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Elegance. Skill. Intelligence. Class. These superlatives alone do not do Dennis Bergkamp justice. In the eleven years that we Arsenal fans were treated to watching him strut his stuff, these words and many more became commonplace at Highbury. The phrases became tired and overused, but we didn’t grow tired of watching him. We knew we had a special player, and made sure that we could enjoy every last minute of him play.
Named by his parents after the great Denis Law, Bergkamp came through the famous youth system at Ajax. After seven seasons in Holland, he drew the attention of many of Europe’s biggest sides. He opted to join Inter Milan.
The Italian style of football did not suit Bergkamp, who enjoyed having time and space to weave his magic. The Italians’ emphasis on defending was suffocating and he could not play the way he would have liked.
Arsenal’s Vice Chairman David Dein gave Bergkamp the opportunity to join Arsenal and play to his strengths in the summer of 1995. It was a glorious summer, and he put pen to paper at Highbury shortly before a heatwave that lasted a couple of weeks. 1995 was the hottest summer since 1976, and the Dutchman was about to introduce his sizzling skill on the English Premier League.
Another Dutchman arrived in London three weeks later. Ruud Gullit flew in from Italy to join Chelsea on a free transfer from Sampdoria. David Platt (Gullit’s team mate at Sampdoria) joined Arsenal shortly after. Serie A had been Europe’s greatest league for several years, but their players were drifting over to England. Suddenly, the Premier League was becoming the place to be.
The Premier League already had a great foreign star in Eric Cantona. For all his great skill and goals, his poor discipline let him down over the course of his career. His infamous kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan in January 1995 resulted in a nine-month ban from the game.
Bergkamp and Cantona were chalk and cheese. Cantona always seemed to be ready to blow at any given point. Whilst watching him, you felt that one late challenge or an ill-advised shove from an opponent would send the Frenchman over the edge. His skill was unquestionable, but his temperament and attitude had a lot to be desired.
However, Bergkamp did have a ruthless and feisty edge to him. For all the majesty that he possessed when on the ball, he also had an aggressive streak off it. The three times that he was sent off for Arsenal were straight red cards and for serious offences (elbowing, a two-footed lunge and shoving).
He was never one to shy away from conflict with opponents and Bergkamp would often be seen in the thick of it when things got ugly on the pitch. Despite all of this, he was not a dirty player.
The English press were notorious for their unrelenting pressure on big money signings. Instant results were expected to prove the £7.5 million spent by Arsenal after incessant paper talk.
It was not just the hacks that were heaping unnecessary pressure on him. Fellow professionals were also chipping in with their two pennies’ worth. Nottingham Forest and England left back Stuart Pearce was interviewed by a tabloid a few games into the 1995/96 season. In the interview, Pearce suggested that his former team mate Stan Collymore would have been a better acquisition for the Gunners.
One paper went with the ‘Hartlefool’ after Bergkamp failed to net in a straightforward 3-0 victory over Third Division Hartlepool United in the Coca-Cola Cup. Four days later, Southampton came to Highbury for a Premier League match. It was Bergkamp’s eighth game in Arsenal colours.
Seventeen minutes into the match, Glenn Helder received the ball wide on the left. He ran down the left wing and sent a cross towards the penalty spot where Bergkamp was lurking. Bergkamp caught the ball sweetly on the volley, sending it crashing into the bottom corner of the net. All his frustrations at not scoring in England were over and the roar that went up around Highbury was deafening.
Another opportunity when it was necessary for the ball to take a good smash came in the final ten minutes of the last game of the season.
Arsenal were at home to already-relegated Bolton Wanderers and needed a win to qualify for Europe. The Lancashire side were rooted at the bottom of the table and Arsenal were widely expected to sweep them aside and reach the final UEFA Cup place. It was Bolton who scored first, Andy Todd finding the back of the net in the 76th minute.
David Platt grabbed an equaliser in the 82nd minute before Bergkamp took centre stage just two minutes later.
Receiving the ball 25 yards from goal, the Dutchman had his back to goal. He had more than enough time to turn, look up and crack the ball into the top corner of the net. Just like the goal eight months earlier, the sense of urgency necessitated the ball to be thumped. His usual approach of stroking the ball was not enough. A rough and ready smash of the ball was needed.
Both above goals were a rare example of Bergkamp hammering the ball. He would normally caress it into the net. When he got hold of the ball at the edge of the box, you knew what would happen next. Opposing goalkeepers and defenders knew as well but were powerless to stop it. As soon as he had the ball on his right foot, Bergkamp would curl the ball with the inside of his foot, towards the far corner and just out of the reach of the goalkeeper.
The best players make the game look easy. Bergkamp would almost gallop with the ball at his feet. He also had incredible vision and anticipation, knowing exactly where and when to play the ball to his team mates.
Bergkamp could create goals with as much ease as scoring them. Before he joined the club, a long ball forward was often the only way to send Wright on his way. David Seaman or one of the famous back four would lump the ball downfield towards Kevin Campbell or Alan Smith. They in turn would head the ball on to Ian Wright, who would have to carve out his opportunity and try to score.
With his new strike partner, Ian Wright’s job was a lot easier. The Dutchman would give the ball a simple flick of his right foot or a cushioned through ball. It would fall perfectly, right into the path of Wright who would have the easy job of having to score.
In August 1997, Bergkamp became the first player to finish first, second and third in the Goal of the Month Award on BBC’s Match of the Day. Two of these strikes came in a fantastic hat-trick away to Leicester City, with the third goal being an absolute beauty.
Having received a through ball from David Platt, Bergkamp controlled it perfectly as it dropped in front of him. He then took a touch that took the ball past his marker before placing the ball into the far corner of the net.
Arsenal stormed to the League and FA Cup double in 1997/98, with Bergkamp winning the PFA Player of the Year award. Though, he missed the final few games of the season after getting injured late in the April.
As a result of his injury, the Dutchman missed out on fulfilling his dream of playing in an FA Cup final at Wembley. He had already made his mark at the famous old stadium, scoring a well-taken goal in a World Cup qualifier in 1993 and a sublime assist for Patrick Kluivert for a crucial consolation goal in England’s 4-1 victory in Euro ’96.
Both goals were crucial in their own way. His goal in 1993 helped Holland come back from a two-goal deficit against England. Holland would qualify for the World Cup the following year and England would miss out.
Kluivert’s goal was perhaps even more vital. If the Dutch hadn’t scored against England, they would have gone out of the competition. In the end, Holland progressed out of the group stages at the expense of Scotland.
In March 2002, Arsenal travelled to St James’s Park to play Newcastle United. Bergkamp scored an unbelievable goal that had everyone watching left speechless in disbelief.
With his back to goal, the Dutchman received a simple pass inside the penalty area. Nikos Dabizas, Newcastle’s experienced defender was right on his back, but Bergkamp flicked it one side of the Greek defender and spun around the other side of him.
He then used his strength to fend off Dabizas before placing the ball in the far corner of the net. It was extraordinary and a delightful goal, but somehow not entirely unexpected. After all, Bergkamp was capable of anything.
In Arsenal’s final season at Highbury, they had a theme for each match. The home game against West Bromwich Albion was chosen as ‘Dennis Bergkamp Day’, a real sign of how highly regarded he was by the club.
It was written in the stars that Bergkamp would come off the bench and help Arsenal win the match. With the game level at 1-1, Bergkamp first assisted Robert Pires to give Arsenal the lead before firing in the third with a dipping curled effort at the edge of the area.
Bergkamp stayed at Arsenal until 2006. He left at the end of the 2005/06 season at the age of 37. He was rewarded with a testimonial against Ajax later that summer, in the first match to be played at the Emirates Stadium. It was a fitting tribute that the great man was honoured in the first game at Arsenal’s new home. A life size statue of the Dutchman was added to the outer concourse of the Emirates back in 2014 to accompany statues of two of his former team mates, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry.
The French artist Edouard Manet is regarded as bringing in the art style of impressionism. His artwork replaced realism that played a huge part in the beginning of modern art. If Bergkamp’s career could be likened to an artist, it would be Manet.
In bringing him to England, Arsenal’s entire playing philosophy completely changed. The dour, stale approach to matches seen under George Graham were gone and suddenly exciting and attacking football was the norm at Highbury.
In the ten years that Bergkamp played for Arsenal, he won three Premier League titles and three FA Cups (two of those were in double-winning seasons) and three Charity Shields. He was also part of the sides that reached the UEFA Cup final in 2000, FA Cup final in 2001 and Champions League final in 2006.
Oh and for the record, Stan Collymore retired from the game in 2001. He left Liverpool in 1997 and spent time at five other clubs before retiring at the age of 30. He never won a single honour in the game. I think Arsenal made the right decision back in the summer of 1995. What do you think, Stuart Pearce?