LIFE FROM 12 YARDS: Dennis Bergkamp

Penalty. A term, that can ruffle the feathers of even the calmest of beings. A term, that in any walk of life, shocks and triggers signals of doom and punishment for some, and hope or satisfaction for others. Football, is no exception. Goalden Times bring you a series where we look at the more unfortunate events of missed penalties (and their aftermath??). Enjoy the ride with Subhashis Biswas.

Dennis Bergkamp's penalty against Manchester United
Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty against Manchester United

Player: Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal 
Opponent Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United 
Match Venue & Date: Villa Park, Birmingham, England,  14th April, 1999, F.A. Cup Semifinal (Replay), 92nd Minute

In the sixth  of the  Missed Penalty series, we reminisce  about a penalty that may not be as famous as its predecessors of this series, but it is a “missed penalty” that had a significant effect on the mind of the player, and still after 16 years of its occurrence, is being talked about among football enthusiasts in North London and Old Trafford.

When you hear the name of Dennis Bergkamp, you picture a legendary player with subtle finesse, wonderful skills and god-gifted goal scoring ability. He had already scored many goals for   Arsenal,  as well as the   Dutch national team up to the point in his career in 1999, when this dreaded event took place.

It was the replay of FA cup semi-final between Manchester United and Arsenal at Villa Park. Incidentally this was the last replay in the history of FA cup as the rule  changed from 2000, and extra time and penalty shoot out were introduced after the regular 90 minutes in semifinal. The original semifinal held on 11th April ended 0-0, and both the teams were eager to proceed to the final of FA cup. Arsenal would reach the final for the second successive time, and if United reached the final, their dream of winning the treble (League, FA Cup, and Champions League) could just come true.

David Beckham had given Manchester United the lead in the 17th minute, although Manchester United were struggling to keep pace with the attacking football by Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and rest of the Arsenal team. Arsenal got their reward by leveling the score through Bergkampin the 69th minute. Roy Keane was sent off for a second bookable offence right after the equalizer. Arsenal dominated the game, though United had a number of clear cut chances which they failed to convert, and the match was headed to extra time.

In the second minute of injury time in the second half, Ray Parlour advanced towards the penalty box from the right side and appeared to have defeated Phil Neville comprehensively before attempting a goal ward shot. Phil Neville sensed by that time that if he was allowed to take the shot, it would be difficult for Peter Schmeichel to stop it. Neville brought Parlour down to survive for a few more seconds. Referee did not hesitate to award the penalty to Arsenal, and the Gunners were within a penalty shot from making it to the second successive FA cup final. Manchester United’s treble dream was about to end.


The calm,  serene Dennis Bergkamp stepped up to take the penalty. Though he had missed his last penalty against Blackburn Rovers, hardly anybody doubted Bergkamp’s ability to convert from the spot kick.

Bergkamp went up, placed the ball on the spot, and took three steps back; hand on waist, ready to fire the ball in the net.

Schmeichel was standing right in the middle. With all his experience, the Danish keeper knew that throwing tantrums on the goal line would not put off an experienced campaigner like Bergkamp. So, instead of jumping up and down on the goal line, he stood still right in the middle of the line and  focused hard on the ball. Quite contradictory to his composed nature, Bergkamp seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, and wanted to get it over with converting the penalty as early as possible.

Now let us comeback to the permutations discussion a bit. Bergkamp is a right-footed penalty taker, so for power he would have to place his shot to his left and the goalkeeper’s right side, whereas if he wanted to place the shot, he would have to place it on his right and goalkeeper’s left. Now if we try to read Bergkamp’s mind, here’s perhaps how Bergkamp thought of executing the penalty. . He knew Schmeichel is a big guy, and just putting it through force   may take the penalty over the goalpost. He was in another dilemma about placement, as outstretched hands of Schmeichel might catch the ball even if it is placed in the corner.

The penalty that Bergkamp took actually reflected these confusions in his mind. It was neither a powerful shot, nor  an impeccable  placement in the corner. He took the shot towards left of the keeper, feeble with moderate power.  Schmeichel took a micro-hop on the line at the moment of contact between Bergkamp and the ball, and then dived to his left. The ball was about his chest height and Schmeichel easily palmed the ball away outside the penalty area, to be safely cleared by United defenders. Bergkamp was really frustrated at the outcome. It was a rather poor penalty by his standard.

Bergkamp later realised that he never looked at the goalkeeper, and was looking at the ball when he was about to take the penalty shot. Had he looked up and noticed the tilt Schmeichel was taking towards the left, he probably would have been able to place the ball to the goalkeeper’s right and scored. Peter Schmeichel was so heavily tilted at the moment of contact that a simple tap would have been enough.

But, from Peter Schmeichel’s point of view, he knew he was going to save it as he knew Bergkamp was not looking at the goal and was solely concentrating on the ball. So when he did take that micro-hop towards left, he almost knew that the ball was coming to the left, as Bergkamp missed his last penalty in the same direction. Schmeichel called right in this game of “bluff”.

But, from Peter Schmeichel’s point of view, he knew he was going to save it as he knew Bergkamp was not looking at the goal and was solely concentrating on the ball.

Ryan Giggs scored in the extra time to pile on Dennis Bergkamp’s misery and Manchester United won the match 2-1 to proceed to the FA cup final, which they went on to win to take a step to complete the treble that season.

Bergkamp refused to take further penalties for Arsenal, despite a lot of confidence boosting from Arsene Wenger. Dennis Bergkamp is considered a  legendary figure in Arsenal I and  English Premier  League football history. However, that one miss, by a footballer of his finesse and skill, did leave Bergkamp permanently scarred and wondering till date, what might have gone wrong.