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Apr 24, 2006

Facing the final curtain

Few get to choose the timing of their exit, let alone the manner. Though slightly premature, Alan Shearer's departure - the wounded warrior limping off after gunning down his major rivals - provided still more reasons for his folk hero status on Tyneside.

Dennis Bergkamp may yet have the most unexpected finale; an infrequent visitor to the continent in recent seasons, he could end his career in a Champions League final. The decision may be taken for Duncan Ferguson, who is yet to confirm his retirement. But it would be a sign of desperation if Everton were to renew his contract.

The leading striker of their generation from England, Holland and Scotland respectively have little in common. Shearer's career total of 409 goals is awesome; Bergkamp has topped 250 for club and country, and created still more. But despite 12 years in English football, Ferguson is stuck on 98 goals south of the border.

Each curtailed his international career. Shearer, perhaps to spare himself the indignity of being dropped, channelled his attentions into Newcastle. Bergkamp spared himself the terror of flights to Japan and South Korea.

Ferguson quit in a fit of pique at the SFA that never ended; while there are similarities between the international records of Shearer and Bergkamp (30 goals in 63 games versus 36 in 79), he never scored for Scotland.

Shearer is often described as the last of a dying breed - though Dean Ashton and James Beattie, each with a vested interest in extending the lifespan of the classic English number nine, may disagree - but what does that make Ferguson? A hybrid of Nat Lofthouse and Mike Tyson, he induced palpitations from otherwise fearless central defenders and left a trail of destruction, but little legacy for younger strikers.

Bergkamp, meanwhile, can trace his heritage in Dutch football back to Johan Cruyff, yet he is a one-off, a classic number 10 but demonstrably unique.

Descriptions of Bergkamp vary. He has long been called an artist, but Arsene Wenger prefers to brand him a scientist; look at the cool analysis of the situation, the perfect calculation of the angle and weight of the precise pass to bisect a defence. If he paints a picture, in other words, it is for a purpose, though he has illuminated the game in the process.

Shearer, in contrast, is more of a master craftsman; it is testament to his perfectionism that, whatever the angle or distance, he hits the target with a higher percentage of efforts than most of his rivals.

He had the mental strength to recover from two cruciate ligament injuries, whereas Bergkamp's penalty-taking days were ended by Peter Schmeichel's semi-final spot kick save in 1999. Perhaps the imagination required to conceive of, and execute, some of the most beautiful goals of the last decade, prohibited further torment from 12 yards.

Any selection of Bergkamp's best highlights a rare delicacy and a tendency to eschew the powerful for the deft, the dipping, the curling and the immaculate.

Think of his hat-trick against Leicester in 1997, his winner for Holland against Argentina the following year or the improbable goal against Newcastle in 2002, the product of an inventive turn to deceive Nikos Dabizas. Arguably Shearer's finest, against Everton that same year, was a consequence of ferocious power.

Polar opposites in much, their conception of an ideal strike partnership is very different. Shearer was at his happiest alongside a forward with similar aerial ability, whether Mike Newell, Chris Sutton, Teddy Sheringham or Ferguson; even when pace had deserted him, he hoped to profit from their flick-ons.

His was a single-minded pursuit of goals whereas Bergkamp's became fewer and further in between as he retreated into midfield. Genuine speed, a commodity that would have made both still better, has been a feature of his accomplices in attack, whether the ungrateful Nicolas Anelka, Ian Wright or Patrick Kluivert, especially in his younger days.

In the least conventional of strike partnerships, Thierry Henry owes much to Bergkamp, as he is often quick to acknowledge. The former drops deep, the latter floats out to the left wing; centre-backs, invariably aware of Shearer's presence, have no-one to mark.

Loyalty, however, is a common denominator. Both have a testimonial to reward lengthy and dedicated service (Ferguson, despite the Everton tattoos, does not qualify for one; he was complicit in a lucrative move to Tyneside behind manager Walter Smith's back).

Shearer, pragmatic in so much else, allowed his heart to follow his head in his choice of his hometown club Newcastle.

It has enabled him to build a power base unrivalled by another player in English football; captain, penalty taker and focal point of the team.

Bergkamp, in contrast, has shunned the limelight while the public face of Arsenal has gone from Tony Adams to Patrick Vieira to Henry.

Whereas managers dropping Shearer have had an unfortunate habit of returning to the job market, Bergkamp has been omitted and withstood the challenges of Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord to re-emerge as a vital member of Arsene Wenger's side.

For each of the three strikers, the question can fairly be posed of if they played on for one year too many. Should Bergkamp, increasingly unable to make Wenger's team, bow out in the Champions League final, he will have his answer. Shearer has Jackie Milburn's record to show for his extra season.

Ferguson, however, scored his sole goal at the wrong end of the pitch and incurred a seven-match ban.

Indeed, though his suspensions amount to almost an entire league campaign, his club and FA fines to around £250,000, the Scot has never lost his swagger when dismissed.

Shearer and Bergkamp, each prone to flashes of temper camouflaged by an image of model professionalism and an ice-cool façade respectively, took less pleasure in leaving the field. But few have provided as many variants of violent conduct, or inflicted as much damage on central and eastern Europeans on a football field as the Scot. It reflects ill on the criminal fraternity that two of their number were stupid enough to burgle Ferguson's house.

So Duncan Disorderly - and there are few more evocative nicknames - is unlikely to be forgotten, at least by cowering defenders.

Shearer, meanwhile, is invariably acclaimed by the old pros' network as the Premiership's finest player - though Eric Cantona would win many votes and Henry this nomination - Bergkamp's significance, over and above 121 goals in 434 games for Arsenal, should not be forgotten.

Shearer's success was built on British teams, rooted in a traditional style of play; Bergkamp was essential in the creation of the most cosmopolitan and progressive side in the Premiership. It is a clash of cultures and, despite their domestic troubles, Wenger's brand of total football could conquer the continent. Even if his Dutch master is not on the pitch, Bergkamp deserves his share of the credit for their transformation.

Statistically, Shearer is an astonishing player. Aesthetically and technically, Bergkamp is. But while Ferguson's notoriety guarantees his ongoing fame and Shearer merits his place in both the record books and Geordie hearts, Bergkamp will live longest in the memory.


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