Bergkamp – Arsenal’s Dutch Master

There’s a statue prominently positioned outside of the Emirates Stadium. It’s a tribute to a player who, not only brought glory and success to the Arsenal Football Club, but was also a key element in a new era of flowing, attacking and entertaining football. Unlike so many other statues in similar situations though, it doesn’t depict a trophy being held aloft, or any kind of celebratory pose. Instead it’s the image of a footballer, stretching acrobatically to control a ball. The player depicted is Dennis Bergkamp and the pose conjures up the Dutchman’s ability to exert his control over a ball, to bring it under his spell, often in the most difficult of circumstances. As representations of footballers’ abilities go, it sums up the player’s time with Arsenal perfectly.

Although in his career with the Gunners, Bergkamp would find the back of the net more than 120 times, the quantity of his goals, was hardly the major illustration of his talent. Playing alongside, initially Ian Wright, and then later Thierry Henry, that aspect of Arsenal’s armoury was more than adequately covered. Instead, this particular Dutch master would decorate the pitch with artistic brushstrokes, finessing the ball at his command, prompting and promoting his team-mates to strike. Entrancingly beautiful pictures were revealed at his command.

When he did score himself however, a number of those goals were oh-so-special. Taking first, second and third place in Match of the Day’s ‘Goal of the Month’ competition in August 1997 is a feat never yet repeated in any subsequent month. A deft touch and balletic pirouette against Newcastle were the very stuff of dreams and the clipped first-time strike that described a perfect arc before dropping into the net in a cup tie against Sheffield United was a strike of beauty, illustrative of a rare talent. Strangely though, when Bergkamp joined Arsenal from Inter Milan, he was widely perceived as anything but a prized asset, and certainly not an instant success.

Two years spent with the Nerazzurri had hardly been a thrilling success after had left the home comforts of Ajax. Any number of top European clubs had sought his signature, and in Catalunya, the lure of joining up with Ajax’s prime export, Johann Cruyff must have been persuasive. In the end however, Bergkamp somewhat surprisingly chose Serie A and Inter Milan, declaring the decision was because the club, “met all my demands. The most important thing for me was the stadium, the people at the club and their style of play.” There may well have been a large slice of diplomatic courtesy in those remarks, the role envisaged for him by the club, was anything but ideal.

With obdurate defensive organisation the key requirement for any team in that league, the skills at Bergkamp’s disposal would hardly be highly prized. Unless he could adapt to a more forceful pattern of play, he would inevitably struggle and end up as a misfit, lost in a culture that had little love for his approach to the game. Never the gregarious outgoing media-friendly type of player, as soon as there was a perceived dip in his form for Inter, which to be fair was hardly difficult to detect as he struggled to assimilate, the press pilloried him mercilessly. La Repubblica even renamed the weekly title given to the poorest performer in Serie A from ‘L’asino della settimana’ (Donkey of the Week) to ‘Bergkamp della settimana’. It was harsh. It was callous and it was hardly likely to improve matters. When, in early 1995, Italian businessman Massimo Moratti took charge at the club, with promises of investment in the squad, an exit for Bergkamp was almost inevitable.

Bruce Rioch was in the Arsenal manager’s chair when the club laid out £7.5million to take Bergkamp to Highbury in June 1995. The Scot had only joined the club in the same month and, at the time many questioned how much influence the incoming manager had on the purchase. For many it was the all-powerful David Dein, vice-chairman of the club, who made the decision to bring Bergkamp in. Given his thoughts upon joining Inter, it’s difficult to state with any certainty that Bergkamp’s comments when arriving at Highbury were not merely the obligatory ‘new arrival’ equivalent to the ritualistic badge ‘badge-kissing’ often seen before a player moves on. “Other clubs never came into my thoughts once I knew Arsenal wanted to sign me,” is a pretty ringing endorsement however, and if things had gone awry at Inter, this move would be entirely different.

Whoever had driven the transfer, it appeared to be a poor decision in the early weeks of the new season. Following the transfer, Tottenham owner Alan Sugar had, perhaps predictably been scathing about the signing. “He’s come here for a year to get the money and then get out again,” he predicted, and while Gunners fans were hardly likely to lend much credence to such comments emanating from the other club in North London, the Dutchman’s early days in the English game were not massively encouraging. Six games without a goal was hardly impressive for a big money signing and, much as in Italy, the Red Top press in England launched into criticism with typical gusto and hyperbole. “Dennis Bergkamp is a £7.5million striker playing like someone who cost 75p. Now he needs a Bruce Rioch rocket to make him get his finger out,” raged Mark Lawrenson in the Daily Mirror at the time and, quoted in The Sun following a 1-1 draw at Highbury in the fourth game of the season, Nottingham Forest’s Stuart Pearce was infamously quoted describing Bergkamp as “a waste of money.”

Firing from the lip is required etiquette of course for pundits paid for such hyperbole. One wonders however, whether a decade or so later, when Bergkamp hung up his boots, having collected three Premier League titles, including two ‘Doubles’, four FA Cup winner’s medals, twice finishing third for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, being inducted into English Football Hall of Fame, to date the only Dutchman to be awarded such an honour, and with his goal against Newcastle United voted as the best Premier League goal, as well as being part of the ‘Invincibles’ season of 2003-04, Lawrenson regretted the ill-considered invective.

It would take until 23 September for the Dutchman to open his goalscoring account for Arsenal, but for many within Highbury, proof of his value to the club’s future success came much earlier than that. As with many English clubs at the time, a number of squad members had trodden troubled paths. A drinking culture was firmly established, with skipper Tony Adams, by his own admission later, virtually a functioning alcoholic at the time, and Paul Merson addicted to gambling. If the club needed a bright light, an example for others to follow, Bergkamp, with his family-orientated lifestyle, dedication and professional approach to training was ideal. In ‘A Life in Football: Ian Wright: My Autobiography,’ his early striking partner summed up the difference. “He was the model professional. When we went away there was absolutely no messing about. He always made sure he got the right amount of sleep, so he’d put his pyjamas on, get ready for bed, talk to his wife on the phone and go to sleep. But this was more than just about his preparations, this is what sort of man he is away from football, a total family man with no distractions at all.” It was an opinion Wright hardly deviated from. A tweet in May 2015, confirmed his estimation. “Dennis best signing end of! Thierry was a calculated gamble that paid off unbelievably! Dennis came and changed the DNA!”

Bergkamp’s initial season would end with Arsenal in fifth place and, in the final league game, it was his winning goal against Bolton Wanderers that earned the club a place in European competition for the following term. That said, it had hardly been an overwhelming success, but neither had it been the failure predicted by some. Eleven goals in 33 games was inconclusive to many. The jury was still out. Next season would be decisive. Before that new term though, another arrival at the club would set both the Gunners and their Dutch import on the track to trophies, glory and legendary status. Confounding Alan Sugar’s prediction, Dennis Bergkamp would be around North London for a few years yet, and Tottenham would fall very much into the shadow of Arsenals’ success.

Today, when any English club with aspirations of success appoints a new manager, almost without exception, a CV of success at top European or domestic clubs is a prerequisite. Sometimes, an affinity with the club through a successful playing history can grease the slides a little, but to pluck a virtually unknown from, what is widely considered to be, a minor foreign league and offer him the reins of a top club, sounds like the strangest sort of decision. As with Ian Wright’s description of the outcome of Thierry Henry’s signing though, the new manager at Highbury would also be “a calculated gamble that paid off unbelievably.” It was also, arguably the most significant event in the career of Dennis Bergkamp.

Rioch’s stint in charge was deemed insufficient, and David Dein reached out to Japan’s J1 League to take the French coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight, Arsène Wenger, to North London. To many, not a few of the Gunners’ playing staff included, the initial reaction was, “Arsène who?” Tony Adams was one who would later confess to early scepticism, “At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a school teacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?” He did, but the doubts expressed were hardly an isolated reaction within the English game. Like so many however, Adams would later laud the Frenchman. Tweeting after the manager’s retirement, his appreciation was clear. “Thanks for everything Arsène,” he declared. “Move over Herbert. Arsène Wenger the greatest Arsenal manager.”

If Bergkamp’s first season has been difficult following his arrival amongst an alien culture, he would now have the strongest of allies, indeed mentor, not only for the way he believed the game should be played, but also for the dedicated professionalism that had always been his ethos as a footballer. The previously revered football of attrition, ‘One nil to the Arsenal’ was to be superseded by a more fluid, attacking and entertaining style. Off the field as well, a revolutionary approach to diet, training and application was required. If there was to be an ideal environment created to allow the full unfurling of Dennis Bergkamp’s talents, it was ushered in by Arsène Wenger, in a relationship described by Ian Wright “as a match made in heaven: one was dedicated to creating the perfect environment and set of circumstances for the players to do their very best, while the other would put every effort possible into giving the best performance he could.”

Although Bergkamp would average less appearances in league games over the coming three years or so compared to his initial season, he would enjoy the most prolific goalscoring form of his career since leaving Ajax. With Wenger positioning him as the heartbeat of the team’s attacking play, his influence would also grow. A dozen goals and 13 assists in his first term under the new manager pointed the way forwards as Wenger’s influence permeated all corners of the club. Arsenal finished in third place, only denied a place in the Champions League by goal difference. It was merely the hors d’oeuvre of a season though, the next term with Bergkamp as Wenger’s lieutenant on the pitch, the Gunners would feed on trophies with a rapacious appetite.

In just the opening month of the 1997-98 season Bergkamp suggested that it would be an exceptional term for the Gunners. A 1-1 draw away to Leeds United was broadly acceptable, and then a 2-0 home win against Coventry City added a little momentum. In the next two games however, visits first to Southampton and then Leicester City, Bergkamp would score the goals to monopolise the Goal of the Month vote. At the Dell, on 23 August, he picked up the ball around halfway advanced past defenders before checking back inside to fire home.

Fans at Filbert Street four days later were royally entertained in a 3-3 draw as Bergkamp netted his first hat-trick for Arsenal. His first goal, audaciously curled in from some 25 yards or so made it into the top three alongside the strike against the Saints, but it was his third goal of the game that duly won the vote and was later described by the player as his favourite ever strike. Receiving the ball from a lofted pass as he entered the area, a first touch brought it instantly under his spell. A second, checking back in direction deceived Matt Elliott. A third, played the ball from left to his right foot and a cool finish past Kasey Keller completed the graceful dance. “It was one of those occasions when everything went exactly as I planned it in the second before it happened – the movement, the control, the finish”, the Dutchman said. To be able to perceive, let alone execute such audacious movement is beyond the ken of mere mortal players. To complete it with such grace is something gifted only to the elite.

In the summer’s World Cup that would follow, Bergkamp produced something similar for The Netherlands against Argentina. Killing a long pass from Frank de Boer with absurd assurance, he checked back inside a defender, with the ball seemingly glued to his foot, before hitting home. Had any considered the strike against Leicester some kind of one-off phenomenon, such doubts were now laid firmly to rest.

The four strikes in four days against Southampton and Leicester City contributed to a total of 22 in all competitions across the season, making Bergkamp the club’s top marksman for the term, at a strike rate of better than a goal in every other game. It was, and would remain his best record since leaving Amsterdam. There would be due reward at the end of the season as, despite a faltering period towards the turn of the year, when they were beaten in three out of four games, including twice at home, Arsenal took the league title by a single point from reigning champions Manchester United. The league success was followed up by an FA Cup Final victory over Newcastle United, securing the domestic double. For Bergkamp however, the season was curtailed before such glories were secured. A hamstring injury sustained against Derby County on 29 April ended his contributions to the cause. Despite that, such had been his pivotal role in the club’s success that the PFA awarded him the Players’ Player of the Year award. Acclaim from one’s peers is often considered as the greatest accolade. This was a case in point.

Aside from the occasional ban for an ill-disciplined short fuse and refusal to accept over robust treatment without retaliating, an attained trait he ascribed to his time in Serie A, only one thing detracted from Bergkamp’s commitment to Arsenal’s success, and it had nothing to do with his ability on the pitch. During the 1994 World Cup, as part of the Dutch squad, Bergkamp was flying across the USA when the aircraft encountered strong turbulence, and an engine failed. It would later land safely, with no injuries sustained, but from that point, Bergkamp became Arsenal’s ‘Non-flying Dutchman’ vowing never to take to the air again. No amount of persuasion could make him recant the firm commitment, and for a number of European games where road travel was not feasible, especially to eastern Europe, Arsenal’s aspirations would be compromised by the lack of opportunity to select him for games.

The Charity Shield victory ahead of the 1998-99 season suggested that the Gunners were in fine form to defend their title. A 3-0 victory over Manchester United pointed the way forwards but, for both Bergkamp and the club, it would be a season of so near, yet so far. A total of 16 goals made the Dutchman Arsenal’s second top scorer, a runners-up spot duplicated in the league as Manchester United reclaimed the trophy on the final day of the season. A missed penalty in the FA Cup semi-final against the same club, also convinced Bergkamp never to take on spot-kick duties again. If that season proved to be ultimately disappointing however, another new arrival during the summer that followed, would reinvigorate the club, and unite Bergkamp in a partnership destined to become legendary among all Gooners.

As with the Dutchman, Thierry Henry’s career in Italy had stagnated. At Arsenal however he would find the ideal stage upon which to display his top-billing quality, and Bergkamp would be his co-star. The Frenchman would later be asked who the best player was that he played alongside. The answer was unequivocal. “Because of longevity and because I saw him every day in training for more than seven years, Dennis Bergkamp. Why? Because he was always doing what the game was asking him to do. What I mean by that is he can showboat sometimes and score a goal that you guys would have gone ‘oh wow!’, but we knew it could have been something better for the team. [ . . . ] I admired why Dennis was always trying to respect the game. He could score but he could pass, past, [pick the] right moment. He was always trying to respect the game when he could do other stuff and that’s why I respected him a lot for that. But also, the way he trained. The way he used to train was just not normal. The guy didn’t want to lose the ball, if he loses the ball, he would foul you, get in your face, he wants to be first in the run, first to touch the mannequin in training.” The desire described by Thierry is something often missed as part of Bergkamp’s character, often hidden behind his ‘Ice Man’ exterior, but it was clearly self-evident to his team-mates.

In tandem, the two forwards would take Arsenal to even greater glories, and Henry would also laud Bergkamp as his best strike partner. “I have always said Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner I have ever had. He is a dream for a striker. [ . . . ] The most important thing is the team. That is why I admire Dennis, and that is what he has been doing for a long time. I have always said he is the best guy that I have played with.”

Another league and cup ‘double’ was achieved in 2002. It was a triumph gilded by that goal against Newcastle United in March. Whilst it was that strike, rather than the goal against Leicester that so many fans lauded as the best Premier League goal, to Bergkamp, it was less the case. In typically modest and understated terms, he described the moment. “Ten yards before the ball arrived I made my decision: I’m going to turn him. I knew where Dabizas was. The thought was, ‘just flick the ball and see what happens’. Maybe he’ll block it, or the flick won’t be wide enough, or he’ll anticipate and get two yards ahead. Or maybe he’ll be surprised and I’ll be one or two yards in front of him. As it happened, I still wasn’t in front of him, so I had to push him off. So you need some luck as well…” Very little of that description lends itself to the description of ‘lucky’ and, if any small element does, it’s surely gifted by the Gods who perceived his intent, and offered due reward.

The following year, the FA Cup was retained, and another league title followed in 2003-04 as the club became the first club to go through a top tier league season in English football without losing a game since Preston North End in 1888-89. The introduction of other players into the squad would inevitably lead to Bergkamp having less game time, and as others took on the mantle of scoring, he would content himself with predominantly being the provider of chances rather than the scorer himself. In fact, after the 1998-99 season, he wouldn’t hit double figures for league goals for the remainder of his time with Arsenal. His final trophy would be the FA Cup of 2004-05, when Arsenal defeated Manchester United on penalties. He was substituted just past the hour mark though, so any potential need to go back on his vow never to take a spot-kick again was never tested.

Such a golden club career deserves a memorable finale and Bergkamp’s final game for the club was the 2006 Champions League Final against Barcelona. Just a week away from his 37th birthday, he was put on the bench for the game, with Ljungberg, Hleb and Pires chosen ahead of him, to supply the chances for Henry. He would watch as firstly, the Gunners saw goalkeeper Jens Lehmann dismissed, before Sol Campbell put the ten men ahead on 37 minutes. For so long, it appeared the most unlikely of scenarios would be played out, as the Catalans battled, but struggled, to break down the resolute Arsenal defence. Was ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ about to sung out joyously again? Sadly, it wasn’t to be. With just under a quarter-hour to play, four short minutes turned the game on its head as first Samuel Eto’o equalised, and then substitute Juliano Belletti broken Gooners’ hearts.

The words legend and icon are often bandied around with such regularity that they lose all meaning. Sometimes however, there’s a cause, a case to be argued, where such a description fits like a hand in a glove. Such a case is Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal. Quoted on the official Arsenal website, the man who surely coaxed the best from Bergkamp’s rich array of talents explains why. “He has intelligence and class. Class is, of course, most of the time linked to what you can do with the ball, but the intelligence makes you use the technique in an efficient way. It’s like somebody who has a big vocabulary so he can talk intelligently, and that’s what Dennis is all about. What he does, there’s always a head and always a brain. And his technique allows him to do what he sees.” Add in a love of the club, and the characteristics are complete. Arsenal clearly won his heart, and that is so important too. “When you start supporting a football club,” Bergkamp explained. “You don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.” Every Gooner would surely rejoice that Dennis Bergkamp found that place to belong at Arsenal.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Arsenal’ magazine by These Football Times).

 

 

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