Legends of club football: Dennis Bergkamp
Dennis Bergkamp received the ball near the centre circle from Patrick Vieira and his keen eye picked up Robert Pires free on the left flank. He let fly a cross-field ball and silently made a run forward through the middle, the Newcastle United defenders unaware of his presence.
As soon as Bergkamp went past the second-last defender, he raised his hand, pleading for the ball as he surged forward with a sudden burst of acceleration. Pires delayed his pass but the through ball found Bergkamp at the edge of the box.
What happened next was simply breathtaking and jaw-dropping at the same time!
Bergkamp, with his back to goal, took just one touch of the ball by neatly flicking it with his foot before spinning around Nikos Dabizas, while the ball went the other way! As Dabizas tried to recover, Bergkamp was already using his arm to hold him off.
He’d beaten the last man and with only the goalkeeper in his way, he did the near impossible by side footing it with his right foot, even though the ball was near the left goal post, and still beat the ‘keeper as the ball nestled into the bottom corner.
With two touches, Bergkamp had scored one of the greatest goals in Premier League history. And not many goals had left Martin Tyler at a loss for words.
“Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought” – Dennis Bergkamp
Perhaps no other goal has gone down in Gunner folklore as the most magical piece of football technique ever displayed on a football pitch by a player in the red-and-white of Arsenal. As he wheeled away in celebration, Bergkamp did not run to the corner flag, he did not slide down on to his knees, and he did not take off his shirt in wild delirium. Instead, all we saw was a silent fist pump as he acknowledged Pires with a quiet high-five for the final pass.
It was this humble demeanour that personified the Dutchman and made him a much loved and respected football player, not only among the Arsenal faithful, but with the neutrals and rival fans alike. He never craved for the media spotlight and shied away from the press as much as possible. In his own words, he lived a “very ordinary life”.
“I love the balance I have as a football player. I come in and train in the mornings, and in the afternoon I live a very ordinary life.”
An advocate of Total Football, he was a resourceful player in attack and could play in a variety of positions. But at Arsenal, he thrived in the role of a second striker; a perfect candidate for the number 10 shirt. A shirt he wore with pride from the day he signed for the North London club when he arrived in 1995.
The shirt he wore for eleven long, glorious and history-making seasons with the Gunners.
Finding his feet in Europe
A youth product from Ajax’s renowned academy, Bergkamp made it big in the Dutch Eredivisie in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, helping Ajax win League and European titles while winning personal accolades himself; like the ‘Dutch Footballer of the Year’ (twice). Wanting to test himself on a bigger stage, he chose to sign with Inter Milan with the objective of playing in the Italian Serie A which was considered to be the most challenging league when he moved.
The move to Italy, much against Johan Cruyff’s wishes to see him play for Barcelona, was not the perfect team for him to effectively use his skills. Although he had a reasonably successful first season, he never fit into Inter’s formation as a part of the attacking trio up front.
And with the Serie A being one of the most defensive leagues, Bergkamp struggled to find the net and never got the opportunity to play free flowing attacking football against well organized defences. In a matter of two years, he went from being the top scorer in the Eredivisie to having an award for the worst performance of the week being named after him by the press!
Salvation and a new lease of life at Arsenal
When Inter Milan looked to be headed for the doldrums of the Serie A, a certain businessman called Massimo Moratti bought the club and made assurances on spending money to get in players. Bergkamp’s future at the club was in jeopardy and it was Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch who came to his rescue.
Arsenal broke their transfer record and spent £7.5 million to bring him to North London. Moratti obviously had no clue of the blunder he was about to commit and even took digs at the player when he said, “Arsenal will be lucky if Bergkamp scores 10 goals this season.”
He scored 16 goals in his first season with the Gunners. He forged a successful and frightening strike partnership with none other than Ian Wright. Although it took him a few games to get started, as he struggled with the English game, once he scored, he never looked back.
With Arsenal also striving to find their foothold in the English Premier League in the mid-1990s, Bergkamp was a welcome world class addition to the squad. So much so that when he first turned up for training, many of the Arsenal players bowed before him and said, “We are not worthy,” even claiming that he would get them into Europe.
“Other clubs never came into my thoughts once I knew Arsenal wanted to sign me.”
But it wasn’t until the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996 that Bergkamp’s full potential was unlocked. It was under Wenger’s tutelage that Bergkamp found a way to express himself on the pitch in a manner that suited him best – pure attacking football. Wenger knew how to bring out the best in Bergkamp and simultaneously brought out the best in the team by building the formation around the Dutch striker.
The result: Bergkamp either topped the goal scoring charts or the assists table in the next couple of seasons, helping Arsenal win the League and Cup double. The 1997/98 season was the most prolific season for the striker as he scored 22 goals in all competitions, including a scintillating hat-trick against Leicester City which made him the only player to have three goals in the top three of the ‘Goal of the Month’ competition!
The aura of invincibility
As the club looked to improve in the new millennium, Bergkamp got a new strike partner – Thierry Henry (who was also disillusioned with his career going nowhere in the Seria A at Juventus). The combination of Henry and Bergkamp became the deadliest partnership the League had seen for a long time as they lay waste to Premier League defences with an explosive mixture of pace, accurate through balls, clinical finishing and impeccable precision.
With the emergence of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg on the flanks, Patrick Vieira behind him and Thierry Henry in front of him, Arsenal played a fearsome brand of beautiful and expansive counter-attacking football that decimated opponents as they scored in almost every single game they played.
Bergkamp was the pivot around which the attacking strategy was built. He was the mastermind that pulled the correct strings that saw Henry, Pires and Ljungberg score some wonderful goals.
His vision became legendary. He saw a pass before anyone else did, solving a puzzle where every player was a piece of the jigsaw. He loved to take calculated risks that more often than not paid off, resulting in some beautiful goals and even more assists.
It were these qualities that saw Arsenal rewrite history as they won the League in 2003/04 by going the entire season unbeaten. The unbeaten streak eventually stretched to 49 games. This was the pinnacle of Bergkamp’s club career, an achievement that saw his stature catapulted to the upper echelons of Arsenal’s history when he was voted the second greatest player to ever play for the club (the first being Henry).
Henry and Bergkamp have nothing but immense mutual respect for each other and both agree that the other was the best strike partner they ever had in their careers.
“Walking in a Bergkamp Wonderland”
“I really like Arsenal. But you, do you like Arsenal? Or just Arsenal with trophies?”
Bergkamp was Arsenal through and through. And as his Arsenal career came to an end, so did the legend of the Non-Flying Dutchman. A player who feared air travel (a problem that arose when it came to playing games in Europe) still found sympathy at the club because they valued what they had immensely.
15 April 2006 was commemorated as Bergkamp Day at Highbury and he scored in the 89th minute of his final appearance for Arsenal. Bergkamp finished his career at Highbury after having scored 120 goals and accumulated 116 assists.
A player like Bergkamp deserved a testimonial match and as Arsenal moved into the swanky new Emirates Stadium, they invited his former club Ajax to take part. This became the first ever match to be played at the Emirates Stadium, fittingly dedicated to one of the club’s favourite sons.
And to honour his contributions to Arsenal, the club unveiled a fourth statue outside Emirates Stadium, thereby immortalizing him as one of the greatest players to have ever played for Arsenal.
Dennis Bergkamp arrived at Arsenal, heralded as a saviour. He retired a hero; an ‘Invincible’, a true legend.
There’s only one Dennis Bergkamp,
Walking along, Singing this song,
Walking in a Bergkamp Wonderland.