Le King vs The Dutch Master: who would you choose between The Gunners' modern day legends?
It’s a debate I have with others almost as often as I do with myself. Like choosing a favourite album, the impossibility of the question is that which sees it so frequently discussed;
Who is the greatest player you have seen play for Arsenal?
Favouring one over the other is like asking who you prefer, your Mum or your Dad? You don’t have to answer, but what if you did? What if the everlasting fitness of Robin van Persie depended on it?
My answer changes on a regular basis. I recently read an interview with Dennis in edition one of The Blizzard. (Find it. Read it.) He dissected his finest moments in such exquisite detail it read almost as joyous as watching them again. (And again). Each goal is a masterpiece painting, now hung in footballs fine gallery. Each touch is a brush stroke. Moves executed in the split of a second having been held untapped in his mind for years until the opportune moment presented itself. I smiled for days and have only just come down.
“You’ve got to be as still as possible, as if you are standing still… but in the air, and controlling the ball.”
Dennis Bergkamp was the greatest player I’ve ever seen play for The Arsenal. He probably walks on water.
A couple of weeks later Thierry returned home to train following the end of the US season. Seeing him in a cannon embossed red tracksuit top once more triggers the memory bank, as he picks the ball up in one box before attacking the other, like an NBA star on a Basketball court. Traveling at Olympic sprinter speed, the ball somehow remains at his feet. Tackles and fouls disintegrate into dust behind him as he scores again. As the club unvieled the ultimate tribute to Henry in the form of a statue, Thierry spoke with the tears of a man who loves the club as much as you or I.
“It is the perfect example of the love I have for the club,” he said. “Kneeling and facing the stadium – and with Highbury right behind it – is amazing.”
Thierry Henry was the greatest player I’ve ever seen play for The Arsenal.
The lights were dimmed in the Highbury press room. Behind the seated Dutchman and his new manager, Bruce Rioch, a montage of our new signing is screened, sound tracked by The Stone Roses ‘This is the One’. Dennis certainly was.
His disappointing spell at Inter was all but ignored. Only six months previously Arsenal had been signing players of the calibre of Chris Kiwomya from Ipswich Town. The capture of a Dutch centre forward from the Italian giants catapulted the club away from the ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ tag and into the modern area, guided handsomely by Arsene Wenger on route to world adulation.
By the time Henry was signed with the Nicholas Anelka loose change in 2009, Dennis and Arsene had taken the club to another level. Having recently won the double and then challenging for another, the signing of a player stuck frustrated out on the wing with Juventus did not come with the same fanfare. How strange it now seems we simply hoped he’d replace Anelka.
Without the signing of Dennis, and the legacy he quickly laid, Arsenal as a football club might not have been in the position to sign Henry, let alone offer him such a platform to excel. Thank Italian football for casting them both aside. It knows what it missed out on.
Both slow burned before exploding into greatness. In over twenty years of watching Arsenal there have been two periods in which I was gratefully aware that one of the worlds greatest players was peaking in front of my awestruck, appreciative eyes.
In 1998 Dennis was the focal point to winning the double. He did things with a ball that defied logic and gravity. In 2004 Thierry purred into a sixth gear which no other player in the league obtained, as the invincibles ripped up record books.
There were two particular moments during these precious months in which it was patently obvious that a player could do what ever they liked with a football.
As the title came into view in 1998, and winning every game left would clinch the rewards, Arsenal travelled to Oakwood to face a dogged Barnsley. Bergkamp steered the game in the preferred direction by curling the ball into the top corner in a trademark fashion so frequently seen by then, it almost appeared easy. In comparison to the execution of his hat trick at Leicester at the start of that season, or his latter moments of individual genius against Newcastle and Argentina, it was.
Dennis did things on a football pitch that took countless replays to comprehend. Once you worked out what he’d done and how he did it, the notion that he’d done so intentionally was fucking outrageous. I still have visions of Dabisaz turning this way and which, blood twisted, trying to work out where the ball is, as Dennis clips it past him. Of course he meant it.
In April 2004 the invincibles were taking the piss, no one more so than Thierry. Like Dennis six years previously, (and often now with his help) if a game had the cheek to be going against us the Frenchman would pick it up by the scruff of the neck and drag it back in our favour. Having lost to Manchester United and Chelsea in the FA Cup and Champions League, a horrible week was worsening still, with Liverpool taking the lead at Highbury. Shortly after Robert Pires had equalised Thierry decided enough was enough, and sought to tear the Liverpool defence to shreds in devastatingly individual fashion. Just as he did again and again over the years to many a side, spectacularly so against Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Leeds United and Spurs. Defences couldn’t even kick him, let alone tackle him.
Those were moments worth a season ticket alone, so long will they remain etched in the memory. Fans of other clubs will wait an eternity to see a player such as Thierry or Dennis and still have to settle for an inferior. How spoilt we were to see both together at the same time. How unfair it must’ve seemed to opponents when the Arsenal team sheet contained both names.
Henry on Bergkamp: ”I have always said Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner I have ever played with. Sometimes you have players who do not have to talk, you just have to watch them — and that is the case with Dennis. The way he can kill a team with one pass is just amazing. He will sometimes do things out of nowhere.”
Bergkamp on Henry: “If had to pick one (strike partner) I would say Thierry because of the unbeaten season with him. Thierry’s skills were perfectly functional. There was something behind every movement; to get a strike, receive a pass.
Thierry Henry played with Messi and Zidane. Dennis Bergkamp played with Marco Van Basten. That they both chose each other over such illustrious names is a testament to their own status.
Without an answer, I turned to Twitter, where the decision was split by one in favour of Dennis. Some people opted for Bergkamp over Henry because the Dutchman finished his career with the club. If it was a question of loyalty then Dennis would win. It’s not.
In questioning the merits of greatness we have to consider that undeniable benchmark of medals, and nobody gets their medals out quite like Thierry. The move to Barcelona enhanced his status in emphatic fashion and helped him win it all. A World Cup, European Championship, Premier Leagues, FA Cups. Spanish League and Cup, Champions League, Club World Club and European Super Cup.
The official website ran a (slightly larger) poll in 2008 to discover who was the greatest player to have played for Arsenal. Ignoring that Kanu came in at number thirteen, it was no surprise that Dennis and Thierry obtained the top spots, with the Frechman taking the crown this time around.
Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters Trust summarised it well. “A true comparison is subjective and impossible. Both were majestic, but the statistic of being the club’s best ever goalscorer stands alone.”
I came to the same conclusion today, but used a comparatively childish method. Today, I base my decision on which player I think about the most, and on at least three nights of the week my head hits the pillow with the Thierry Henry song swirling around inside it. Where once a child counted sheep to settle into sleep, the fan/man that I have ‘matured’ into sings a song about a footballer instead.
When I imagine going out for steak with four famous figures from the past and present, Thierry’s name is on the first seat reserved. It’s perhaps pathetic, but there’s nobody more that I’d like to meet. No other footballer made me smile as much.
Tomorrow might see another change of mind, but one thing is set in Highbury history. Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry reached levels that we may not see again. Peaks and performances for which we should be eternally grateful.
We were lucky to breath their air.
And then the King returned. In what almost seems like a hazy dream, Thierry returned last January, bearded wiser, for a month that will be treasured. In a season of disastrous lows, it’s impossible to think of the last minute winners against Leeds and Sunderland without smiling.
He writes his own scripts. It was perfect. Goals that all but produced tears of joy for the returning son. Nostalgic and short sighted it may have been, but there is also his mere presence also helped form a team spirit that has lead Arsenal back into the brightness of the top four from the darkness of the first half of the season.
It’s not possible to love a stranger more.
This piece appears courtesy of The Gooner