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Squandered Talent, Bygone Youth: The Salutary Tale of Nicklas Bendtner

Nicklas Bendtner once held ambitions to be amongst the greatest strikers in the world. Now, he could be on his way to Nottingham Forest. So where did it all go wrong?

by Will Magee
07 September 2016, 9:00am

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When Nicklas Bendtner was a young man, he divided opinion like few other footballers. Tall and gangly, slim like a whippet, he was at the vanguard of Arsene Wenger's army of youth. In the era of all-consuming austerity at Arsenal, Bendtner was touted as the answer to the club's attacking problems. Some fans were willing to believe it, while others scoffed at the idea. He certainly believed his own hype, however, famously telling The Daily Mail that he considered himself to be "one of the best strikers in the world."

That was in 2010 and, six years later, Bendtner's career is at a rather different stage. Having fallen down the pecking order at Arsenal, lacklustre loans to Sunderland and Juventus followed, as did a fruitless transfer to the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg. Bendtner has just arrived back in England, securing a left-field move to Nottingham Forest. It's a long fall from the rarified climes of The Emirates to mid-table Championship drudgery at the City Ground. Having made the move to Nottingham, mind, he might at least score a few goals.

EPA Images/Cesare Abbate

The most obvious problem for Bendtner over the last few seasons has been that, despite his billing as a striker, he's got a peculiar aversion to scoring. He nabbed eight goals in 30 appearances for Sunderland during 2011/12, and followed that with an entirely goalless season in Turin. Though he was injured for much of that time, he still made 11 appearances for Juve. That was a title-winning side, and he still couldn't find a solitary goal for them. In his two seasons at Wolfsburg, he made 47 appearances and scored a grand total of 9 times.

Bendtner's scoring dearth is underpinned by another, more serious, issue. While poor form and a lack of confidence can be remedied, a chronic attitude problem is far harder to redress. During his time in Sunderland, Bendtner was arrested on suspicion of vandalising parked cars, though the case against him was later dropped. During his time at Juventus, he was ticked off for being significantly overweight. Just before he left Arsenal, he was accused of threatening behaviour towards a cab driver in Copenhagan, who alleged that Bendtner had unbuttoned his trousers and rubbed himself on the side of his taxi. His time at Wolfsburg has been little more than a succession of disciplinary issues, with the club terminating his contract early after a month in which he was asked to train away from the team.

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So where did it all go wrong for Bendtner? With the Championship beckoning, he is little more than an inspiration for memes at this point, a muse for a thousand internet comedians with a slightly outdated frame of reference. He is a 'cult hero' in the loosest sense at Arsenal, in that some fans call him 'Lord Bendtner' in mockery of his monumental ego. His name is said in the same breath as Emmanuel Eboue, Gervinho, and Emmanuel 'Dench' Frimpong, in that he is more a vehicle for football banter than he is an actual footballer. For someone trying to make a professional career for themselves, that is not a good thing.

Back when he broke into the Arsenal senior side, there was no other club with a comparable emphasis on youth. In that sense, he seemed to have the world at his feet, with almost limitless first-team appearances in which to make a name for himself. For a while, he almost looked like fulfilling his potential, and it's easy to forget that he scored some excellent goals. There was his bullet header against Tottenham Hotspur, still the fastest goal by a substitute in the Premier League. There was his screamer against Blackburn Rovers the following season. There was his hat-trick against Porto in the Champions League. Those goals all came before his 21st birthday, and left him with all the hallmarks of a breakthrough talent.

The trouble with Bendtner was that he was given what might be termed too much exposure at Arsenal. In a team that relied so heavily on youth, an immature young man was given the status of an established star. With few senior players in the squad – Cesc Fabregas counted as a veteran at this point – there were no real role models for Bendtner, and few strong characters to steer him in the right direction. Like so many others from Arsenal's lost generation of youth, Bendtner was left to his own devices, and soon found himself wandering down the wrong path.

Bendtner was a promising young talent, even if he was frustratingly profligate at times. Still, as his "world's best striker" quote proves, he became overconfident, arrogant even, in lieu of someone to temper his ego. While the generation of youngsters who came before Bendtner had a spate of club legends to look up to, Bendtner had William Gallas, and a group of lads not much older than himself. Without proper guidance, he lost his way. Before long, Arsene Wenger had lost patience with a player who was increasingly wayward both on and off the pitch.

If Bendtner is a salutary lesson to young footballers, then, he is also a salutary lesson to managers and clubs. He is proof that conceit can kill a youngster's career, and further proof that youngsters, given too much exposure, are bound to become conceited without the presence of a guiding hand. Overreliance on youth leads to a distorted sense of self-importance for young players, with all the disciplinary problems that brings. The line between confidence and arrogance is a thin one; harnessing the former leads to a great career, and succumbing to the latter leads to a series of loans and an unceremonious transfer to Nottingham Forest.

@W_F_Magee