Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger yesterday hailed Footballer of the Year Dennis Bergkamp as the catalyst for the club's title charge and then warned the rest of the Premiership that the Dutchman was likely to improve markedly over the next three years.
Bergkamp became the fourth consecutive overseas player to win the English Football Writers' Association award - following Jurgen Klinsmann, Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola - and the first Arsenal player to do so since Double-winning captain Frank McLintock in 1971.
He and the runner-up, Arsenal team-mate Tony Adams, polled more than 50 per cent of the vote, while Liverpool teenager Michael Owen came third.
Bergkamp (28), who is already his fellow professionals' choice as player of the year and is the joint second highest scorer in the Premiership with 22 goals, said: "I am absolutely overwhelmed to hear that I have won this major, prestigious award."
Wenger added ominously: "I am not at all surprised as he's had a superb season. Yet he will still improve as he is a perfectionist.
"He is at the age, from 28 to 32, where you perform - where you have the skill and the maturity and are still physically very strong.
"There are no barriers to stop him improving and I think in the next three years he will improve a lot because physically he is still young."
Even bearing in mind Bergkamp's huge contribution to Arsenal's title challenge over recent months, the Frenchman believes it was the striker's form at the start of the season, when he helped mould a new team into shape, that had the greatest impact.
Bergkamp scored 11 goals in the first 12 weeks of the season, many of them spectacular efforts. He won the player of the month awards for August and September and also came first, second and third in Match of the Day's goal of the month competition.
Perhaps more importantly, he set the tone for Arsenal's season and allowed the large number of new players - such as Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Gilles Grimandi, Remi Garde and Nicolas Anelka - time to settle in.
Wenger said: "The team had no history at all. They didn't know how well they could do. Dennis and Ian Wright were determined to build up the confidence in a side which was totally new.
The Arsenal boss pointed to Bergkamp's deep thinking about the game, his dedication and his `killer' instinct in front of goal as reasons the £7.5 million signing from Inter Milan in 1995 had matured into a player of genuine world class.
The Dutchman is currently out injured, after picking up a hamstring problem in the midweek victory over Derby, and looks doubtful for the FA Cup final on May 16th.
Wenger said: "I still have a small hope that he will be back for the final. But it looks as if he will be out for at least two weeks and maybe three. We will not take any risks at all."
Although Wenger believes Bergkamp has improved his disciplinary record this season, he admits: "I think it will always be a problem because he provokes defenders by the way he plays and when he is fouled he doesn't feel happy and he lets the referees know that."