The loan star

Borrowed Bentley only purrs when he's playing - and that suits Norwich
Click to follow
The Independent Football

For the 37,085 inside Highbury that January afternoon it was an "I was there" moment. David Bentley, 19, collected the ball on the edge of the penalty area and, instantly, executed the most feathery of chipped shots over the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer. It plopped into the net. Graceful, deadly, precise. In a season of sublime football for Arsenal it ranked up there. Schwarzer, at 6ft 4in, was barely off his goal-line. Yet he was coolly beaten.

Bentley smiles. "It was a great feeling," he says. "The whole point of it [football]." It was a moment he had predicted in his head the night before. But when it came it was instinctive.

"You just do it, and that is what's hard to explain," Bentley admits. "The thing was, [Dennis] Bergkamp came off and I came on [as substitute]. And there had been a lot in the press comparing me to him, and to come on for him and to score a goal, his trademark kind of goal... well, I've sat in the stand, time and again, and watched him score goals like that."

This time it was that other DB's turn to admire. He also recalls the moment. "When David was controlling the ball, I was thinking, 'Chip the keeper'," the Dutchman says approvingly. "There is so much talent there." And it is bursting to be released. Indeed, that afternoon was more significant than many Arsenal fans may have thought. It confirmed, finally, in manager Arsène Wenger's mind that Bentley needed to leave the club - but only to go on loan. He needed to play. And so he has been sent to Norwich City for a year.

He had other choices, many of them, but Carrow Road "just seemed right. They are a growing club and need to prove themselves in the Premiership, as I do," Bentley explains. "It seemed like the perfect combination." Naturally, there are doubts. "I don't want to leave Arsenal, but if I'm not playing, I'm not happy," he says.

Wenger knew that. "He wanted me to stay," Bentley says. "But he understands that I wanted to play and he likes that. I don't want to sit on the bench and pick up my wages. That's no good for me, it would be too boring." He, along with his agent, Robert Segal, who has known him since he was 14, had been "on to" the manager for "six months, a year, more" to go on loan. "But he wouldn't let me until now," Bentley says. "He wraps you up in cotton wool and that's a difficult thing when you are a youngster. They [Arsenal] don't want you exposed. That's why this year it couldn't be stopped. Maybe it was because of what I did last year."

Bentley remembers his feelings immediately after scoring. "I just thought to myself, 'I like this, yeah, that's the way I want it to be. The way it should be'. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant."

It doesn't. It sounds confident, self- assured. And there's something else - an endearing, youthful cockiness. And so he says that despite the comparisons with Bergkamp, he doesn't expect the man himself to offer too much personal encouragement. "After all I'm there to try and take his place," Bentley says. "We play in the same position - maybe that's why he did so well last year!"

Bergkamp is, of course, one of his heroes. But it's no surprise to hear that Bentley also grew up wanting to be Paul Gascoigne or Eric Cantona. All three are entertainers. "They would always do something on the pitch and you'd love them for it," Bentley says. "Sometimes football can become robotic, that's the only thing that's boring about it. People get too worried with the pressure."

Pressure. It sounds like an alien word to him. "They [Norwich] expect me to play and they expect me to win games for them," he says. "There's nothing to be scared about. At the end of the day I'm playing football." Hunting for a house has been more nerve-racking.

Bentley has been at Arsenal since he was 11, joining from his Sunday-league side, Charlton Youth. Given that he did not start playing football until he was nine, he was something of a late developer. He joined Arsenal's school of excellence just as Bruce Rioch left and Wenger arrived - which probably explains the manager's protectiveness. "I always thought I was going to be a footballer. I was a footballer at 11 - that's the way I was," he says. "Most players are like that, and with that single-track mind. Sometimes you just expect it. It's only when you look back that you think, 'Oh my God, I'm at Arsenal'. I know that's strange. You have to be like that. You have to take responsibility."

Despite his prodigious talent, despite his confidence, despite representing England at every level below a full cap, he offers a fascinating insight into life on the Arsenal training fields at London Colney. "Every day is a battle," he says. "It's so hard. It's not like other clubs where maybe you have to train well for a month [to get in the team]. At Arsenal it's two years. And every time you get your chance you have to do something special. There are many good players who've not taken their chance."

But it's enjoyable. "How can it not be?" he says. "Arsenal play football the way it should be played. But it does make it difficult, especially for the kids coming through the youth ranks. Trying to get past certain players is unbelievable." Players such as Bergkamp.

"It's not just the world-class players in the team, it's the world-class youngsters," Bentley explains. "There's Brazilians, Italians, Spanish coming in every week. The English kids I went to school with - there were maybe 20 of them - people used to say there would be only one left and I didn't think that was true." Thankfully, for Bentley, it would be him.

He has had his setbacks - a broken leg soon after his debut last year, six weeks out with a damaged knee - but it has made him all the more determined. He knows Wenger believes in him, having given Bentley a five-year contract, and the Frenchman has promised to come up to Carrow Road "as often as possible", as will Bentley's father, David Snr, and mother, Anita. New rules prevent the player appearing against Arsenal, however.

Norwich know he has come to them with a purpose. "I'm going there to learn the other side of football," Bentley explains. "At Arsenal it's a bit of a comfort zone really. It's a bigger thing for me to go to Norwich and do well there right now. If I can keep them up it will be a very big thing for me. You have to prove something every year. There are only 20 clubs in the Premiership, and if I don't prove myself then I've no right to play there, never mind for Arsenal." It's a right he has no intention of surrendering.