I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but on Saturday April 15 2006 I ended up dishing out orange t-shirts at Highbury before Arsenal’s Premier League match against West Brom. The game is still known for being Dennis Bergkamp day, and the shirts were commemorating exactly that.
Bergkamp’s contract was up at the end of the season, and in our final season at Highbury it was a chance to dedicate a day to the Iceman, although he was eligible for a testimonial once he left; more on that later.
I was only 10 in 2006, so I don’t have a brilliant recognition of the game. In the race for Champions League football, we went 1-0 up, but the Baggies hauled themselves level as the clock ticked towards the 90-minute mark. By this time Dennis Bergkamp had entered the fray, and surely he wasn’t about to let his day be spoiled?
Of course he wasn’t. The Dutchman set up Robert Pires to put Arsenal back in front just a few minutes after Nigel Quashie’s equaliser, and things looked rosy again. And then, the part of the game I remember the most vividly. With two minutes remaining, Bergkamp collected the ball outside the area in space. Taking two touches to set himself, he arced a majestic shot past the West Brom goalkeeper’s despairing dive and into the back of the net. A flood of orange erupted behind the goal.
It was a fitting way for Bergkamp to score what would be his final goal for Arsenal, and a fantastic tribute to the magnificent No. 10. Fast forward a few months, just down the road at the Emirates Stadium, another tribute was being paid to Bergkamp at his testimonial, and once again I was involved.
This time I do remember how it came to pass; my dad e-mailed me a link to a competition on Arsenal.com to become a flag-bearer/mascot as the teams came out of the tunnel. The question asked how many teams Dennis scored against for Arsenal, and at first I had no clue. Then one was given by the website, and I was again pointed in the right direction by my dad.
Apparently the answer was the same number of games as we famously went unbeaten between 2003 & 2005, and of course I knew the answer and entered. A while later I received a phone call saying that I’d won, and I would be one of 49 mascots waving a flag on the pitch before the game.
I arrived fully kitted out in my new Arsenal home strip, and I was given the Newcastle flag to wave; immediately I realised its significance, given that he scored arguably the greatest Premier League goal against the Magpies.
Underneath the stadium I saw some sights – it was almost like I was Charlie in Willy Wenger’s chocolate factory. One of these sights was, if I recall correctly, Nwankwo Kanu and Kolo Toure riding around on a luggage car in the players’ car park.
It soon came the time to line up in the tunnel, and we did so – several high profile faces walked past us, and we reached out to touch some of our heroes as they strolled along. Then came Arsene Wenger, and let me tell you he seemed far taller than on TV. Having been so eager to make physical contact with the players, we mascots were much more afraid to do the same with Arsene, and we all backed off, slightly intimidated by his presence and aura.
And then, Dennis. Hands reached out and were duly fived and grasped. The experience on the pitch was incredible, and I’ll never forget the moment I walked out onto the newly-laid, lush Emirates turf. Savouring every second, I found my place on the semi circle, and when signalled to do so began to wave my flag.
After the initial ceremony, the game itself was also a fitting tribute to Mr Bergkamp. Gilles Grimandi even scythed down Edgar Davids when the Tottenham midfielder was faced with an open goal, with our now-scout Grimandi desperate to deny a Tottenham player the first Emirates Stadium goal. When shown the red card, Grimandi simply shrugged nonchalantly as if to say “Worth it”.
Frank de Boer missed the penalty, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored the first goal at the new stadium for the Ajax side. But after goals from Kanu and Thierry Henry, a victory was sealed, and Dennis’ side walked out victorious.
With the debate over who was better for Arsenal, Bergkamp or Henry, my involvement in two tributes to Dennis make it incredibly hard to ignore him. His legacy brought about one of the greatest days of my life, so it’s incredibly difficult to look past him when discussing Arsenal legends. While Henry is the one with a statue, it surely won’t be long before Bergkamp is immortalized in bronze outside the place where six years ago we bade him a wonderful farewell.