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Berbatov blooming in the autumn of an enigmatic career

Sunday, 18 November 2012 - 1:37pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Fulham manager Martin Jol tells Jason Burt how he has transformed the career of the Bulgarian.

It is Friday morning at Motspur Park, Fulham's training ground, and Dimitar Berbatov gives another demonstration to manager Martin Jol of the penalty he took against Arsenal in the 3-3 draw last weekend. Once again there is a stroll up to the spot, a hesitation, and the ball is stroked into the net.

"He wanted to show me that his last penalty wasn't a coincidence," Jol explains. "I said, 'Please, next time, just put it in the net, don't wait for the keeper'. But he did it because I had said to him that there's no player playing in England who can wait for the keeper [to dive]. And that's what he did. But he did it in front of 60,000 people. And that's quite different - and he's different."

After scoring so nonchalantly at the Emirates Stadium, Berbatov wheeled away to the Fulham bench. "He came running over to the touchline because he wanted to prove to me he could do it," Jol adds. "I don't think he likes to be an entertainer but he entertains with his style and I don't want to take that away from him."

Berbatov, an enigma even at the age of 31, certainly divides opinion. At Manchester United, whom he joined for a (still) club record pounds 30.75?million from Tottenham in 2008 - where he had been signed by Jol of course - he became "Berbagod" to some, "Berbaflop" to others as his languid style, lone wolf instinct and single-mindedness polarised views. But Jol is clear. "People think he's a sulker and that he might not be giving 100 per cent but in his mind he is giving everything for the team and you have to accept that. He's a fantastic footballer," he says.

Unsurprisingly, the deadline-day signing of Berbatov from United for just pounds 5?million, hailed as the most significant in the club's history by the manager, is an expansive topic of conversation for Jol, who categorically states that the striker only agreed to move to Craven Cottage because of the Dutchman's presence there. Jol explains how he beat off competition from Juventus and Fiorentina to get him.

"I thought it wasn't possible but after talking to him I thought 'maybe'," Jol explains. "He was at the airport and his agent [Emil Dantchev] phoned me and said, 'Give him a phone call because he's waiting for a plane to go to Italy' and straight after the phone call he changed his mind and he came back." So what persuaded him? "I didn't have to say too much to him but I do remember saying, 'Yeah, but I'm here as well'," Jol adds. "I was at Fulham and I told him, 'I've got Diarra, Schwarzer, Petric, Duff. There are a few nice names here. And I am here as well'. That's what I said to him and I also said, 'You could be here also'."

The wooing process had started last December - when Fulham visited Old Trafford and Berbatov came off the United bench to score what was the fifth goal in an embarrassing thrashing. "The 5-0 probably put him off a bit," Jol says. "I thought, 'He'll never come now' because were not great. And then a few months later he saw us against Man United again [in August] - and it was 3-2 and we looked a different team. Maybe that changed his mind. The only problem was [Moussa] Dembele left the same day."

The manager's impressive rebuilding and remodelling of Fulham has been overlooked. He lost Dembele and Clint Dempsey, but has fashioned an even more creative team around the axis of Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz. He positively purrs at the suggestion his team are now more entertaining - only Manchester United have scored more Premier League goals. Today they are at home to Sunderland.

"It's about good footballers," Jol says. "If you look at the type of players - Berbatov and Ruiz - then maybe, to your eye, it's not the best combination but nothing is always what it seems." It is probably an apt description, also, of Berbatov. Nothing is always as it seems. Five goals in six starts - and Fulham have not lost any of them - has transformed a season that, Jol admits, he was concerned about given the transfer upheaval.

"I really thought we'd have a problem but in the last couple of days [of the transfer window] he came in. But he first had to prove himself and he's done that and now we are probably playing better than ever. He's happy, he's smiling. His wife is pregnant and hopefully the child will be born next week. And then he can come back and be even better still."

 


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