Everyone has had that moment at least once in their life, some a lot more than others. When any of us is given an assignment of some kind with a deadline, there’s always an inkling to put off getting it done until as close to that deadline as possible, and once that deadline appears on the horizon, we start scrambling desperately to get it done. It happens to the best of us, and it might relieve some of those reading this who may be feeling self-conscious to learn that football clubs do it as well. Every single transfer window, football clubs all across Europe hit the panic button on the final day of the window, trying to wrap up their deals before the deadline comes. That could be because negotiations were tougher than expected, or simply because they moved too late. We’ve all heard the stories; how Peter Odemwingie drove all the way to Queens Park Rangers to force a deal to happen (it didn’t), or how Raul Meireles swapped Liverpool for Chelsea, after submitting a transfer request just 30 minutes before the deadline.
Manchester United aren’t strangers to making deadline day deals. United have been active in the past three summer deadline days, signing Anthony Martial last season, Radamel Falcao on loan the season before, with Danny Welbeck leaving, and Marouane Fellaini the season before that. They aren’t strangers to failed deadline day deals either, after failing to complete the loan deal for Fabio Coentrao in 2013, and, in the biggest story of last summer’s window, the failed transfer of David De Gea to Real Madrid, with Madrid failing to submit the necessary documents before the Spanish deadline.
But none of those transfers can be fairly called the most dramatic of all. The only way that’s possible is if the transfer of Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur somehow never happened.
United wanted to bring in Berbatov, a player Sir Alex Ferguson admitted to having kept tabs on since before he joined Tottenham after their Champions League triumph to add some composure to their attack, which then included the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and Wayne Rooney. But to get to him, United had to get past Tottenham Daniel Levy, a prospect no one looks forward to.
United had dealt with Levy before when they signed Michael Carrick in 2006. Ferguson, as he revealed in his autobiography, said that the club would do well to get him for £8 million. United completed the move after weeks of haggling, for a base fee of £14 million.
Anyone who expected Levy to be softer with the Berbatov negotiations were sorely mistaken. If anything, Levy was even more challenging, pushing United all the way to deadline day. Tottenham went as far as lodging an official complaint to the Premier League about United’s conduct in the transfer, something Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described as a “trick” to bump up the price.
However, Levy seemed to be the only thing standing in the way of the transfer. The player wanted the move, which prompted Tottenham manager Juande Ramos to drop Berbatov from all games in August. With Levy being the only hurdle, United entered 1 September, deadline day, with the transfer looking like being a matter of when, and how much, not if. Little did anyone know.
The news came around noon, news that will go on to change that club’s history. Manchester City had agreed to a takeover deal the previous night with the Abu Dhabi United Group. The new owners had promised to clear the club’s debts and provide the necessary funds for the club to go after the world’s best players. And it just so happened that their first target was a certain Bulgarian striker.
And they did not waste time. Less than a couple of hours after the announcement of the takeover, City manager Mark Hughes had confirmed that not only have made a bid but have had the bid accepted by Tottenham. The bid was believed to be valued at £34 million, four million more than what Tottenham had asked of United and nine more than what United was offering. It was all down to Berbatov himself to agree a deal with City and the move would be completed.
Oddly enough, with a deal so close to completion, nothing else came up for a few hours. But then, another bombshell dropped. Reports began to emerge that Real Madrid had entered negotiations for Berbatov, tabling a £36.5 million bid. But again, nothing further happened. Later in the day, further confirmation of City’s bid for Berbatov, with the head of the Abu Dhabi United Group, Dr, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, confirming the bid. But that’s not all he confirmed, as he also mentioned that City had made bids for two other strikers, Mario Gomez and David Villa.
It was clear at this point that Berbatov wasn’t City’s only target, that they had simply wanted a top class striker, which may not necessarily be Berbatov. They were still a threat to United, after all, they do have a bid accepted, but they would simply move on to another target if they couldn’t find an agreement with Berbatov.
And that’s exactly what happened. Later that evening City’s focus shifted towards Real Madrid forward Robinho, then also linked with Chelsea. The deal also took its time to complete, but the announcement came an hour before the deadline.
And what about United’s approach for Berbatov? United acted quickly. Once they caught wind of City’s accepted bid, they chartered a plane and flew the player out to Manchester, quickly agreeing to terms with the player and the club. But Levy, the determined negotiator that he is, went back on the deal and asked United for Fraizer Campbell to be sent on loan the other way as part of the deal because Tottenham had no replacement lined up for Berbatov. When United declined, Levy upped the fee. Finally, to wrap the deal up, United ended up loaning them Campbell as well as paying them the deal. The whole was process was described by Ferguson as being “more painful than my hip replacement” in his most recent book, Leading, where he also recounted the story. As for the City offer, Berbatov said that he “would not even have thought” about it and that the money made no difference to him.
And was it all worth it? All he honours won suggest that the answer is yes. Berbatov spent four years at United and in the four seasons he spent at United, he won two league titles, one League Cup, one Club World Championship, and two Community Shields, with his last season being the only barren one. He was nominated for the 2010 FIFPro World XI, won his second ever Premier League Player of the Month award for January 2011, ended the 2010-11 as a joint top scorer and won his place in the 2010-11 PFA Team of the Year. He made history, as he became only the second United player to score three hat-tricks in one season, after Ruud van Nistelrooy, and in the 7-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers, became only the fourth player in Premier League history to score five goals in one match.
Berbatov could be seen as a polarising figure. While some consider him lazy and slow, others take not of his grace and skill. He doesn’t suit the conventional United style of the Ferguson days, full of pace and vigour, but that was exactly why Ferguson brought him in. He made his mark in United history with the goals he scored and the trophies he won, and the spectacular story of his transfer will be remembered, on a day that was, as former Sky Sports reporter Alan Myers calls it, “the birth of Deadline Day in its present form”.