Football: Bergkamp aims to fulfil boyhood dream

Norman Fox hears that missing last year's final still hurts
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The Independent Online
DENNIS BERGKAMP, who yesterday said he felt committed to staying with Arsenal for the rest of his career, also revealed that he had never felt more determined to win a match than today's FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Villa Park. He admitted that failing a fitness test on the eve of last year's final was "my biggest disappointment".

In spite of his long career on the world stage, Bergkamp said that he remained as fascinated by the English Cup final as he had been as a boy in Holland. "We used to watch everything on BBC, even for four or five hours before the game. Every Dutch person looked forward to it. This is the most special cup final in Europe. So for me the match against United is as big as any in my career."

He explained: "I know it's very important for Arsenal to win the championship. Personally I want to win both, but the FA Cup has always been something special to me. Missing the final last year made me realise how special. I was on the bench but it wasn't like winning. You're there but not really part of it. On the day before it had looked like I was going to make it but I broke down again. It was the biggest disappointment of my club career."

His fear is that he will get to the end of his career without playing in the final. "Last year, on the Thursday I had got the Player of the Year award. I was telling everyone that evening that though I had a test the next day it was looking good. I was nearly 100 per cent fit when the hamstring problem came back."

United need no telling that Bergkamp is now injury free and in wonderful form, but he reiterated the point. "I really feel now that I am back to the form I was in before the World Cup. I know I had a bad beginning of the season, so I don't want to look back at that and finish the season without having achieved something. The poor start was a reaction to the World Cup, not just physically. I wasn't fresh in my mind. You're moaning in your own mind about needing a few more weeks to get over it."

Asked whether he thought United's tough match against Juventus might also have a detrimental effect on them,he said: "No, I think the top three teams are still fresh and in a rhythm. But for us we have to look upon the FA Cup as perhaps the only prize we can win because we could win all of our League matches and still lose the championship. We depend on United to lose points, but I don't see that they are making a lot of mistakes."

Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, was obviously pleased to hear Bergkamp say that he no longer felt a need to play out his career elsewhere, but he offered a caution. "When the team are doing well a player like him, who is a winner, will always want to stay. We shall see. He's learned a lot from life. He's become realistic. He knows his time is becoming shorter. Today he knows that perhaps he will touch the ball only five times in a half but do something special. At a younger age you get more frustrated."

Wenger thinks Bergkamp is at his peak and could remain there for at least three years. Could he guarantee that Arsenal would keep him? "What more can you want as a footballer? You play in a quality team who want to win things. He needs to play in a team with a hunger, but the day he feels that the team are not good enough to win things then his view might be different."

Bergkamp emphasised that what he liked about playing at Arsenal, unlike his experience in Italy, was the sense of long-term planning. "In Italy they only ever thought about one season."

Conversely, Wenger, for whom it is not unknown to plant a few provocative barbs in his pre-big-match conversations, said that long-term planning was no longer an option for most managers. "You have to respect Alex Ferguson, but he was not successful for a long time. When you think about today's managers, you give them five or six months but he got five years. He deserves a lot of credit, but in the modern time maybe he wouldn't be there."

He added that crossing swords with Ferguson tactically and in other ways was "part of the game". He admitted that when he arrived at Highbury there were so many "quality players" he was "lucky to be successful so quickly". When reminded that Ferguson had recently said that he had only a few personal friends who were Premiership managers and that Wenger was one, he said: "There is respect, I can't say that there is friendship on both sides, but what he said shows he has a good sense of humour."

He suggested that United would not suffer a hangover from the Juventus match "because they still think they can make it... that's very different to being knocked out". He said that United finished more strongly than Juventus. "But no scientist can tell you exactly when exhaustion will come."