With little over 15 minutes left of the derby, Cesc Fàbregas stood beside the corner flag watching impatiently as a substitution was announced. Drawing 1-1 at home to their fiercest rivals Tottenham, Arsenal fans pleaded with their team to go for the jugular. The importance of bragging rights come Monday morning demanded it. A tactical change: Ivorian defender Emmanuel Eboué left the pitch to be replaced by striker Nicklas Bendtner. Clearly their manager shared the desire of his supporters.
The whistle sounded as Fàbregas sent the corner high into the area with the inside of his right. The young Dane, having just entered the pitch and finding himself now on the edge of the six-yard line, climbed early, well above any Tottenham defender, and seemed to hang in the air. Ducking slightly to connect with the cross, he sent a powerful header downwards past the flailing Paul Robinson and into the Spurs goal. Bendtner flew down the touchline, arms outstretched, roaring as he ran. It was 2-1 to the Arsenal.
With his very first touch of the game, just 1.8 (in-play) seconds since joining the action, Bendtner had the first Premier League goal of his career. The 19-year-old had notched the winning goal against his team’s greatest rivals in what was officially named as the quickest goal ever scored by a substitute in the Premier League, and there was to be no doubting whose name would be heard echoing around the Emirates that night. Once again London was red, only now the streets were bathed in a shade symbolic of Denmark as well as Arsenal. The boy from the Copenhagen had arrived.
As the Arsenal fans streamed out of the stadium at full-time in search of taxi ranks and tube stations, their excitable chatter predictably centred around their new hero. Just how good could this Nicklas Bendtner lad be? Incredibly, this is a question we’re still asking, almost a decade later, only now the question is in danger of becoming a retrospective one.
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During his remarkable tenure as Arsenal manager, not only have the philosophies of the aesthetically-inclined Arsène Wenger orchestrated the development of a playing style now idiosyncratic of his team, but his elegant footballing vision has often been realised by players rarely considered capable of performing at such a level prior to their time under his tutelage.
Whether necessitated by the financial shackles placed upon his club as a result of their costly stadium upgrade or simply a consequence of an unwavering belief in his own ability to spot that certain je ne sais quoi in a player, Wenger risked his own reputation long before allowing his club’s economic future to be jeopardised. As represented by a fair few Arsenal acquisitions, many of the men tasked with leading Arsenal’s front line over the past two decades – often plucked from relative obscurity – were gifted the gaffer’s trust without fully deserving such duties.
Of course not every striker starred in their own rags to riches tale as a result. Such a role proved a step too far for many. But, as it happened, not only did Arsenal retain their status as a Champions League mainstay throughout the entirety of this period of uncertainty, but almost every forward, from Aliadière to Anelka and Reyes to Wright, departed north London as a more complete player.
Naturally, in the hearts and minds of the Arsenal faithful, some players are more fondly remembered than others. Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry sit atop the pile having impacted the famous London club in such ways that their names have seemingly become immortal in Arsenal folklore. The likes of Eduardo da Silva and Lukas Podolski, while never hitting the heights of the aforementioned club legends, did enough during their time in N5 to ensure their continued status as fan favourites. Meanwhile, as the form and fraternity of players such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie proved fleeting, the very mention of their names brings about cautious reminiscence at best and rancorous regret at worst.
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Read | The disputed genius of Arsène Wenger
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Though their respective impact on the history of the North London club varies, what links these players is that many would argue not one of them made a more telling contribution to the beautiful game than when adorned with the red of Arsenal.
A similar claim could also be made for another of Wenger’s unlikely lads: Nicklas Bendtner. Certainly, his finest hour was spent playing for the Gunners. However, to exactly which category in the Arsenal annals the memory of Nicklas Bendtner belongs isn’t quite so clear, as his time at Arsenal evidenced an intriguing and divisive player with seemingly only one thing standing between him and the most envious of football careers: himself.
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Having joined his local football club Tårnby Boldklub aged just four, young Nicklas moved to the FC Copenhagen feeder club Kjøbenhavns Boldklub aged 10, where he spent a further six years honing his skills in his homeland. During this time Bendtner was a regular starter for the Danish international youth teams and it was while representing his country that his proficiency in front of goal caught the eye of a number of scouts from across Europe.
It would be Arsenal that won his signature and he joined the club’s esteemed youth academy in the summer of 2004, his head filled with dreams of emulating the “invincible” season just achieved by his new team-mates.
Bendtner was made to wait until 25 November 2005 to make his professional debut, as a stoppage time substitute in a 3-0 Carling Cup victory away to Sunderland, and before the season’s end was afforded a further two substitute appearances.
Having been seduced by the allure of first team football, but remaining realistic enough to recognise that his own name fell well below the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Adebayor, van Persie and Reyes in the Arsenal pecking order, Bendtner joined Championship side Birmingham City on loan for the first half of the 2006-07 season.
Impressed by his early contribution, manager Steve Bruce successfully requested to have the 18-year-old’s loan extended to the end of the season, during which time Bendtner scored 13 goals in 48 appearances, finishing the season as the club’s second top goal-scorer in all competitions as Birmingham secured second place in the Championship, ensuring an immediate return was made to the Premier League.
In the months following his return to Arsenal, Wenger rewarded Bendtner’s efforts with a new five-year contract and the two discussed his immediate future. Though a host of clubs from England, France and Italy declared their interest in the services of the striker, Bendtner made it clear to the Arsenal boss that he wished to stay in London and fight to earn his place in the starting 11. Though the manager had thought another loan could benefit him, the teenager’s confidence and determination convinced Wenger to let him do just that.
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Read | In celebration of Thierry Henry, the striking blueprint
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The 2007-08 season looked to be progressing exactly as planned for Bendtner as he scored his first competitive goal for Arsenal in the Carling Cup in September, in a 2-0 win against Newcastle; his first Champions League goal in October, finishing the scoring in a 7-0 demolition of Slavia Prague; followed by his first Premier League goal in December, in the form of that winner at home to Tottenham.
However, the new year was ushered in with an unsavoury precursor to what would go on to become a career punctuated by petty controversies.
Though Bendtner had evidenced flashes of excellence, he also repeatedly proved his immaturity in a disciplinary context. While receiving the first red card of his career away to Everton sullied the occasion of his first start in Arsenal colours, the resulting raucous paled in comparison to the uproar caused by his actions during an ill-fated night at White Hart Lane in late January.
Not only were his side embarrassed by their local rivals, dumped out of the Carling Cup semi-finals having lost 5-1 on the night (and 6-2 on aggregate), but as his team left the field with their heads held low, Bendtner did so with his raised: not a social faux pas borne from his unyielding confidence, but as a direct result of a bloodied nose courtesy of his fellow strike partner Emmanuel Adebayor, dished out during a scuffle that required the intervention of Arsenal captain William Gallas and referee Howard Webb to prevent further humiliation for the Gunners.
Exactly a month on from the dreamlike introduction that would seemingly define his early career, against the very same team, an abject performance compounded by an on-field fracas with his own team-mate left Bendtner’s role in the Arsenal team uncertain.
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The following three years proved to be Bendtner’s most prolific at the London club, scoring 36 times in 113 appearances, as his transition from adolescence into adulthood saw the striker become somewhat more reliable in front of goal. Evidenced best by his two hat-tricks at the Emirates, the first in a 5-0 victory over Porto in the Champions League knockout round and the latter in another 5-0 win over FA Cup fourth round opponents Leyton Orient, experience was sanding off the striker’s rough edges.
But Bendtner’s game still lacked consistency and, partially restricted by injuries, the Dane fell well short of the fabled 20-goal mark in all three seasons, his closest being 15 in all competitions in 2009. He may have exceeded his 2004 Danish Young Player of the Year award by winning the Danish FA’s 2009 Football Player of the Year but, in England, slowly but surely, the sight of Bendtner starting up front for Arsenal was becoming something of a collector’s item.
On the final day of the August 2011 transfer window Bendtner secured a loan move to Premier League club Sunderland, to reunite with old boss Steve Bruce under whom he had performed so promisingly at Birmingham, and this move seemed to rejuvenate the striker. Though his goal-scoring record hardly set Wearside ablaze, his respectable eight in 30 appearances helped Sunderland retain their Premier League status despite mid-season changes to their manager and chairman.
In the days following his loan move to Sunderland, Bendtner publicly informed Arsenal of his wishes never to represent them again and so the arrival of the 2012-13 season signalled the time for another move. This time Bendtner was shipped abroad on its final day as a surprise opportunity to reinforce the front-line of Italian champions Juventus proved too good to turn down.
But those skeptical of the move were proved right sooner rather than later. A serious thigh injury left him on the sidelines for the majority of his time in Turin and, when fit, the Dane only made nine appearances for the Old Lady, failing to find the net in any of them. Bendtner was forced to return to Arsenal with his tail between his legs.
Desperate to make an impact in the final year of his contract, regardless of his whereabouts, the 2013-14 season proved frustrating for Bendtner as he was kept as a back-up at Arsenal but afforded few opportunities to perform – or to put himself in the shop window. In total, Bendtner made 14 appearances – 14 more than many, including himself, expected him to make – and scored two goals. This contribution proved too little too late for both sides and it quickly became clear that an extension to his expiring contract would appease nobody.
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Those who believe footballers should withdraw from society to a life of poverty and chastity, only to resurface on match days having spurned all opportunities to indulge in a meaningful existence outside of their day job, so as to devote their every waking hour to furthering their careers, are often the first to question why so many footballers seem so out of touch with reality and eventually succumb to depression after calling time on their playing days.
Yet even the most devout advocates of the old “boys will be boys” adage would find excusing Nicklas Bendtner’s off-field – and occasional on-field – antics an exercise in futility. Not for the heinousness of his crimes, though. On the contrary, Bendtner’s crimes were barely crimes at all and thusly much of the frustration felt by those whose hopes rested upon him came from his repeated need to hurdle such unnecessary distractions just to attempt to fulfil his potential.
The briefest of internet searches of the words ‘Bendtner scandal’ throw up some risible results. “Nicklas Bendtner facing Arsenal exit after drunken scandal while on injury break”, “Nicklas Bendtner ‘dropped his pants and rubbed himself on my taxi’ says Taxi driver”, “Nicklas Bendtner’s six-month ban by Denmark after drink-driving arrest”, “Nicklas Bendtner’s £80,000 fine for sponsored underwear” present not a summary but literally just the first four headlines.
Enough there to leave even the most easily amused cinephile fearing an ill-fated, Nicklas Bendtner-fronted, Danish remake of The Hangover.
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Bendtner’s move to Juventus was a bizarre one
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Yet, amazingly, in spite of these events, Bendtner’s most notable newspaper appearance came in the form of a 2009 interview with The Guardian. In conversation with Daniel Taylor, Bendtner spoke openly, hoping to give an insight into the origins of his distinguishing confidence and wax lyrical about his lofty aspirations for the future. Instead he only succeeded in opening the floodgates of his misguided psyche, letting free a wave of delusion, creating a reservoir from which many of the ‘great’ Nicklas Bendtner quotes are still dredged to this day”
“There has never been any doubt in my mind about anything to do with me. You can ask the coaches when I was 16, and even the other [youth team] players. I knew back then, and I would say it openly, that I would go on to play for the first team. And they would go, ‘Huh, what makes you think it’s going to be you?’ But I always said I would make it and I had no problem telling other people about it.”
“You need confidence and I have always had it. I have started this season better than I have started any other season but I know there is a lot more to come and I know the people here know that as well. So I’m quite comfortable about how things are going to progress.”
“Within five years I want to be the top scorer in the Premier League and I want to be known as a world-class striker. And it will happen. Trust me, it will happen. I look around at other players, I see my own ability and I can’t see anything that tells me it won’t happen.”
Five years on from those comments and Bendtner found himself a little way south of his ambitions – as south as Germany, having signed for VfL Wolfsburg on a free transfer, leaving the Premier League behind him without once gracing its list of top scorers come season’s end. As for the “world-class” comments, perhaps rather cruelly, the number of people who truly believed Bendtner was anywhere near world-class was even lower than the number he would wear on his back at Wolfsburg.
With his mysteriously chosen number 52 shirt left to dwell in the Arsenal lockers, the ever-eccentric Bendtner arrived at the Volkswagen Arena and wasted no time in commandeering the number 3 shirt, causing full-backs the world over to recoil uncomfortably; the very thought of a six foot four inch number three bearing down on goal just too alien a sight to behold.
But even with his curious number choice, Die Wölfe were willing to take a chance on the Dane. After all, in Bendtner, Wolfsburg were announcing their ambition for the 2014-15 season by signing a player with a great physical presence, the experience of playing in three different countries as well as the Champions League, and with 24 goals for his nation.
As Wolfsburg manager Dieter Hecking put it, when announcing the acquisition of Bendtner to the media: “We want to play a good role in all three competitions this season, and to do this we need players who already know what this kind of challenge is all about. Nicklas embodies precisely the kind of striker we were looking for.” Only, that school of thought worked slightly better in theory than it proved in practice.
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What next for the Dane after his Wolfsburg failure?
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Bendtner was unable to secure a regular place in the Wolfsburg line-up, often watching from the dugout as Bas Dost or Ivan Perišić spearheaded the green and white attack, as he proved simply too ineffectual when given a rare opportunity; his five goals in 28 appearances provided no real bargaining chip with which to barter. Even so, Bendtner and co. ended the season as runners-up in the Bundesliga and with the DFB-Pokal trophy in hand, providing plenty of reasons to be hopeful of the following year.
An 89th-minute equaliser and the decisive spot kick in the resulting penalty shootout in the DFL-Supercup against German champions Bayern Munich kicked the 2015-16 season off in style for Bendtner, who appeared eager to silence his critics once and for all. But Bendtner’s continued off-field indiscretions soon began to outweigh what little consistent quality he brought to the team and the patience of the Wolfsburg hierarchy wore a little too thin.
On the back of two particular gaffes in early 2016, it looked as though Bendtner’s time in Germany was to culminate in an unspectacular finale. His blatant infringement of the club’s sponsorship and his poor timekeeping only further coaxed Dieter Hecking into withdrawing Bendtner from the Wolfsburg line-up altogether, as he forced the Dane to train alone. By the end of the season, Bendtner’s contract, with a year still remaining, had been terminated with immediate effect and the striker was a free agent once more.
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Less than 18 months away from turning 30, and without a club to call home, the sun seems to be setting on Bendtner’s career without him ever having fulfilled half of the potential he so clearly believed he once held. It is hard to foresee how anything other than a strict regimen of professionalism, hard work and focus, along with a good old reality check, could prevent such an eventuality.
In 2009, a year of many famous Bendtner quotes, the Dane was reportedly quoted by a British newspaper as having said: “In about three years, I will be better than Zlatan. He is older than me and has now reached his peak as the top scorer in Serie A – but I have a plan, I believe in it and I am ready. Next season, I can finally make my breakthrough and then I still have two years to become better than Zlatan – and I will. By then I will be close to my peak and will be able to look upon myself as one of the world’s greatest strikers.”
Given his form for it, it isn’t hard to imagine such words coming from the mouth of the not-so-great Dane. However, when probed about these quotes by Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet in 2015, Bendtner made it clear that he did not remember making any such claims and refused to answer any further questions regarding comparisons between himself and the Swede.
Whether Bendtner was conveniently playing dumb on this occasion in order to distance himself from his foolish remarks, or he had simply fallen victim of the media’s eagerness to exaggerate his character by parodying his arrogance, abstaining from such comparisons and refraining from baseless posturing from here on out could surely only benefit the striker in his pursuit of belated recognition.
Still, in an interview with German magazine 11Freunde in 2015, Bendtner was given the chance to distance himself from another supposed quote in which he was reported to have claimed to be “a tiger who never gives up”. As opposed to rejecting the claims or explaining the simple meaning behind such a statement, Bendtner willingly delved deeper into the metaphor, explaining with an impromptu monologue: “The tiger stands at the end of the food chain. He eats to survive, without any compassion, he doesn’t even feel it. He is the predator… an animal of dangerous beauty.”
So who knows exactly how Bendtner will approach this next phase of his career. In the end, whether or not the tiger has it within him to earn his stripes before he’s too old to hunt is something that only time will tell.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp