Doubtless I could’ve rambled on ad infinitum in this week’s piece if it wasn’t for the fact that I am always mindful of pissing off (even more than usual) the poor chap at the Examiner who’s lumbered with editing my missives (especially on Easter Monday). However as with most long standing Gooners, Dennis Bergkamp holds a particularly special place in my heart, as indicated by the North Bank banner on Saturday “Dennis doesn’t fly, he walks on water”.
If there was ever any doubt about the level of Gooner love for the great man, you only had to experience the overwhelming wave of joy when Bergkamp hit the back of the net to appreciate that this is certainly no run of the mill spoke in the Arsenal wheel.
As I’ve explained below, I relate all the marvellous football that we’ve experienced in recent times to the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp and thus Anno Dennis draws a line between all the dour mediocre dross before the Dutchman master and total change in style and the unbelievable entertainment we’ve enjoyed since.
The fact that he’s still here at Highbury stands as testament to the fact that the feeling is mutual and it seems a great shame that he won’t be staying on in some capacity, if only because he’s just about the most perfect example any young professional could have, of not only how the game should be played, but how to apply oneself to ensure one’s longevity in the game.
Still as we all know all good things must come to an end, especially when it comes to the beautiful game and we’ve been blessed by Bergkamp’s talents for longer than most. I am just relieved that Dennis didn’t disappear as some loyal servants have before him, during the summer, without us having a proper opportunity to show our appreciation and as for his testimonial being arranged as the first game at the new stadium, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate game to honour both him and our glamorous new arena.
There also wasn't sufficient room below to point out that since we take every opportunity to paint some of the suits at the club as the bad guys, I guess we also need to give credit where it's due. Although 2004 was a little short on silverware, as winners of the Fair Play award the club received a substantial sum in prize money from the FA. In addition to this there was an award to us as Fans of the Year. I am assuming this was earned as a result of our good behaviour because it certainly didn't result from the disappointing decibel levels at the Library (after the Red Action folk went to all that effort with the t-shirts on Saturday, you would've thought we could've come up with some singing to match the marvelous scene, as I couldn't believe how quiet we were up until the excitement after Dennis introduction).
As a consequence the club received two sums of money which accompanied these two awards, that were in addition to anything they'd budgeted for. They therefore deserve our praise for making a considerable amount available to the Red Action crew so that they are able to arrange stunts such as the one on Saturday. For those of you who were lucky enough to get an orange t-shirt, be sure to cherish it, as considering how we Gooners are usually made to pay through the nose, it's not often that you can come away from Highbury with such a souvenir absolutely gratis!
Meanwhile after enjoying Spurs being put to the sword - by a Utd side with a defence so jittery, it’s hard to understand how we didn’t manage to breach them, although sadly the vacuous Vidic wasn’t involved in our game – sadly it seems as if Chelsea are about to put a mild dampener on my Bank Holiday mood.
Still with only two more days to go to the most important match I’ve ever experienced at THOF, the butterflies are already buzzing around my belly. Then again that could be the matzos jews eat at this time of year to celebrate Passover – there’s absolutely no way the Israelites could of done a runner out of Egypt on a diet of this “unleavened bread” (no yeast) as the majority of them wouldn’t have been able to escape the karsey, let alone Pharaoh and his troops
There were raised eyebrows on Saturday, amongst the West Upper regulars. They were astonished to find me already sitting in my seat when they arrived at Highbury. This was followed by the odd glance up at the famous Clock End timepiece, for reassurance that they weren’t tardy.
With my consistently dreadful memory, I’d actually forgotten all about ‘Dennis Bergkamp day’, until a few hours before kick-off, when a phone conversation with a pal who sits in front of me, had ended with his reminder “don’t forget to wear orange”. It suddenly occurred to me that while my cupboard might contain a substantial collection of Arsenal t-shirts, I don’t possess a single item of orange apparel (no doubt like the majority of the male population). But as I racked my brain, wondering how I was going to participate in our tribute to the Dutch master, I remembered hearing that Red Action, the supporters group that’s been behind various initiatives to improve the atmosphere at the Arsenal, had something up their sleeves for this event.
I actually had it in my head that they were organising a load of orange ‘titfers’ and so I picked up the phone and called one of the organisers, to demand of him “where’s my hat?” It turned out that it was orange t-shirts, not hats and knowing that I only live around the corner to the Home of Football, he suggested to me that if I hurried, I could help to hand them out.
One of the bonuses of volunteering my services was that it gave me carte blanche to wander around in the bowels of the stadium, schlepping some of the sacks full of a total of 10,000 t-shirts to just inside the turnstiles. So it was worth losing a few pounds in sweat, if only for a rare and final opportunity to have a ‘butcher’s’ at all the behind the scenes hustle & bustle in the stadium on a matchday.
The shortest route from the Clock End distribution point, to the West Stand, took me through the corner section of away supporters, where I was collared by a Baggies fan. Dennis Bergkamp’s remarkable and enduring impact on British football, over the course of a decade of sensational service to the Gunner’s cause, was brought home to me when this Brummie politely enquired if he might take a t-shirt.
As I’d told everyone else, the only proviso for one of these freebies was that you had to put it on straight away and this chap was happy to do so, informing me “I’ve always been a Bergkamp fan”
Many people forget that Dennis pre-dates Arsène, as he was signed during Bruce Rioch’s brief tenure. However his arrival at Highbury was, in my opinion, not just significant in terms of the Gunners, but for the profile of the Premiership as a whole. While Wenger might’ve been the ultimate architect of all our success in recent times, an era of absolutely incredible entertainment actually dates back to moment the Arsenal proudly displayed their new Dutch signing, wearing the red & white.
Up to then, no Gooner would’ve ever imagined we were capable of competing with the seemingly bottomless coffers of the Continental giants, to capture a truly world class star, at the very peak of his footballing powers. You have to bear in mind that up until the day Dennis arrived, the limit of the Arsenal’s European flair extended only as far as the dour addition of John Jensen, to a midfield which was hardly lit up by the mediocre skills of the likes of Hillier, Selley and Morrow.
I can remember going out and buying a video entitled “A Perfect 10”, a highlight package of Bergkamp’s feats and finding it hard to believe I was going to be watching such an amazing talent in an Arsenal shirt every week. By signing Bergkamp, the Arsenal threw down a marker of our intent to scale the summit of the Premiership and European peaks. Thus it’s fitting that we found ourselves paying tribute to one of the principal catalysts in this process, just a few days prior to the encounter which could take us as close as we’ve ever been to finally achieving the ultimate aim.
Admittedly it was the Bosman ruling and the subsequent abolition of the two foreign players limit which opened the floodgates for footballers from foreign climes, coming to England for a slice of the prodigious Premiership cake. However prior to this, apart from the obvious suspects, Cantona, Schmeichel, Molby, Ardiles and Villa, players from abroad weren’t exactly clamouring to ply their trade in the Premiership.
The massive pay packets on offer in Spain and Italy meant that we were a net exporter of professional players and as a result we suffered from an inferiority complex, when comparing our game to the far more glamorous product on offer on the Continent.
After the Arsenal gave £7.5 mil. of our share of the Sky TV loot to Inter Milan, to end the Dutch superstar’s unhappy sojourn in Italy, Anno Dennis can now be seen as the date when the huge sums of money washing around the Premiership first began to attract an assortment of the cream of foreign talent to all our top clubs. Instead of an unsophisticated stepping-stone, suddenly the Premiership had become the acme of footballers’ short career.
There’s been a theme for every match, in honour of our last season at Highbury, many of which have passed me by until I’ve arrived home and read details in the programme. So I’m delighted Dennis’ day lived up to expectations. It was very satisfying to step out on to the terrace 20 mins before KO and be greeted by an absolute sea of orange at either end of the ground and in the East stand opposite.
Dennis has played a peripheral role for much of this season, but whenever he’s appeared, he’s displayed the enthusiasm of a teenager. You’d expect nothing less from such a model professional. I believe he bagged goals against Thun and Pompey before Xmas, but Bergkamp’s had such slim pickings, that every time he’s appeared I’ve prayed for some long overdue magic.
Highbury might’ve looked marvellous on Saturday but strangely the atmosphere appeared even more subdued than usual, until Dennis made his entrance. Then the entire afternoon immediately fell incredibly flat when WBA equalised. Yet this trough only helped to make the wave of ecstasy seem that much more intense, as Dennis conjured up the ‘perfick’ climax by being alert enough to assist with the 2nd and sealing victory with the 3rd, with a trademark Bergkamp curler, which couldn’t possibly have been better scripted.
It would be brilliant if his illustrious career could end on the high-note of a European Cup, but unlike many presumptuous pundits, I honestly believe our semi-final opponents might prove the most formidable hurdle between us and this objective. The plucky Spanish side can play with the freedom of having soared past any expectations and it will require a redoubtable performance on our part, along with a fair share of good fortune.
Some would have it that we might be slightly more determined, without the safety-blanket of a 4th place qualification for next season’s competition. Not to mention the possibility of the ultimate irony in denying Spurs their first taste of European football in donkey’s years. Nevertheless such a perspective wouldn’t have prevented every Gooner from enjoying Man Utd’s victory on Monday. It’s set the scene for an historic derby day in more than one way. What a wind up it will be then for the visitors from White Hart Lane to be making their last trip to Highbury, for their biggest game in an age, only to find that for players and fans alike, hopefully most Gooner minds will be halfway to Paris!
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