Dimitar Berbatov has the talent and he knows it yet it is the effortlessness that lifts him to the higher plane of cool.
It is not that he does not try, as his detractors froth; rather, that he does not seem to. The Fulham striker is the non-conformist's hero, the player who glides through the blood and thunder of the Premier League on his terms. To him, the cloggers and the 110-percenters are losers. He is all about connoisseur's quality.
There is a part of every football fan that loves Berbatov, even those at Tottenham, who felt betrayed when he left them in 2008 to become Manchester United's record signing. And right now, there is no Fulham fan that does not love him dearly. If his purchase for a knockdown £5m from United on transfer deadline day had them dreaming, then the reality so far has been better.
Fulham are unbeaten in six league matches with Berbatov in the starting XI and, with his help, they have established themselves as the division's second-top scorers, behind United. He has contributed five goals but, more so, he has fired a sense of style and adventure at Craven Cottage.
It was evident in the 3-3 draw at Arsenal on Saturday, when Fulham recovered from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 before being pegged back. Berbatov, impish and incisive, was in the kind of touch that makes highlight reels and, as happens when everything clicks for him, he instilled worry in his opponents.
Arsenal's players did not dare to dive in on him for fear of being made to look foolish while the goalkeeper Vito Mannone, seemingly, did not dare to dive on Berbatov's penalty. The kick was prefaced by a broken stroll; the strike marked by nonchalance. It was his second goal of the afternoon.
Berbatov's self-belief has long since crossed the line into arrogance yet, with his Fulham honeymoon in full swing, nobody is picking holes. He has applied himself in training, he has attempted to integrate – the striker Mladen Petric is a friend – and he has smiled at the mickey-taking that has come his way.
On one level, Berbatov is an easy target; the shades are a key part of his sharp off-the-field look, as is the St Tropez-style promenading. But on another, it might feel wise to tread carefully. It is often said that Fulham's is a dressing-room without stars but, really, that changed when Berbatov arrived. The 31-year-old could conceivably be the highest-profile signing of the club's history. He responds, though, to sarcasm and acerbic wit. Put him on a pedestal and he will take advantage.
Berbatov regularly gives the impression that he is too cool to speak to anybody. He does not do press – the interview request has gathered dust since the Tottenham days (hope is retained) – while he is contemptuous of Twitter. The Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale recently set the record straight over a fake Berbatov account. "I'm sat on the bus next to him and it's not real," he tweeted. Stockdale was asked if Berbatov might be persuaded to sign up. "No, and he is not interested, either." Berbatov on Twitter? As. If.
Berbatov has been "quiet" since he joined Fulham, according to his team-mate Chris Baird. "He is a quiet man," Baird said, "but, listen, when he comes on to the pitch, he is so clever. His experience really helps us, particularly the younger players. He is top-class. You give him the ball and you know he will do something special."
One story from his time at Tottenham sums up the ability and the attitude. Jamie O'Hara, who is now at Wolves, remembers Berbatov being in possession, with his back to him, about 40 yards away. "I was yelling for the ball," O'Hara said. "Berba dropped his shoulder and, without looking, he played a pinpoint pass right to my feet. After training, he said to me: 'I know where you are. You don't have to shout.'"
From Spurs Lodge, to Carrington, to Motspur Park, Berbatov has routinely dazzled in training. One of the biggest frustrations at United was his failure to replicate such brilliance on a consistent basis in matches. He came to be considered, in some quarters, as a prima donna; difficult and aloof. The talent was never in question but he was criticised for not buying into the collective United ethos.
That he lasted for four years at the club surprised some but, also, reflected Sir Alex Ferguson's awareness of the precious ability and his yearning to do everything to bring it to the fore. It had felt as though Berbatov were an Eric Cantona in the making when he signed but the hope would prove unfounded.
Ferguson preferred Michael Owen to him in his match-day squad for the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona – a savage blow to Berbatov – and the Bulgarian's final season at Old Trafford was spent on the fringes, with one of the abiding images that of him finishing the Carling Cup tie at Leeds United at centre-half, stepping past opponents like a latter-day Franz Beckenbauer. Berbatov can only do things his way; even Ferguson could not bend him to his will.
Berbatov's single-mindedness had been evident at Tottenham. The devil with the face of an angel, as he was known at Bayer Leverkusen (that was never going to catch on here), always saw Tottenham as a stepping stone to an elite club and the manner of his departure to United left a sour taste. He came to be considered as moody and complex. One employee says he only ever saw him eat in the canteen with a plastic knife and fork.
So what? Berbatov does not care what people think, even on the laziness issue that has dogged his career. The critics are the company men, the face-timers, the non-smokers. They do not get it. Buckets of sweat do not embellish a performance. Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, who had Berbatov at Tottenham, gets it. "What do you want?" he said. "A player without quality who works hard? Or a quality player who hopefully works hard?"
Jol harnessed the talents of Bryan Ruiz behind Berbatov at Arsenal, and the Costa Rican was also breathtaking. You had to hand it to the Fulham manager. Forget false No9s, this was a false strike partnership but it appealed greatly, not least to Berbatov and his maverick sensibilities. These remain early days yet the excitement is palpable.
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image: © nicksarebi