Football fans are well accustomed to finding themselves mesmerised by players capable of executing skills they could only dream of. Sat on the edge of their seat, eyes wide, mouth wider, unwittingly contributing to instinctive choruses of disbelieving inhales and utterances, soundtracking the scene as the magician on the field pulls another trick from his sleeve. Typically, few players possess the ability to cast a similar spell upon their fellow professionals. After all, an illusion is only so potent to those without the knowledge of how it is performed.
Dennis Bergkamp, however, so limitless were the bounds of his technique, creativity and vision, was one such arcane specimen who appeared to beguile fans and fellow players in equal measure. Pundits and commentators, too, could scarcely put into words the feelings summoned by witnessing the dazzling Dutchman on ceremony. He routinely defied description as though it were simply another defender demanding swift and exquisite evasion.
It comes as little surprise, then, that throughout Match of the Day’s near-50-year history of crowning the top-flight’s finest strikes month by month, only one man – if we are to suppose he was, truly, just a man – holds the honour of having a Goal of the Month competition all to himself.
The year was 1997. Waves were inevitably being made in the film, television and music industries, yet anything worth paying any attention to was almost exclusively being orchestrated by the black boots of one particularly reverential Dutchman with a penchant for the on-pitch poetic.
Bergkamp was eagerly anticipating his third full-term in north London. Meanwhile, Arsène Wenger, having been appointed to the position of Arsenal manager the previous September, was poised to embark upon his first. Ever intent on starting as he meant to go on, Bergkamp began the campaign in imperious form and it was in the season’s opening month that the Dutchman conspired to lay on a succession of performances worthy of their very own competition.
For the first two fixtures, Bergkamp’s striking partner Ian Wright duly obliged on goalscoring duties, opening the scoring with a goal that would earn his side a valuable point away to Leeds, before bagging a brace to dispose of Coventry at Highbury. Bergkamp welcomingly opened his own season’s account and joined him on the scoresheet at the very next time of asking.
On 23 August, Arsenal travelled to The Dell to take on Southampton. When Bergkamp received the ball on his chest just a few yards from the halfway line, the scores were tied at one apiece, with Marc Overmars’ early effort having been cancelled out by Neil Maddison.
The Dutchman cushioned the ball to the ground, turned to face his direction of attack and lifted his head. Quickly identifying insufficient options allowing him to progress the oft-labelled “Arsenal way”, he instead motored forward alone. Racing beyond two despairing runners who failed to halt his charge in time, Bergkamp approached the area at speed and, when faced with an attempted sweeping clearance, simply checked back, flipped his angle of approach, and caressed the ball past the diving goalkeeper with his right foot.
Before the game was up, Bergkamp had added a second emphatic strike to put the result beyond doubt. Scooped his way from the wing, Bergkamp took the ball to feet and flicked it past Southampton defender Francis Benali. Desperate not to be circumvented quite as easily as Bergkamp had wished, Benali clamped onto the Arsenal number 10’s shirt with both hands and held on for dear life.
The striker, though, possessed a mettlesome, occasionally minacious, caveat that often laid dormant beneath his icy exterior. Bergkamp simply grabbed back and tossed the defender out of his way. One touch later, from the area’s edge, and the Dutchman had thundered a shot into the top corner of the net. Three-one. Job done for Wenger’s men, who marched on to Filbert Street to do battle with Leicester. There, a Premier League classic would come to life.
Just nine minutes had expired when an Arsenal corner was played short to Bergkamp, plotting another minor miracle on the edge of the box. Following a quick touch, just to settle the ball’s nerves, Bergkamp swivelled to face the goal before curling a sumptuous strike into the top far corner of the net. An expert blend of power and precision, Kasey Keller in the Leicester goal elected not to even dive in pursuit of it, despite it having travelled some 20 or so yards before rippling the net behind him.
Shortly after the game’s hour mark, Bergkamp notched again. A flowing counter-attack progressed through the centre of the field with Ray Parlour, who moved the ball wide to Patrick Vieira, before being turned back inside to the former Ajax and Inter man. A luxurious first touch denied the retreating defender the opportunity to get close and a second touch, though sent into the path of the on-rushing goalkeeper, eventually descended into the net after looping high into the crisp night air. Two-nil to Arsenal; two goals for Bergkamp.
Though seemingly destined to pick up all three points, boasting a commanding two-goal lead, Arsenal collapsed somewhat in the game’s final stages. Something of a mix-up between David Seaman and Lee Dixon allowed Emile Heskey to nab what they hoped would only be a consolation for the home side, but a second goal in quick succession – a deflected shot from the right boot of Matt Elliott – glanced past Seaman and brought Leicester level. Time enough remained, though, for yet more magic – and more surprises.
A neat passage of intricate passing in the centre of the pitch worked room for David Platt to send a searching ball up the field. Before it could return to the turf, it was graciously cushioned down by Bergkamp’s blessed right boot, tucked inside the revolving Elliott by Bergkamp’s left, settled by a third touch, and flicked impudently past the Leicester ‘keeper with a fourth. Bergkamp had completed his first Arsenal hat-trick in impeccable style.
Incredibly, a Leicester side who refused to know when they were beaten would fight back once more, Steve Walsh providing the header required to beat Arsenal from a corner, the third stoppage-time goal of the game. Beyond the falling curtain, Leicester exited the fixture euphoric; Arsenal, conversely, were dejected, despite the magnificence that they had witnessed at the attacking end.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, Arsenal’s defensive generosity on that day would mean for little. They’d soon right those particular wrongs in the following fixtures and, besides, history had been made and greater spoils were still to come.
When, a week on, Des Lynam presented Match of the Day and offered to the nation the ten choice goals upon which they could vote for their favourite from the month of August, a typically eclectic array of spectacular strikes were placed on display.
Benito Carbone rifled home an entirely self-made overhead-kick for Sheffield Wednesday, away to Newcastle – just one of two exemplary offerings from the Italian. Liverpool’s Karl-Heinz Riedle evaded a challenge in midfield before completing his upfield jaunt with a delightful dink beyond the Leeds’ Nigel Martyn from 20 yards. Newcastle’s John Beresford thundered a long-range half-volley, which clattered the underside of the crossbar on its way past the helpless Mark Bosnich in the Aston Villa goal.
Nonetheless, the trio of prizes on offer each went to the same man: Dennis Bergkamp. The Iceman’s first of two strikes, which downed Southampton at The Dell, had been voted into third; the second of his three goals in the draw away to Leicester had pipped it to second; while the stunning hat-trick goal that followed would not only be voted as the best of the month but the nation’s favourite goal of the entire season.
And so, as though to prove Bergkamp’s consistency and long-term contribution to his team’s cause, if by any outrageous standard it required further proof, the inspired forward would end the season as Arsenal’s top scorer, firing them to a historic league and cup double, a career-defining achievement supplemented by his being awarded both the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year for his immeasurable contributions.
Though a relatively superfluous accolade when viewed alongside the major honours collected during the same season, Bergkamp’s inimitable first, second and third-place finish in August 1997’s Goal of the Month competition remains the stuff of legend. After all, never has a single player’s astounding legacy been so neatly encapsulated by a single image: that of Dennis Bergkamp, without worthy competition, standing on a podium all of his own.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp