Bye-bye Bergkamp

THERE WERE MANY WHO HAD a lump in their throat in North London as Dennis Bergkamp walked in with his two children wearing Arsenal colours for the last time in his testimonial match against Ajax.-AP

Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial, after his 11 glittering years with Arsenal, inaugurated the new Emirates Stadium in which, after 93 years at Highbury, the Gunners will now be playing.

For three quarters of an hour it looked as if it would be a fearful anticlimax. Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial, after his 11 glittering years with Arsenal, inaugurated the grandiose, massive new Emirates Stadium in which after 93 years at Highbury, the Gunners will now be playing. There were 54,000 there, most of them luridly dressed in Arsenal red and white or Dutch Orange shirts. Touts outside the ground were demanding GBP100 for a ticket. Subsequently, capacity will be increased to 80,000 and I hardly think the club will be perturbed by the graceless prophesy of Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, that they will not find it easy to fill the seats. Ferguson was smug in the knowledge that even at 75,000 capacity, United attracts full houses to the vastly enlarged Old Trafford. After all, legions of Gunners fans have been denied access to Highbury with its limited capacity of a mere 38,000, since the Taylor Report decreed all-seater stadia.

Can Bergkamp, with his glorious ability in the old Italian saying "to invent the game", be adequately replaced? It chances that after his jamboree, I found myself talking to an old friend in Paul David, the greatly gifted inside forward, as I'd term him, who was arguably the last in the long great Arsenal line of playmakers: stretching from Alex James between the wars to George Eastham and Liam Brady. In the absence of such a pivotal player, huge demands were placed on Dennis, whose role was, to use another Italian phrase, that of a three quarterist; operating just behind the front line. And he was expected to both score goals and create them with his superb technique and invention.

Two of his fine goals remain especially in the memory. There was one for the Gunners at Newcastle, when with consummate skill, he somehow managed to tease the ball round the `blind side' of the man close-marking him, regain it, and fire it home. How many attackers could have conceived such audacity let alone put it into practice? Then, in the 1998 World Cup in France, there was his spectacular winning goal against Argentina. From the left, Frank De Boer hit a long high crossfield ball. Bergkamp, on the right flank, controlled it with cool aplomb, moved it delicately inside the hovering Roberto Ayala with the sole of his right boot, then with the same foot drove the ball past the Argentine 'keeper Carlos Roa.

Bergkamp took to Highbury and the old Arsenal stadium like a duck to water after his somewhat frustrating spell in Italy with Inter. There, they insisted on using him as an out and out striker, never his preferred position, though he told me when I spoke to him some months ago, with a smile, that he thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle in Milan.

It was not Arsene Wenger, who has been in charge of Arsenal for 10 years, who brought Bergkamp from Inter to Highbury 11 years ago. It was, in fact, the previous manager Bruce Rioch, who was destined to be sacked for his pains after he had actually signed his part of the contract which would have kept him at Highbury. Peter Hill-Wood, the Chairman and scion of the family that had been connected with the Gunners since the 1920s, had not signed it however. Which gave Arsenal the opportunity to show the unlucky Rioch the door.

Ruthless perhaps but it cannot be denied that Wenger was destined to transform the club. Brought there by the ever-active Vice President, David Dein, who later had a hand in bringing the ineffable Sven Goran-Eriksson to manage or mismanage England. Not that you can blame Dein for that. I myself believed at the time, on the basis of what I had seen of Eriksson in Italy, that he would do a good job.

You do wonder how much better the Gunners might have fared in European football were it not for Dennis' fear of flying, the origins of which were somewhat strange. They go back to the day during the 1994 World Cup when he and the Dutch team were due to fly off to another venue. An idiotic Dutch journalist about to board the flight, when asked what he had in his bag, replied he had a bomb. You can imagine the chaos that followed. The flight was aborted. The idiot subsequently lost his job but it appears that Dennis was so traumatised even though the aeroplane hadn't actually taken off that he would never fly again.

He was, for all the delicate finesse and high intelligence of his game, no angel. Witness the savage foul he perpetrated during that 1998 World Cup on Yugoslavia's aggressive centre back, Sinisa Mihajlovic, sending him crashing to the ground. Bergkamp got away with it; not even a yellow card was shown. You could feel but limited sympathy for Mihajlovic, the friend of that brutal Serbian gangster, the late Arcan, and the man who viciously and racially insulted Arsenal's Patrick Vieira in the course of a European match at the Roman Olympic Stadium between Lazio and Arsenal.

Dutch journalists will tell you that Bergkamp modelled himself on his idol, that superb centre forward Marco van Basten, who actually came on in the second half of the Emirates Stadium game and tested the 'keeper Almunia with a typically fierce shot. Van Basten was well known for, as they say, looking after himself, but seldom being discerned in the process by a referee. Bergkamp, in that respect, had totally followed suit when he felled Mihajlovic but more often than not, when he did explode, he tended to be found out.