February 28th – Evidence of greatness
I’m not Nick Hornby. That should be very obvious, although I have sold 11 copies of my first book, so there’s potential. (Eleven! Thank you!)
No. The reason I’m not Nick Hornby is that I don’t like Arsenal.
I’ll rephrase that. I didn’t like Arsenal: the George Graham, tight-lined, arms-up-in-the-air-catch-you-offside version of Arsenal. The one-nil to the Arsenal, the Boring, boring Arsenal of a few years ago. But I like watching Arsenal. Maybe not so much the Arsenal of today, or the Arsenal of the twilight of the Wenger era, but the Arsenal of Henri, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Pires, and Bergkamp.
And Dennis Bergkamp.
You want evidence of greatness?
March 2002. An away game at Newcastle. Arsenal still in the FA cup, and top of the league, Newcastle challenging on both fronts too: the Geordies were top at Christmas before fading away, not least due to the events of this Saturday afternoon.
The game is fairly balanced: the score 0-0. Newcastle attack, and lose the ball on the edge of the Arsenal area. Patrick Vieira (always Patrick Vieira!) wins the ball and plays it forward to Bergkamp, always moving. A half look up, and Bergkamp sweeps the ball out to Robert Pires on the left wing. Pires surges forward, the ball seeming glued to his feet, Newcastle midfielders still retreating from their own attack, the defenders scared to commit to the tackle. Bergkamp is still running.
Pires cuts inside, looks up, and plays the ball into Bergkamp, inside the D on the edge of the box, with his back to goal. Nikos Dabizas, the Greek defender is close to Bergkamp, cutting of his options. The ball goes across him slightly, inviting a turn to the right. There is no turn to the right.
Somehow, Bergkamp sticks out his left foot, and cushions it with his instep, the slightest stroke changing the rotation of the ball and spinning it in a perfect arc around Dabizas’s right while Bergkamp spins on his left foot around the defender, leaving him bewildered and a more than a little lost. Bergkamp is gone, goal side of the defender, Shay Given advancing. Bergkamp shrugs of the despairing Dabizas, and without breaking stride, strokes the ball beyond Given into the bottom right hand corner of the goal, opening his body and this time using the right instep to beat Given’s dive.
The celebration is muted: a simple fist pump, not a smile. An exhalation. A half-roar. Nothing more. There is still work to be done. A high-five with Pires, who claims the assist in name only. The goal is Bergkamp’s.
No matter how many times I watch this goal, I still can’t quite believe it’s happened. I’ve seen nothing like it since.
March 2002. Newcastle v Arsenal. Dennis Bergkamp.
Evidence of greatness.
And that is why, grudgingly, I actually quite like Arsenal.
Inspired by a prompt from here