Bergkamp may be tempted to play extra time

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The Independent Online

Time waits for no footballer, but even at 35, Dennis Bergkamp is refusing to be left behind. Having returned from the summer break assuming that a 10th season at Highbury would be his last, the non-flying Dutchman is now considering a further extension to a career as distinguished as any foreign player has enjoyed in English football.

Time waits for no footballer, but even at 35, Dennis Bergkamp is refusing to be left behind. Having returned from the summer break assuming that a 10th season at Highbury would be his last, the non-flying Dutchman is now considering a further extension to a career as distinguished as any foreign player has enjoyed in English football.

At an age when powers are normally on the wane, his prime motivation is an exceptional level of form and fitness which is enabling him to play a full part in Arsenal's outstanding start to the current campaign. Additionally, Arsène Wenger's new crop of youngsters have had such a rejuvenating effect that the all-seeing Prozone performance monitor shows him to be quicker than a year ago.

"I feel good,'' he said after playing a full 90 minutes of last Tuesday's victory against the Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven in the Champions' League. "Maybe I should talk to some ex-players because you think, when is the end coming, when are you going to start feeling that you can't cope with it any more? But so far I even think I've had a better start than last season, physically as well. I still feel young. Mr Wenger does a lot of statistics and they show that I was faster than last season.''

The evidence of 38 appearances during that historic campaign - fewer than a quarter of them as a substitute - persuaded the manager to offer Bergkamp a new one-year contract, while disposing of younger rivals Sylvain Wiltord and Nwankwo Kanu. If his current form is maintained, the awful finality of walking out of a dressing room for the last time may be put off again: "I thought this was going to be my final year. I will be 36 at the end of the season and you don't see yourself playing another year after that, but if it keeps going like this I don't want to make a final decision until the end.''

Bergkamp started young, playing the first of his seven seasons for Ajax as a 17-year-old and clutching a European Cup-Winners' Cup medal at the end of it. Two years in Milan with Internazionale proved more difficult, and London represented a welcome escape in 1995 when Bruce Rioch signed him and David Platt for Arsenal in an audacious summer's recruiting. Yet Rioch, ironically, found it hard to handle players of that stature; only after Wenger's arrival 15 months later did the Dutchman flourish.

Within a couple of years he had won the first of two Goal of the Season prizes for a spectacular effort at Leicester, and achieved his own double (PFA Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year) to go with Arsenal's championship and FA Cup successes.

By general consent the team touched new heights last season, so Bergkamp was all the more pleasantly surprised at how they began this one in the absence of players such as Patrick Vieira (for whom he briefly stood in as captain) and Sol Campbell: "It was a surprise how we started in the Community Shield against Man United. That was the first time I thought this is a better team than how we ended last year. You see the talent, but never know how far you are until you play. With Jose Antonio Reyes, when he came last year, you could see he was a special talent, and he's picked it up again this season. From day one you could see this is a player who could play for many years at this level because there is so much talent there, pace and strength and vision as well.''

He is equally complimentary about the 17-year-old Spanish midfielder Francesc Fabregas, whose only fault is to make Bergkamp feel his age. "I know what I can do and it is being made a bit easier for me with the players around me. There is so much pace and one-touch football. When you are always the main man, it's more difficult, but when I look around with so many good players who get more attention from defenders, then I can just play my own game and see what happens.''

Reyes's form has meant that Bergkamp can sit out a game when necessary, which he will continue to do for most European away matches, rather than make a tiring overland journey. It is a tantalising thought - premature or not - that the Champions' League final takes place in Istanbul, which is an awfully long drive from north London. That trophy is the one serious omission from his CV. And whether or not Arsenal can progress further this time, there will be a tricky decision to make next spring about whether to have one final shot at it.

"If I can play at this level and know that physically I won't get any less, it's going to be a pity to say no to this sort of football. You don't want to make a fool of yourself, but it's the balance you have to find.''

A question of balance - which, as many a bewildered opponent can testify, is not a quality Dennis Bergkamp has ever lacked.

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