“He’s come here for a year to get the money and then get out again”, said Tottenham owner Sir Alan Sugar in June 1995 when Arsenal signed Dennis Bergkamp from Inter Milan in June 1995.
By the time the Dutchman announced his retirement from the game 11 years later, he had won 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, finished third twice in the FIFA World Player of the Year award, and became the first, and, so far, only Dutch player, inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame. In addition, his famous goal against Newcastle United in March 2002 was voted, in 2017, as the best Premier League goal of all-time.
Now immortalised in bronze outside The Emirates Stadium, Bergkamp is, for many, the greatest player to pull on an Arsenal shirt. There have been players who have scored more, or who epitomised the English game more, but, in terms of an effect on a football team and, more importantly, its culture, few can claim to have a greater impact.
Another Arsenal legend Ian Wright is in no doubt as to the impact Bergkamp had on the club, saying on Twitter in May 2015:
Dennis best signing end of ! Thierry was a calculated gamble they paid off unbelievably! Dennis came and changed the DNA!
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) May 10, 2015
Born in Holland in 1969 to an electrician, Bergkamp was named in honour of Manchester United and Scotland star Denis Law, although, famously, Dutch law did not permit the name in its original format so an extra “n” had to be added. Spotted by local club Ajax at an early stage, he worked his way through their academy system, and made his professional debut in 1986, earning his first call-up for the Dutch national team a year later.
Having won the Dutch title, domestic cups and the UEFA Cup with Ajax, Bergkamp secured a big money move to Italy with Inter Milan, but things did not work out well for the Dutchman in Serie A. A combination of injuries, being played out of position and several changes of manager made his spell at Inter an unhappy one, whilst his shy personality was misinterpreted by the Italian press as apathy.
After 2 years, he was ready to leave and was set to a return to his native Holland when The Gunners came calling. History was about to be rewritten.
The club that Bergkamp joined was very different to the team that they later became. Earlier that season George Graham had been sacked, and although the team had reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup, they were a mid-table side and drifting. Furthermore, like many English teams at the time, there was a heavy drinking culture throughout the squad, with Tony Adams, by his own later admission, almost a functioning alcoholic, and Paul Merson an unrestrained gambler.
Into this somewhat toxic mix, Bergkamp arrived and almost immediately began to set a n example by his professionalism, dedication to training and his clean lifestyle. Success did not come instantly. He failed to score in his first six games and sections of the press were already writing him off as an expensive flop, when he scored a brace against Southampton, and he began to win the fans round. He ended that season with 33 appearances and 11 goals, the most important of which came on the last day of the season, as Bergkamp’s winner over Bolton earned Arsenal a place in the UEFA Cup for the following year.
Arguably the most important event in Bergkamp’s career, though, was the appointment of Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager in 1996, replacing the unpopular Bruce Rioch after just one season. Wenger set about revolutionising the club from top to bottom, changing the players’ diets and training regimes, as well as changing the style of football that the team played. Out when the boring, boring attritional style of Graham, to be replaced by a more attacking, continental style, with Bergkamp Wenger’s lieutenant on the pitch.
The composition of the team began to change as well, as more French and Dutch players arrived, whilst some of the older trouble-makers were rooted out and transferred.
Ian Wright describes the combination of Wenger and Bergkamp “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”
By the end of Wenger’s first season, Arsenal finished third, and, the following year, they overhauled Manchester United to claim their first Premier League title in seven years.
The rest is history. Further Premier League triumphs and FA Cups followed, and, in 2003 – 2004, Bergkamp was an integral part of the Invincible squad that went through the season unbeaten.
Sadly, there was no success in Europe to match their domestic triumphs and his final match for Arsenal saw him as an unused substitute when Arsenal lost the 2006 Champions League Final to Barcelona.
Fear of Flying
Bergkamp became afraid to fly after an incident that occurred with the Dutch squad during the 1994 World Cup in the USA, where the plane the team were on suffered extreme turbulence and an engine failed. As a result, his participation in away European games was severely restricted, which, arguably, meant that Arsenal failed to perform in those competitions as well as they might when he was in his pomp.
Style of Play
Known for his composure on the ball and the ability to find space, Bergkamp was capable of playing both as a striker and a playmaking attacking midfielder, which enabled him to drop between the lines and link-up play. He was technically gifted, with an excellent first touch, and very quick feet. Above all, though, he was known for his football intelligence, and for his vision, as well as his ability to produce unexpected moments of genius, with former Leicester Manager Marti O’Neill describing the hat-trick the Dutchman scored against his club in August 1997 as “the best I’ve ever seen”.
Surprisingly, for all his cool persona and nickname as “The Iceman” Bergkamp was not reluctant to get involved with the physical side of the game and picked-up two red cards and his fair share of bookings during his time at Arsenal, something he attributes to his time in Italy which toughened him up physically as well as mentally.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Bergkamp had a completely normal and spotless record away from the pitch. A family man with four children, the Dutchman made a point of signalling them out when his statue was unveiled at The Emirates.
‘I would like to thank my friends and family as well, they have been there from the beginning in my career – thank you to Henrita, my wife. We made this adventure together and have four beautiful children who were all born in England.
His friend and roommate Ian Wright said ”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”.….
– A Life in Football: Ian Wright: My Autobiography
After retiring Bergkamp returned to his native Holland with his family, eventually beginning a coaching career with his first club Ajax. However, he was dismissed from his role at the club in December 2017, ironically enough by an ex-Arsenal team mate, Marc Overmars, who is Director of Football at the Amsterdam club.
He currently lives near Amsterdam and identifies himself as an Arsenal fan.
Quotes about Dennis Bergkamp:
“One runs out of superlatives in describing him as a player: he has great vision, awareness, touch, finish, not to mention selflessness, which for a striker almost sounds like a contradiction in terms.”
“Dennis did plenty of things we didn’t think were humanly possible.
“Bergkamp, to all intents and purposes, was the trailblazer at Arsenal. Without him, the likes of Vieira, Anelka, Overmars, Petit, Pires and Henry might not have been so inclined to head for N5.”
“Nobody can be like him. There is no way to compare.”
“He’s the best I’ve ever played with by a long, long way. I can’t talk high enough of the bloke – he was absolutely phenomenal.
“I think he’s the greatest Arsenal player of all time.”
“it’s only when you look back at the replays later that night and you see. I think Nikos Dabizas has got touch-tight to him and he’s got an unbelievable bit of skill to flick it around the corner and spin the other way and get onto it.
Bergkamp’s one of the very few that could do that and when he says he means it as well, some players might have claimed it and had a lucky bounce off them or something, but I think deep down he really did mean it. He was a class player.
Shay Given (Newcastle goalkeeper after that goal)
“”Does Bergkamp have three feet?”
“Most goals you can see that there’s a mistake there or something more that could have been done or it could have been stopped. But there are others like that one where it’s just sheer brilliance and you go: ‘There’s nothing anyone could do about that’ and your put your hands up.
“Even when you’re playing in a game like that you understand that it’s something a little bit special.”
“The vision, the thinking, the execution of the passing and changing the pace, the space and the technique with his goals – he had everything.”
Quotes by Dennis Bergkamp
“The Leicester goal was pure, but there was luck with the Newcastle one. Against Leicester, when the pass came I knew what I wanted to do: control, ball inside, finish.”
“”I saw Arsenal against Spurs. The pace of the game was incredible. An hour later I watched a Dutch game, and there is no point. It was so slow. A lot of things are happening in English football, openings, the high pace, that is beauty too.”
“The first thing when I watch English football is I want to see Arsenal, I want to see how they are doing,” he added. “I played 11 years at Arsenal and I tried to give something back to the players that I’m teaching now.
“I want to teach them the mentality and the way English football is and how we used to play at Arsenal and what the coaches would say, what Arsene Wenger would say.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.