Dennis Bergkamp arrived at Arsenal in 1995, a year before Arsene Wenger took over as manager.
Bruce Rioch was the man entrusted with a club-record fee of £2.5m which he splashed on the Inter Milan and Netherlands playmaker. It was his successor, Wenger, who got the most out of the signing, though.
The 1997/98 season is often used as a watershed season when discussing Arsenal. Even though Arsene Wenger arrived at the club on October 1st 1996, it’s the next season which was his first full campaign. Perhaps that’s because the 1996/97 season is the last time Arsenal finished outside of the Champions League places until two decades later. That time, they ended the season in third, missing out on a Champions League place on goal difference, despite having the best defensive record in the Premier League.
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The next season was much more successful, however, even if it didn’t start particularly well.
Indeed, Arsenal had the sort of start to the season that Tottenham Hotspur have endured over the last two years: although they were unbeaten in their first 12 games of the season, exactly half of those first 12 were draws.
It was after christmas when the magic happened for Wenger’s side: from Boxing Day on, they won 15 of their next 18, drawing the other three as they went unbeaten until they sealed the title with a 4-0 victory over Everton. And they promptly lost the final two games to win by a single point.
Perhaps that was a crucial point, however. And any number of the draws in the opening few games could be seen as the crucial one. It only seems fitting that top scorer that season, Bergkamp, would come up with the important goals.
August 1997 was Bergkamp’s month: it was the only time each of the top three on BBC’s Match of the Day goal of the month belonged to the same player, the Dutch master. Owing to that feat, it’s often said that all three came from the same game – Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Leicester City at Filbert Street when Bergkamp scored a hat-trick – but only two came from that match. The other was from a 3-1 win over Southampton.
There was one goal in particular that stood out, however – his final goal in the draw at Filbert Street. With the score at 2-2 in the last minute of the game, Bergkamp completed his hat-trick to put Arsenal ahead. Yet there was still time for the Foxes to go up the other end and score another equaliser – a second last-minute equaliser of the game.
A second last-minute equaliser is a strange thing, but it wasn’t the most remarkable goal of the game.
A long ball from David Platt found its way to Bergkamp in the box, and yet there didn’t look to be too much danger – certainly nothing the defender couldn’t deal with. Not until the first touch took the ball out of the air perfectly and allowed the Dutchman to cut inside and onto his right foot. The finish was excellent, cool and calm under the pressure forced on footballers by the tyranny of the 90th minute.
The hat-trick may not have won the game, but it set up the shape of things to come. Arsenal would win the league by a single point. They won the double after beating Newcastle in the FA Cup final at Wembley – their first trophies under Arsene Wenger. And they’d qualify for the Champions League for the very first time – something they haven’t failed to do ever since. But it would be the only time that Bergkamp would finish a season as Arsenal’s top scorer.
It would prove to be even more prophetic, still.
11 months later, Holland played Argentina in the quarter-final of the 1998 World Cup in Marseille. In the final minute, and with the match seemingly on its way to extra time, a similar long ball found its way Bergkamp in the box before another sublime first touch set up the chance.
Bergkamp wasn’t just a scorer of beautiful goals, nor was he just a player capable of genius and art: he was a player who could produce those things under the most severe pressure. Even scoring that goal against Newcastle in 2002 was an example of delivering under pressure: the Magpies were still title rivals in March, when Arsenal traveled to St James’ Park to face them. They’d go on to win the game 2-0 thanks to their Dutch master, and go on to win the league, too.
His final appearance in an Arsenal shirt, his testimonial game in the summer of 2006, was the very first game at the Emirates Stadium, and since the move, Arsenal have won only three trophies. Perhaps its his coolness under pressure they miss most.