Bergkamp's reluctant dinner date leaves a sour taste

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The Independent Online
INFORMATION that Dennis Bergkamp has been ordered by Arsene Wenger to make only a token appearance as the 1998 Footballer of the Year at tonight's Football Writers' Association dinner in London strikes me as proof that the game and its chroniclers are drawing further apart.

Throughout its 51-year history, and despite competition from an award given by the Professional Footballers' Association of which I was once a member, the writers' trophy has been regarded as the most prestigious individual distinction in English football.

Such notables as Stanley Matthews, who was the first to be honoured, Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Danny Blanchflower, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Gordon Banks, Gary Lineker, and, more recently, Jurgen Klinsmann, Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola were thrilled recipients.

Many winners, as in Bergkamp's case, were involved in the FA Cup final. Even when the ceremony took place less than 24 hours before the kick-off at Wembley all, along with their team's manager, fitted in with traditional arrangements.

Wenger will not be in attendance tonight (with their thoughts concentrated on a double achievement, Arsenal supporters are probably wondering what all the fuss is about) and Bergkamp will be off with his trophy before a morsel has been set before the assembled company.

As I understand it, Wenger, who obviously takes great pride in being known as a thorough professional, was against Bergkamp showing up even before an injury in the match that confirmed Arsenal as champions made him doubtful for Wembley. As Wenger's record shows, it is not often that he can be accused of goofing, but here is one instance where he falls down on the job.

Armed with the fact of Wenger's indifference, some of us older guys have been recalling a period through which we lived when football was not hostage to television and its relations with the press were seldom subject to suspicion.

Before the commotion raised by scurrilous rather than diligent reporting, lasting friendships were formed. Newspaper men did not, of course, make players famous. Nothing did that for them save their own skills and intelligence and resolution, though the press did spread and celebrate their fame. The vast salaries available in English football today were obtained partly as the result of a vigorous press campaign against the maximum wage and an iniquitous retain and transfer system.

It is a matter of individual opinion whether the publicity football receives in print puts it under any obligation to people who are merely doing their job. However, if Wenger's absence from tonight's affair (the Newcastle manager, Kenny Dalglish, accepted an invitation) does not amount to an outright snub, it constitutes loose thinking.

Some football writers of my acquaintance who spend a lot of time listening to the England manager, Glenn Hoddle, are not convinced that an invitation to be present tonight was declined purely on the grounds that he needs to concentrate fully on next month's World Cup finals.

They argue that this did not prevent Hoddle appearing on BBC television earlier this week when he stated contempt for opinions on selection and strategy put forward by sports writers. "In fact, I don't read them," he said. This is probably no closer to the truth than it was when expressed by some of his predecessors, but that is another matter.

A pretty obvious conclusion is that relations between England's World Cup squad and a swollen press corps are unlikely to be easy. If the past is anything to go by, and results do not go Hoddle's way, the atmosphere could be hostile.

Someone suggested this week that a siege mentality brings football teams closer together. I do not remember that ever being considered in 1966 and 1970. The press did not find Alf Ramsey easy to deal with, and there were fewer of us at it. A happier state of affairs existed because the players were more mature and writers conformed more readily to the advice of taking the job seriously - but never themselves.