In our special Arsenal Legends documentaries - available for viewers in the UK on iTunes - we follow the footballing journeys of some of the Club’s most celebrated players. In an extract from our Dennis Bergkamp special, we examine his key role in the Double success of 1997/98.
It is, to many, the match which most eloquently demonstrates the genius of Dennis Bergkamp.
On a mild August evening in 1997, some 100 miles north of Highbury in the insalubrious surrounds of Filbert Street, three magisterial goals in a 3-3 draw with Leicester City spoke of a true master at work. Arsenal may have been denied victory by a last-gasp Steve Walsh header, but Bergkamp’s brilliance was crystallised in 90 magical minutes.
It was Arsène Wenger’s first full season in charge, Bergkamp’s third at Arsenal, and the momentum that had been building since the previous campaign pointed to an exciting future. An opening-day draw at Leeds United had been followed by convincing victories against Coventry and Southampton, and Bergkamp’s brace in the latter had supporters eagerly talking up the prodigious talent in their midst.
But it was not until that Wednesday evening in Leicester that the full extent of the Dutchman’s genius became apparent.
His first goal, after nine minutes, saw him collect a short corner from Marc Overmars on the left edge of the area, before curling an unstoppable shot into the far corner. The second, just after the hour mark, saw him charge through the middle and slot the ball in off Leicester goalkeeper Kasey Keller. But it was the third - scored in the 90th minute to put Arsenal 3-2 in front - that really took the breath away. He killed David Platt’s lofted pass with one touch, took a second to beat the despairing Matt Elliot, before setting himself to place the ball into the top corner. It was later voted Goal of the Season, while Bergkamp called it his finest moment in an Arsenal shirt.
“That game against Leicester was a special one,” Bergkamp says in the Arsenal Legends documentary. “When I look back on it, it was a typical English game with the crowd close to the pitch.
Three goals, a hat trick, I was very pleased but we didn't win the game. So it was mixed emotionsDennis Bergkamp
“At that time I had started to feel really comfortable in the team. I felt that physically you could make a difference every game, you could outrun players, you could be much better than them. I had the confidence to do well and just took chances, which I always did in my career.
“In that game, for the first goal I got the ball from Marc [Overmars] from a corner, outside the box and just tried to bend it in. When you are in form, when you feel good and you hit that ball, you know it is going to be very close to scoring a goal - there is just a little luck that it is outside of the goalkeeper.
“The second one was a good one as well. The third one was really good, with a good pass from David Platt. My first touch, or anyone's first touch - that is the most important thing in the game and I still feel that. That first touch was important to make the move complete. Three goals, a hat trick, I was very pleased but we didn't win the game. So it was mixed emotions [for me].”
It is that attitude, that constant focus on the greater good which would serve Arsenal and Bergkamp so well in a season that would end in the Club’s second-ever Double.
It had been a summer of change in the marble halls of Highbury, with no fewer than eight new faces taking their places in a new-look squad. Much has been written about the changes Wenger instigated on the training pitch, but the surgery to his squad was arguably as important. In came Overmars and Emmanuel Petit - both of whom would have a major impact - while the likes of Gilles Grimandi and Christopher Wreh would also play their part in a thrilling campaign.
The marriage between Bergkamp and Wenger had always looked a happy union, but in 1997/98 the honeymoon period blossomed into a fully-fledged footballing love story. Bergkamp was the conductor of Wenger’s orchestra, the embodiment of how the manager sees the game played in its purest sense.
Ten league goals before Christmas spoke of a player at the height of his powers, and yet by the end of February Arsenal found themselves 12 points behind Manchester United. Hopes of the title looked remote, but Bergkamp says there was always a sense within the squad that they could claw their way back into contention.
It is a mix of doing well in training, focusing on your own game plus getting closer to the teams you are chasing. They get nervous, we keep going and win our games… the gap closes and in the end it was our season
“When I go back to my first season [at Arsenal, in 1995/96], sometimes you had good games but you would always feel as a team that you wouldn’t be in the top three. Even in that season, I think we were in the top two or three at some stage but you felt that we couldn’t keep up, we were not strong enough, not good enough to keep that position. And in the end, when you feel that as a team, it becomes reality.
“In 1998 though, we felt like we don’t get enough out of [the squad’s talent], we were not getting what we should be getting - so we kept training and we had players who were growing in confidence and form. In the end it is a mix of doing well in training, focusing on your own game plus getting closer to the teams you are chasing. They get nervous, we keep going and win our games… the gap closes and in the end it was our season.”
From March onwards, Wenger’s side were nigh-on unstoppable. A goalless draw at West Ham was followed by a sensational 10-game winning run in the league - including the hugely-important 1-0 win at Old Trafford - that saw the Gunners reel in United and clinch the title by beating Everton 4-0 at Highbury at the start of May.
In a memorable end to the title-clinching game, Tony Adams struck the final goal against the Toffeemen after racing on to Steve Bould’s lofted pass and volleying the ball into the far corner. It was the perfect denouement for Arsenal’s English core.
“At that stage of my career, the English players were very important,” Bergkamp says. “They looked after the mental side of the team, which helped us players who were more [on] the footballing side. There was a good mix of older players, younger players, technical players, strong players, players who could make a difference with goals and players who could make a difference with stopping our opponents from scoring.
“It was all a good mixture but especially at that time, it was the English players who kept the team going, shouting in the changing room about what we wanted to do, how we would start the game, how we could make the difference at half time. That is the mental side, the English mentality which - at that time at Arsenal, in that squad - was very important.”
Supporters in the UK can download the episode here
Arsenal would go on to win the FA Cup by beating Newcastle at Wembley, while Bergkamp was named Players’ Player of the Season after scoring 16 league goals, and assisting many, many more. It was, he admits, one of the most memorable campaigns of his career.
“It was my first trophy at Arsenal. It was a special year - every trophy you win, every season you play has its own story. That one was special because, for me, I think it was a perfect mix. In the end you get what you deserve, and we won the Double. That is what we deserved that season.”
And Bergkamp, as much as anyone, deserved nothing less than ultimate success.