly by his new club’s fans, whose evidence was limited to five-minute show reels. 

One particular clip encapsulates all that is wonderful about the man in under 10 seconds. It’s his goal against Roma (above). Berbatov receives the ball with his back to goal. With his first touch, he chips it into the air. With his second, he elegantly lifts the ball over his head and past the defender. And with his third, he lobs the ball from a tight angle over the goalkeeper, completing a balletic vignette of which Dennis Bergkamp would’ve been proud.

This guy was exciting, all right.

A different time

In his relatively brief time at Spurs, no emotion was spared where the inscrutable Berbatov was concerned. He provoked wonder, frustration, love, anger, joy, heartbreak and ultimately hatred.

He embodied a club that itself was alternating rapidly between the sublime and the ridiculous. In one match, the striker would nonchalantly dance through cultured European defences; in the next, he’d disappear in a winnable home fixture, refusing to grace the game with his input unless the ball was put exactly where he wanted it.

He demanded the ball from team-mates with a wand-like wave of his hand

That Berbatov’s stint at White Hart Lane involved moments of glory and brilliance but ultimately brought disappointment is arguably poetic – not that many Spurs fans would appreciate the connection being made.

Remember, though, that this wasn’t the top-six-definite, top-four-hopeful Tottenham of today but a club that had only just got back into the UEFA Cup, in an era of bottom-half finishes and overweening foreign transfers. After the likes of Sergei Rebrov, who arrived as Champions League top scorer and left as a flop, Berbatov represented the type of player that made Spurs fans wary, if not yet weary.

Martin Jol’s side had just finished fifth when the Bulgarian arrived, a top-four tilt undone only by dodgy lasagne, but Spurs supporters were still more accustomed to seeing players of Sean Davis and Michael Brown’s ilk in their midfield. Berbatov brought glamour.

Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Berbatov and Didier Zokora are unveiled

"Is he saying we didn't?"

While he started slowly in the league, the 25-year-old initially found form in the UEFA Cup, his languid style suiting the competition’s more considered pace than that of the frenetic Premier League. Once he’d adapted, though, there was nobody in the division more fascinating to watch.

As Tottenham’s most naturally talented player by a stretch, he was quickly and organically elevated to a position of silent authority; he demanded the ball not with a bellow, but a wand-like wave of his hand. Oh, he was arrogant, no doubt, but almost regal with it. 

He formed a fine strike partnership with Robbie Keane, helping the Irishman to unlock the best form of his career. At times the two dovetailed beautifully, opposites attracting – and attracting attention.

Keane would flit around the pitch without pausing for breath while Berbatov would refuse to break into a sweat, one drawing defenders with his energy, one dictating play with a lack of it. Their understanding was instinctual, and the pair seemed to take equal pleasure from creating goals for each other as they did from scoring themselves.

A strike pairing par excellence

Making Spurs fun again

Berbatov top-scored for Spurs in both of his seasons there. He was integral to the team – irreplaceable, even. The manner in which he played, the confidence in every touch, was infectious. His team-mates looked less fearful. Spurs fans started to believe again. Consecutive fifth-place finishes – at a time when that was seen as an achievement, not a disappointment – promised something even greater.