As one era ended and another began in north London yesterday, Arsenal supporters at the opening of the new Emirates Stadium for Dennis Bergkamp's farewell match were wondering just how dramatic the change might prove over the coming few months. In addition to the elegant Dutchman, who is retiring after more than 400 matches in Arsenal red, the club have lost two stalwarts of in Robert Pires (284 games) and Sol Campbell (197), and are by no means certain that Ashley Cole (228) will still be around for the opening Premiership match in four weeks' time.
Concern that they will lose Cole to Chelsea has increased since the champions completed the sale of their first-choice left-back Asier del Horno to Valencia yesterday, leaving only Wayne Bridge as a specialist in that position. Although William Gallas has often played there he is not naturally left-footed, and Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho has never demonstrated any great faith in Bridge, whom he loaned to Fulham last season. "If we buy, we'll buy a left-back," Mourinho said the day before Del Horno's departure was confirmed.
Cole, approaching his prime at 25, would be an infinitely better bet than Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos who is eight years older and was shown at the World Cup to be slipping down the wrong side of the hill. Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger is making defiant noises - just as he did before the departure of players like Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira - but Cole has been in an awkward position since his infamous meeting with Chelsea officials 18 months ago, after which he was fined £75,000 and claimed a lack of support from Arsenal.
He did not feature in yesterday's inauguration, which was not so much a game of two halves as a game of two matches. Bergkamp played for what was effectively a reserve team in the first 45 minutes - his first club Ajax won 1-0 - before joining the Arsenal Legends side which beat their Dutch equivalents, including substitutes Johann Cruyff and Marco van Basten, 2-0 with goals by Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu. He might have registered the first goal at the ground with a characteristic chip, but that honour went to Ajax's striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar.
Henry, who had flown in specially from the United States, was the only one of Arsenal's World Cup players to appear, though others like Tomas Rosicky, the club's one summer signing, will join the tour to Austria this week. The gifted little playmaker, who cost £8m from Borussia Dortmund, will inevitably find himself burdened by the label "the new Bergkamp". It will be a hard act to follow. Assessed on his contribution to English football over the past 11 years, Bergkamp ranks with any other foreign import, his appreciative partner Henry included. Some 54,000 Arsenal supporters were present to pay homage yesterday, and there will be room for another 6,000 by the time of Aston Villa's visit on 19 August, which is the key point about the reluctant move round the corner after 93 years at Highbury. An increase of 58 per cent capacity, together with so many more boxes and executive facilities means a huge boost in match-day revenue - set to be the largest in world football.
Even so, Arsenal officials at the sharp end of a hugely complicated deal have admitted that there were times when they feared the move might never happen. A certain amount of local opposition has never entirely disappeared, and residents in roads adjoining the former ground still face many months of disruption as Highbury is converted into luxury flats.
Proposals were first announced in November 1999, after some 30 locations from Kings Cross to the northern extremities of the M25 had been considered. Although the actual stadium was built at a fixed cost of £220m, an additional £137m had to be spent on work at five different sites, including relocating 80 businesses and a whole recycling centre, and building 2,300 new homes as part of a commitment to regenerate the area.
In April 2003, the scheduled opening date was put back 12 months, but yesterday the day finally arrived and mightily impressive the new home looked. Arsène Wenger, typically, has been involved in much of the football-related planning, including the dressing-rooms, physiotherapists' room and warm-up room. Nor is it an optical illusion that the pitch is bigger: Highbury's was a tight 105m by 70m, which has been increased to 113m by 76m, almost one-fifth larger. How Bergkamp would have appreciated the space to play those sublime passes for which he will be remembered as much as his extraordinary goals, quiet modesty and commendable loyalty.Reuse content