MY favourite player
Following Tim's cracking piece on our twinkle-toed swede of Days gone by, Anders Limpar, I cannot let this moment go without honouring the man who I consider to be the finest player to pull on an Arsenal shirt (at least during my time on this earth).
There've been many-a-fine player to play for Arsenal, Tim's namechecking pretty much covered it.
For me, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest for the way he would inspire dreams, make your jaw drop, and leave you wishing you could do something like that over the park during a kickabout with your mates, let alone in the heat of a Premiership battle.
I take you back to 1995. Following the 'bung' scandal, for which George Graham paid with his job, Arsenal were managed by Bruce Rioch. Rioch, whose time at Arsenal would be short, nonetheless, left his mark on the history of our great club by shelling out £7.5m on a player who had become something of a misfit during two seasons in Italy (there is some uncertainty as to whether or not Rioch actually made this signing, or if it was made at the behest of someone else at the club, or a certain Frenchman who was yet to arrive on the Arsenal scene, but I will give the Credit to Rioch...). Unable to find happiness in the Italian game, Highbury, and indeed the whole of English football, was left more than a little shocked when, one day in June 1995, Arsenal announced to the world that they had completed the signing from Inter Milan of one Dennis Bergkamp. In a parting shot, Inter Milan's chairman, Massimo Moratti, declared, Arsenal will be lucky if Bergkamp scores 10 goals this season.
The Dutchman, named after Legendary Scottish striker Denis Law, had put pen to paper with The Gunners, and with that signature came a love affair in North London that, despite the two parties no longer seeing each other anymore on a regular basis, remains overpowering and heartfelt to this very day. Some things are meant to be, and The Arsenal and Dennis were meant to be together. Together, they blossomed. And, like all the best love affairs, there was a mutual respect for each other, undimmable beauty, and plenty of passion (that would sometimes boil over to reveal the fiery temper that lurks beneath the surface...).
Dennis made his debut for Arsenal against Middlesbrough on the 19th of August. Despite glimpses of what he could do, Highbury waited and waited for the dutchman to open his account. No doubt some became concerned that we had bought a dud, and that the guy couldn't hack it. Those concerns were blown away the day when Southampton were the visitors at Highbury - Arsenal's dutchman registering his name on the scoresheet not once, but twice. With the monkey off his back, Dennis ended the season with 11 goals to his name.
The following season, Rioch having been removed from his post, Arsene Wenger was instated in the Highbury hotseat. And it was under the stewardship of Arsene that Dennis really began to reveal the true beauty of his game.
The statement 'a scorer of great goals, not a great scorer of goals' never rang truer than it did with Dennis. The magic wasn't just in the boots. It certainly wasn't in his pace (though he was never a slouch). Dennis Bergkamp didn't have to rely on such physical traits to prove his ability. Where Dennis' magic truly lay was in his mind. He was blessed with a vision and speed of thought that was truly second to none, and knowing that he had the technique that could enable to make the most audacious seem nonchalant, this enabled him to score magnificent goals, and if the Premier League want to release another 'greatest goals' compilation, they may as well just stuff it full of DB10 goals from start to finish.
As if to prove this, Dennis became the only player (so far) to notch a 1-2-3 in Match of the day's 'Goal of the Month' competition, for his treble scored away at Leicester City in September 1997.
Picking out you favourite Dennis Bergkamp goal is like trying to pick who out of Robbie Savage, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole you would wallop first - you want to choose them all. Yet, if I had to choose one, well, it couldn't be done. I have to pick two (and one of them wasn't scored for Arsenal).
The first goal would have to be the truly awe-inspiring receive-flick-swivel-finish delivered against Newcastle United at St James' Park in 2002. Receiving A Bob Pires pass with his back to goal some 20 yards out, nothing seemed on. Dennis had other ideas. With Nikos Dabizas right up his harris, Dennis' first touch sent the ball spinning round and behind him to his right, whilst immediately after the flick, Dennis span to the left, around Dabizas, who by this time was wondering where the player he had been marking had just disappeared to. Dennis and the ball instantly became re-acquainted, and having held off Dabizas, The Iceman coolly slotted the ball past Shay Given. Pandemonium amongst Gooners everywhere would have set in, but we were all still trying to digest what we had just seen. A truly mesmeric goal.
The second, was the goal scored for the Netherlands in the France 98 World Cup. Facing Argentina in the quarters, and with time fast running out, Dennis took a long pass from (I think) Frank de Boer 15 yards out from goal, on the right hand side of the area. taking the ball out of the air as if it were a feather with his right foot, he flicked the ball round the defender, before passing the ball past the Argentinian 'keeper, to knock the Argies home early.
But of course, Dennis wasn't just a goalscorer. Of equal, if not greater importance, was his ability to forge partnerships with the striker playing up front with him, and enable them to get the best out of themselves, and benefit vastly from the vision of Arsenal's artist-among-artists. Without doubt, neither Ian Wright nor Thierry Henry would have accumulated as many goals as the did in their Arsenal careers were it not for the Iceman. Indeed, allow me to let the two men speak for themselves. Here's Ian Wright on Dennis:
He's the messiah. We told him to get us into Europe when he joined and that's exactly what he did.
And TH14 put it rather well too, when he said:
Dennis is the best player I have ever played with as a partner. It is a dream for a striker to have him in the team with you.
A gentleman off the pitch, he could also have a nasty streak on it, not taking over-the-top fouls lightly, and sometimes he would respond outside the laws of the game. But those bursts of anger only served to endear him further to us Gooners.
As the years began to take their toll, Dennis forays for Arsenal became fewer and father between. In what was possibly the first example of it's kind of Arsene Wenger's favouring of youth over experience, Dennis' last couple of years at Arsenal were on one year contract extensions. Seeing Dennis having to wait to see if he could secure another year at the end of those seasons always left me a little sad, as you could sense it troubled him deeply, and that he never wanted to play anywhere else after Arsenal. Yet, even though age caught up with him, those moments of magic still shone through - the most notable being the 7-0 demolition of Everton, which left the Highbury crowd united as one, imploring Wenger to give Bergkamp 'One More Year!!!'.
April 15th 2006 saw Highbury honour it's adopted Dutch son, as the match against West Brom was designated 'Dennis Bergkamp Day', and Dennis duly came on as a second half sub, to set up Bobby Pires for the winning goal, to a rapturous reception. He would then go on to score a third himself, which proved to be his last goal for Arsenal.
Dennis would officially retire from the game after the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona. He left behind him a record that reads 121 goals in 424 appearances, and 166 assists. Also a plethora of dizzy defenders, with neck-aches.
Dennis will always be a Gooner, and as far as I can recall, I think I remember reading that his son is a died-in-the-wool Gooner too. After losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi Final at Villa Park, I remember reading about Dennis going home and having to comfort his son, who was in floods of tears saying 'Daddy, why did we have to lose?'. I have been unable to locate the quote, but definitely remember reading it. How great would it be to see another Bergkamp proudly wearing the red and white in a few years?
Having brought so much joy to us Arsenal fans, it was with great pleasure that Dennis got the testimonial he so richly deserved. I only wish I had been able to attend the match, but I was in Italy at that time. My mate went, and proudly had the t-shirt given out that day. How dearly I would love one, and to have paid my tribute to Dennis. He's quite simply my favourite player ever. If I could choose to have played like any footballer, ever, i would always, always choose the ice-cool demeanour and exquisite artistry of DB10.
In my eyes, there is, and only ever could be, 'One Dennis Bergkamp'.
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