Still Walking (on terra firma!) In A Bergkamp Wonderland

Last updated : 22 December 2003 By Bernard Azulay
After a vintage Dennis Bergkamp performance on Saturday, of the scintillating sort that some of the more sceptical amongst us thought they'd long since seen the last, personally, in Wenger's place I would have stuck Dennis in a cab straight from St. Andrews and made certain his driver didn't spare the horses until he'd reached the San Siro, Milan. The measured opinion of our levelheaded manager (for whom harebrained would be the idea of having the whole bottle of wine rather than the one glass!) is that "three days is too short to travel so far at his age"!

Yet in the immortal words of the Beatles, Bergkamp will be able to sing "When I'm sixty-four" for another thirty years. We watched him roll these back even further in Birmingham, when Dennis dug deep and discovered the necessary speed to leave trailing in his wake mere whippersnappers who weren't long out of nappies when he was already wowing us for the Netherlands.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part because I am so desperate for Bergkamp to shine in a swansong season that would befit a player of his immense stature. There's no doubt that Dennis is much more cerebral than the
majority of his peers (now there's the definition of a backhanded compliment). I am pretty sure that I've perceived in him, even in preseason, a certain intensity to his performances which have alluded to an awareness of his increasingly impending, sporting mortality. It's as if he's found a renewed determination to squeeze every last drop out of his illustrious career. Yet after a couple of not so spectacular seasons, according to the sublime standards set by Bergkamp himself, Wenger's focus on Dennis' longevity has meant that his time on the park has been all the more fleeting. And as someone who has always played his way into form, he has often found it a struggle to impose himself on matches. Especially when playing under the pressure of knowing his number is favourite to appear first on the subs board.

It's always at this crucial stage in the Champions League qualification process that the perennial question crops up about the disadvantages of our non-flying Dutchman. If I never again hear the miserable likes of Lawrenson pontificating on the matter, it will be too soon. None of the pundits appear to appreciate the fact that Bergkamp was 'bought as seen', his phobia well publicized in the contractual packaging which left everyone at the club in absolutely no doubt that there was never any possibility of him making like BA from 'the A-Team' (after doing it for more than a decade, hasn't that wig Ally McCoist got a mate to tell him this crack is wearing a tad thin?).

To fully appreciate how dear most Gooners hold Dennis Bergkamp and the special place he has in our hearts, you need to bear in mind that we'd suffered several years of an indigestible domestic diet consisting of weeds like Hillier, McGoldrick and co., when the seed of this fabulous continental flower came into Arsenal lives. Over the years we have become spoilt as this blossomed into the veritable cornucopia of colour that is the current Arsenal squad. Yet I still vividly recall the tingle of anticipation and incredulity at the thought of one of the world's very best players actually coming to humble ol' Highbury, to ply his trade in red and white every week.

In fact Dennis arrived during Bruce Rioch's brief reign but to most of us he represents the essence of Arsène's revolution and in the Arsenal advent calendar, Bergkamp's' appearance in an Arsenal shirt was the equivalent to the birth of Christ, the first day of the rest of our glorious Gooner lives. He can therefore do no wrong in the eyes of most and it was quite moving to see him wearing the captain's armband on Saturday. I've watched all season as, despite his best efforts, nothing seemed to quite 'come off' and yet I've continued to claim that he has always been only a couple of confidence inspiring strikes away from 'clicking'. The sight of Dennis curling one into the top corner was once so common that it was no longer deemed worthy of comment. Whereas on Saturday I couldn't recall when he last came up with a contribution to the scoresheet.

This was hard to believe considering the way he casually lifted the ball over Taylor with such aplomb. I was actually dumbfounded that he'd conjured up the opportunity, considering I'd heard Frank Mclintock tell on Sky only a few hours earlier of Upson being the 2nd fastest player behind Henry when he was at Highbury. With the foreshortened perspective of our pitch behind the goal, I was convinced our centre-back cast-off was going to run Dennis down, especially as the youngster didn't have the bother of the ball at his feet. I've watched the replay several times and although Upson continues to tread water, the surprise (and the satisfaction) won't wear off.

Having rediscovered the yard of pace which we all assumed age had robbed him of and such a rich vein of form, it would seem criminal to make him miss the next match. I reckon if left to his own devices Dennis would gladly walk to Milan if required, because he will be only too aware of how few opportunities he has left to influence the outcome on the biggest stage in club football. Playing (or sadly as it seems, not!) against the team who sold him to the Arsenal, he'll probably be the most devastated of all our squad should we end up making another premature exit. I can't help wonder if one of the reasons Wenger won't let Dennis be driven to Milan is because he doesn't like the idea that his team selection might be influenced by all the trouble taken to get Bergkamp there. It must have been painful on a previous occasion when they sent him on an incredibly arduous schlep, only for him to spend an entire evening on the subs bench!

Still whatever the outcome in Milan, I certainly don't intend to come back empty-handed. Hopefully with a carrier bag full of cheap cartons of cancerous coffin nails, I could end up showing a financial profit, albeit a decidedly unhealthy one? What's more our entire trip to Italy is really a bonus because for 88 minutes of the contest against Kiev I grew increasingly convinced that we wouldn't be going at all.

At least I got to see that goal which is more than can be said for our first on Saturday. London's lamentable roads and the resulting traffic left us still 50 miles from Brum at the opening whistle. I'd blame extra time in the rugger, but with everyone in the same boat, I bet no-one else arrived at the break! Thanks heavens for the small mercy of live radio commentary. Otherwise I would have been sure to put my foot down and in the pouring rain, we would have been lucky to arrive in one piece!

I was still circumnavigating the ground when the players appeared for the second-half, after trying in vain to secure a press pass. Having not long walked in, there were some puzzled looks when I left my seat a few minutes before the final whistle. Mercifully I was standing beside the bulkhead trying to decide if it was worth another trek around the stadium, or else I might have missed our third, as well as the first. Unlike the poor sod I met at the bottom of the stairs!. I imagine I must have sounded just a little smug as I passed on the details of Pires' goal.

If only he'd known I'd actually travelled all that way for just 35 minutes of football. In the end I managed to mooch into the press conference without anyone challenging me for a pass, so at least I got to worship at the feet of Wenger for a few minutes. Moreover Dennis' delightful effort was truly one for the treasured memory section (who knows how many more of these I will see?) and the smile was indeed a bonus but like the man said "I'd walk a million miles" for one of those goals.