:: Article

The Unfortunate (or: Watching Dimitar Berbatov)

By Juliet Jacques.

Carrow Road, 9 February 2013. I’m here every fortnight, more or less, in fact less as there are international breaks now we’re back in the Premier League, and because our Cup form is as dismal as ever, knocked out by a non-League team in our last home game, the first Premier League side ever to get knocked out by a fucking non-League team, so I watch less football, but have more chance of seeing one of The Greats than when I went to Watford or Luton or Colchester on cold Tuesday evenings, invariably seeing us undone by Deon Burton or Dele Adebola or Shefki Kuqi, knowing that not even Skefki Kuqi will tell his grandchildren about Shefki sodding Kuqi …

Today it’s Fulham. I was at Craven Cottage on the opening day, one month after major surgery, in unbearable heat, with my friends from Norfolk. From the kick-off we knew we’d get stuffed, Fulham ripping us apart down the flanks and through the centre. They’re 1-0 up and stroll through again, Ryan Bennett makes the best tackle I’ve ever seen, sliding from behind to put the ball out, not even touching Mladen Petrić. We reorganise, Petrić scores from the corner. Fuck this, says Tudders, I’m going to the bar, want anything? I need water, I’m dehydrated from my operation. Twenty minutes later, Sorry Juliet, they only had beer, I can’t drink as I’m on painkillers, Fulham score again and we leave at 5-0. It’s still not my worst day there though: May 2005, win and we stay up, lose and we go down, it ends 6-0 without Fulham having to try, and I hate football and I think all of our players are useless and wish they’d all just leave, which they do, eventually.

My last two games ended 0-0 – at home to Newcastle in the freezing January cold and then at QPR where ‘Impaired View’ mercifully means I can’t see a thing, moving to watch Mark Bunn save Adel Taarabt’s penalty, the one exciting minute of the last 180, and I miss Paul Lambert, who dragged us from League One to the Premier and then left, replacement manager Chris Hughton being far more cautious since that awful start at Fulham.

Like the reverse fixture, I somehow know the ending from the start, and expecting another goalless draw, I should be interested in how our new striker Luciano Becchio does, but I focus on Fulham’s Dimitar Berbatov, my favourite Premier League player, his style so idiosyncratic that no manager can quite fit him into a team, but capable of the most incredible skill, like that moment for Manchester United where he chases an over-hit pass, steps on the ball, turns, flicks it past West Ham’s defender and crosses for Ronaldo to score. He reminds me of Buster Keaton, his face as deadpan as Keaton’s when his house fell around him, with the same ability to see some audacious trick to change a situation and the same contortionist skills to make it work.

A few moments in, we miss the first chance. Elliott Bennett cuts back from the wing, a little like Berbatov against West Ham, plays in Javi Garrido to cross, but Becchio shoots straight at Mark Schwarzer. I go back to Berbatov, strolling the line between midfield and attack, casually beckoning our defence to cut his supply lines. Five minutes are gone, Berbatov crouches to nod to a team-mate and Bradley Johnson, our least ‘cultured’ midfielder, kicks him in the head. While Berbatov is having stitches, I think about QPR, this time last year, when Joey Barton scored, silenced us with his finger and then, doubtless provoked, head-butted Johnson, and got sent off before we won 2-1, and how it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen at a match.

Berbatov’s back on, and Fulham try to play through him. Every time he gets the ball, he stops the game and decides how quickly he wants it to continue. But no-one thinks like him: Duff doesn’t make the runs for the return passes, Sidwell doesn’t break from midfield for the lay-offs and Rodallega doesn’t move for his through balls. It’s a strange kind of brilliance, clear to everyone around me in the Lower Barclay, E Block, nothing like Luis Suárez who beat us alone last season, Dalglish’s mediocre Liverpool lifted to a 3-0 win by his hat-trick: that magnificent, unbearable moment where Elliott Ward slipped and Suárez scored this 45-yard volley, we knew it was going in the second he hit it, Ruddy couldn’t and wouldn’t stop it, and a Liverpool fan ran onto the pitch and worshipped Suárez and we all hated them both and I just wanted to leave.

He’s offended, Berbatov, by his team-mates’ failure to anticipate his passes and his movement, and soon the Norwich defence adjust, dropping deeper to stop him playing those through balls. But this means we can’t build from the back, the gap between defence and midfield is too big, and I’m offended by our negativity against such a weak team. In the second half the scoreboard stops working and everyone around me in the Lower Barclay, E Block jokes that it knows it will never be needed again and has committed suicide.

Watching Berbatov trudge around dejected, knowing he feels like this every week, I think about how few geniuses I’ve seen in my twenty years going to football. Gareth Bale was the best, he beat us on his own at left-back for Southampton, aged 17, every free kick was dangerous and one was lethal. The same season, on holiday, I saw another set-piece master, David Beckham, back in the Real Madrid side, stood at the back of an 80,000-seater stadium and in their team of Galácticos, everything Beckham did stood out, even the way he ran, his feet seeming to circle around each other, was utterly distinctive. I’d gone to see a World Cup-winning captain but Fabio Cannavaro was suspended – turned out I did, but Iker Casillas hadn’t won it yet, and he didn’t have to do much against Getafe.

As Berbatov threads another defence-splitting ball to our goalkeeper, I recall another player I’d loved from the first time I saw him on TV, Carlos Tévez, who’d been out for months as Manchester City paid him £200,000 a week to play football and he wouldn’t do it, and then all the other strikers they’d spent £30m on stopped performing so they lifted his suspension. He scored a hat-trick against our team full of players signed from the third division and his celebrations joked about him going on strike and I despised the Premier League and everything it stood for and I wished we were still in League One. I saw Ryan Giggs, aged 38, score the archetypal last-minute winner for Manchester United a few weeks earlier, after we’d outplayed, and Claude Makélélé for Paris St. Germain at Marseille’s packed Stade Vélôdrome, he deserved a role named after him, with this metronomic beauty in how he just won the ball gracefully in front of the defence and laid it off, in another of my brief breaks from the monotony of the English League season.

I go back to Berbatov, stood on the halfway line as our attack goes nowhere. We bring on Kei Kamara, our new loanee striker from Sierra Leone, who couldn’t be less like Berbatov, technically poor but dynamic and enthusiastic, and it’s him, not Berba, who lifts the match with a few minutes left. I remember Fernando Torres in the Chelsea games last year and how he looked like he didn’t even like football, or when I saw England give just 12 minutes to my favourite player at the time, Matthew Le Tissier, against Nigeria in 1994, where nobody played to his strengths, and I think about how I travel the country and sometimes the continent in the hope of seeing occasional moments of transcendence, and how pleased I am to have witnessed a player as intelligent, dignified and skilful as Berbatov, and how delighted I am that he’s not been able to do us any damage whatsoever. A year later, he gives up on Fulham, or maybe they give up on him: he goes to Monaco, and I wish he’d take me with him.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 5th, 2014.