It's a big day at London Colney, Arsenal's gleaming training ground hard by the M25 in Hertfordshire. It's the day on which the club's master and commander, Arsène Wenger and David Dein, are due to unpackage their exciting new signing, Jose Antonio Reyes (little imagining that the young Spaniard's first goal in Arsenal colours will be in the back of his own net, in the Carling Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough).
In an upstairs lounge, television crews, photographers and reporters from England, Spain and France are checking sound and light and ink levels.
Downstairs, in the reception area, Dein and Wenger, both immaculately suited, are discussing with a press officer where they will sit in front of the media. Even such trivial details are earnestly discussed here; it is the Arsenal way.
It is duly decided that Dein will sit on Wenger's right. Reyes, meanwhile, stands alongside them in his kit, not comprehending a word, wanting only to kick a ball.
"Let's go," Wenger barks, with pursed lips. It's not easy to bark with pursed lips, but Wenger does it effortlessly. He exudes authority. I've never understood, incidentally, why they call him the professor. Aren't professors supposed to be a bit scatty? He seems more headmasterly than professorial. At any rate, there was never anyone less scatty.
While all this is going on, a pale, slim, almost slight figure, dressed casually in black, glides down the stairs. Dein, Wenger and the media are oblivious to him, which to me, if not to him, seems symbolic.
Dennis Bergkamp is on his way out of London Colney as Reyes is on his way in.
It has been said in the papers that Reyes, deployed as a withdrawn striker just behind Thierry Henry, will be the "new" Bergkamp. After all, the old Bergkamp's contract expires this summer. But the old Bergkamp badly wants to stay on for another year, and has said, poetically, that "my gift is not subject to decay". His gift - as evidenced by startling goals such as the one for Arsenal against Newcastle, and the one for the Netherlands against Argentina - is to be able to do things other footballers can scarcely do in their dreams. But Wenger and Dein know that in this game all gifts decay. They have not yet indicated whether they want him to stay.
Bergkamp is a reserved character, who gives no indication of being punched in the solar plexus every time he hears people saying that Reyes is here as his replacement. But that is how he must feel. Rather brutally, I put it to him that this must be an uncomfortable day for him.
He looks at me with anxiety in his blue eyes. Although he has a dry wit, he seems constitutionally nervous; it is not hard to imagine him taking fright at the prospect of flying, which, leaving aside John Fashanu's fear of getting no publicity, has made him football's most famous phobic.
"No," he says, quietly. We are sitting inconspicuously on a corner sofa - more symbolism - in the room where Reyes is shortly to make his big entrance. "I think it's normal to look to the future," he adds. "Replacement? I don't know. He seems like a good player."
Bergkamp, refreshingly for a footballer, deals in understatement rather than hyperbole. Reyes "seems like a good player"; Arsenal is a "good" club. Perhaps it is because English is not his native language, but more likely it is because he is, away from the football field, a man of restraint.
"If the decision was up to me," he says, "then I would like to carry on for a year. That would be good. The problems we face in games are getting harder because defenders are getting stronger and faster. I have to solve those problems. If I can do that, which I think I can, then I am still improving."
You would have thought his scholarly French headmaster would applaud such defiant logic. Whatever, Bergkamp's fellow Dutchman Marco van Basten has recently spent some time at London Colney, watching Wenger and his coaching staff at work. After years of playing golf in the sun, Van Basten is ready to embrace football again. So, whether or not the 34-year-old Bergkamp spends another season with Arsenal, is he, too, contemplating a career in coaching? "Not right now," he says. "He [Van Basten] didn't want to go into coaching when he was this age, and I'm the same. I don't think I would get as much pleasure from it as I do out of football. I enjoy life the way it is, training in the morning and doing something else in the afternoon. As a coach you have to be switched on all the time."
Maybe he is also worried that he would not make a good coach. Maybe his genius is not one that can be dished out like a bag of toffees. Besides, he's a bright guy. It must have occurred to him that Wenger was nothing much as a player, while his old team-mate Tony Adams, king of the world as captain of Arsenal and England, is tearing his hair out at humble Wycombe Wanderers.
"Most of the decisions I make on the pitch are intuition," he adds. "Sometimes I wonder myself why I have made a decision at a certain moment, and that's difficult to pass on to younger players. But maybe coaching is a case of getting experience. I don't know. It is not my ambition." Some of his ambitions have already bitten the dust. He regrets bitterly not achieving more in international football, and reckons that the English are novices alongside the Dutch when it comes to saddling their national side with unrealistic expectations.
"We are expected to win every tournament, which I don't understand, because we have only won one, the 1988 European Championship [two years before his own international debut]. In the 1998 World Cup England got knocked out in the last 16 but still went on to meet the Queen. We reached the semi-finals. But we never met our Queen."
Bergkamp smiles wanly. I ask him whether, when Wenger does call time on his Arsenal career, he might carry on playing football at a less exalted level? Hey, maybe for Spurs? It would please his neighbour, the Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn, who is everything Bergkamp is not - loud, assertive, and a rabid Tottenham fan. They could drive to games together.
"No, I will never drop down," he says. "In training every day I play with players on the same wavelength. I understand them and they understand me. We play a quick passing game and you only get that with good players. Since I was 12 I have played a quick passing game. I couldn't play football without that."
It was at 12 that he was absorbed into the much-vaunted youth programme at Ajax. At 17 he reached the first team. The coach, Johan Cruyff, told him not to worry, to play like he did for the youth sides, that nothing too wonderful was expected of him. But Bergkamp, being Bergkamp, did worry.
"It was hard," he recalls. "I was a boy in a man's world. I never trained with them, either. On Saturdays I was playing for the youth team, on Sunday for the first team, with [Frank] Rijkaard, with Van Basten. I was more nervous of meeting those players than playing with them."
He was as shy with the opposite sex as he was with his own, and was never photographed with a girlfriend, which prompted one Dutch newspaper to run an article cruelly headlined "Does Dennis Bergkamp Like Girls?" He did, and is now happily married with kids, but the headline rather summed up his paradox at Ajax, that at the club where he had spent all his adolescence he didn't quite feel at ease. In 1993, determined to play in Italian football, he joined Internazionale.
"That was tough, too," he says. "But it was good for me. At Ajax when we went 1-0 or 2-0 behind we knew we would still get chances to win the game, that I as a striker would get maybe four or five chances. So I didn't need the killer instinct. But in Italy I had only one or sometimes two chances. I had to change. Football became more like work, and that was good."
He realises it was good for him in retrospect; at the time he was deeply frustrated by Inter's defensive philosophy. "They tried to be more attacking, to play the AC Milan way, but they tried it and it didn't work out, so straightaway they went back, and I realised I had to get out." In 1995, a week before the end of his second season in Italy, Bergkamp declared that he wanted to play in England. The following day he heard from Arsenal.
Fittingly, his earliest memory of watching English football - in a household so anglophile that his Manchester United-supporting father named him after Denis Law - was the 1978 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Ipswich Town. Less fittingly, the England player he had grown up admiring most was Tottenham's Glenn Hoddle. "He really stood out in the English league at that time," Bergkamp recalls. "Two-footed and great vision, even with all those heavy tackles flying in."
Arsenal very quickly seemed like a more suitable club for him than Ajax or Inter. Wenger wasn't there yet - Bruce Rioch was the manager - but Tony Adams was. As part of the £7.5m transfer, Inter agreed to play a friendly at Highbury, in which the Inter player Nicola Berti teased Bergkamp as he habitually had in Milan. Seeing what was going on, Adams made it plain to Berti that such behaviour would not be tolerated.
Although Bergkamp claims not to remember the incident, he is uncharacteristically effusive in his praise of Adams. "He was great for this club and for English football. At Inter we had had the perfect captain, Bergami, and Tony too was the perfect captain, everything that a captain should be. He had energy, status, and especially later, after the [alcohol] problems he had, he was great at sorting out other players' problems."
Rioch, too, was a boon to him in those early months, better for him, he implies but does not say, than Wenger would have been. "It is important that when you come to a new country, people talk to you about your profession. I like to hear stories of the past, and there were plenty of those with Bruce Rioch. "Whenever we went to a stadium he had a story about the club or a player, and that was very important to me. It helped the learning process, at a time when I was again having to change the way I played. In England you don't have so much time on the ball. In Italy you have time to look around, but here you have to be quick, otherwise the midfielders are in front of you already."
From Wenger, he says, he has also learnt his obligations without the ball. "I like to drop a bit more than the other striker, which makes it easier for the midfield, takes the pressure off the other striker who isn't really a midfield player, and makes it easier for me too because when we win the ball back I am already there in midfield." He makes it sound simple. Maybe he is destined to be a coach after all. Certainly he has assessed the potential of Arsenal's latest prodigy - one that didn't cost over £20m. "I have trained with David Bentley for a year and that is a special talent," he says. "I see a bit of David Beckham in him, and I think a bit of me."
But, like Reyes, Bentley can't be the new Dennis Bergkamp. As all Arsenal fans know, there'll only ever be one.
Dennis Bergkamp life and times
1969 Born in Amsterdam.
1987 Graduates from the Ajax academy to make first-team debut aged 17 against Roda in 2-0 victory. Wins Dutch Cup.
1990 Wins Dutch title. Makes debut for the Netherlands as a second-half substitute in a 1-0 defeat in a friendly against Italy in Sicily.
1991 Wins Uefa Cup with Ajax.
1993 After scoring 103 goals in 185 appearances for Ajax, joins Internazionale for £12m. Goes on to score 11 goals in 50 league appearances.
1994 Wins Uefa Cup with Inter.
1995 Signs for Arsenal for £7.5m. Makes debut for the Gunners at Highbury in 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough.
1998 Wins Double with Arsenal and is voted the PFA and the Football Writers' Player of the Year. Scores memorable hat-trick against Leicester City. Helps the Netherlands to the semi-finals of World Cup, scoring excellent goal to win quarter-final against Argentina.
2000 Retires from international football after European Championship having scored 37 goals in 79 appearances.
Uefa Cup runners-up.
2002 Wins second Double of career and Premiership Goal of the Season for strike against Newcastle United.
2003 Scores 100th goal for Arsenal. Wins FA Cup with 1-0 victory over Southampton.Reuse content