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Jul 22, 2006

Say hello, wave goodbye

They were like a bunch of school kids headed for the biggest sweet shop they had ever set eyes upon.

From the moment they stepped onto the Piccadilly Line train destined for Arsenal station, their heart rates began to multiply. And then, as the doors opened and the eager souls bounded out of their tube carriage with the sort of enthusiasm you would not expect for a pre-season friendly, the moment they had been waiting for all summer was nearly here.

Their beloved Arsenal have arrived at their sparkling new Emirates Stadium and the buzz of excitement as they made their way towards the walkway that has been erected to carry them there was rising by the second. Then their new home comes into sight and with the turnstiles ticking for the first time, all present appreciated that this occasion was much more than merely the Dennis Bergkamp Testimonial.

The team that for so long has been intrinsically linked to the marbled halls of Highbury have made a bold move by deserting their spiritual home, but my first impression is that this £400m relocation has taken the club, which for so long has over-achieved on a limited budget, into a whole new stratosphere.

As one of the first members of the media pack to enter this hugely impressive addition to the list of great stadia in English sport, I felt fortunate to be at the birth of something very special.

As if to prove the English nation can embark on major projects and complete them on time and to budget, Arsenal have produced a 60,000-seater stadium that is stunningly impressive on the eye and the greatest quality that they have manage to retain is the location just a three-minute walk from the traditional Arsenal tube station.

Tottenham fans will be quick to point out that Arsenal are, in fact, a south London club whose roots are laid in the Woolwich area of the capital city, but for the last few generations of Arsenal fans, the Islington area has been home. So while most moves of this nature see a club wave farewell to their surrounds, this has not been the case for Arsenal fanatics.

The only tangible change for Gunners fans is the fact that they turn right rather than left when leaving the tube station that have been familiar with for decades. They will still be able to enjoy a pre-match drink in their favourite pub, still able to buy a bag of chips in their favourite spot and the supporters will be grateful for that. They may be sitting in a new seat, but it will still feel as if they are going to watch the Arsenal.

With capacity some 22,000 up on Highbury, the revenue flow from this stadium will propel Arsenal closer to Manchester United in terms of annual revenue, with programme sales, corporate opportunities and off-field facilities set to increase tenfold. While they will never be able to compete with Chelsea so long as Roman Abramovich is in town, this is a genuine triumph for manager Arsene Wenger, who has been a long-term promoter of this ambitious project.

In fact, such has been the impact made by the Frenchman at Arsenal in the last decade that they should go ahead and erect a bronze bust of his likeness right now to commemorate his work.

The press facilities at Emirates Stadium are a sight to behold alone, as with hoards of desks, power points and phone lines, there is and space aplenty for all visitors. The only teething problem on this opening day was trying to find a steward who knew where the media entrance was located! There is always one weak link in the communication chain.

The press conference room, where managers and players will reluctantly be ushered after games, is bigger than a cinema you may see on a more lavish edition on MTV cribs. Rows upon rows of tiered seats awaiting a pack of hungry pen pushers, with the spread of food provided for this game fit for a five star restaurant.

There was a match to be played amid all this euphoria and while testimonial games are hardly relevant in an era when players earn more money in a week than players in a previous era picked up in a lifetime, Bergkamp was a worthy recipient of a day that will have raised a small fortune for charity.

In many ways, Bergkamp's arrival in 1995 was the start of a new era an Arsenal's history, an era that saw them rejoin the elite in English football and they have barely left the top four since his arrival. Any club needs a catalyst to propel them forward and while Chelsea had the likes of Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, Manchester United had Eric Cantona, Arsenal had their No.10, the great Bergkamp.

A first half featuring a second string Arsenal side and an Ajax line-up featuring skipper Jaap Stam and a handful of World Cup stars was of little interest to most present who were merely gazing at their new surrounds.

The second 45 minutes proved to be far more entertaining as legends of Arsenal and Ajax took to the field for a game that was arguably more competitive that the opening half.

David Seaman, Patrick Vieira, Ian Wright, Marc Overmars and Thierry Henry were just some of the names on the Arsenal team sheet for the second half, with Ajax fielding the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Tottenham's Edgar Davids, whose every touch was greeted with boos, the De Boer brothers of Frank and Ronald, Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard.

Further illustrating the respect Bergkamp commands the imperious Marco Van Basten and Johan Cruyff also donned the Ajax shirt on Saturday. While the latter's midriff revealed the inevitable spread of middle age, Van Basten looked trim and sharp, he even came close to scoring after embarrassing the ever-error prone Pascal Cygan.

Bergkamp looked as trim as ever and you suspect that this is one footballer who will not allow retirement to speed up the transition into the ranks of fat blokes, but he seemed to pick up an injury of some variety as he was hauled off mid-way through the first half by Wenger.

Just for the record, the first goal at the Emirates Stadium was scored by Ajax's Klaas Jan Huntelaar 10 minutes before the interval, but the events on the field were of little significance compared to the revolution that has occurred off it.

It will come as little surprise that Thierry Henry was the first Arsenal player to score at this stadium, cooly finishing a few minutes after coming off the bench in the second half.

Arsenal can now officially be hailed as a big-time club and they have a home to prove as much.

FAREWELL BERGKAMP: He may not be the very best foreigner to have played in English football, but there have been few better. His place as an Arsenal legend is assured forever more.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: It took the Arsenal fans precisely two minutes to break into a familiar cry of: 'Stand up if you hate Tottenham'.

FOOD WATCH: A pre-match lamb hot-pot was followed by a half-time offering of fish and chips. If this is a taster of what is to come, Soccernet's Insider may come to every Arsenal home game this season just for the food!

HENRY THE GREAT: Thierry Henry interrupted his holiday to make sure he was at Emirates Stadium for this historic day in Arsenal's history. As he gazed around in awe on the side of the pitch prior to kick-off, it was clear that this is one foreign footballer who has put emotion before any other sentiment in deciding to stay in England.

VERDICT: The Emirates Stadium is a huge triumph for all concerned and the only thing missing from the Arsenal jigsaw now is proof that they can win as many games here as they managed at Highbury.