“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 but he doesn’t say intelligent words, and somebody who has a big vocabulary but 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, and what he decides to do.”
– Arsene Wenger
Quotes like the one above number in the hundreds and thousands when it comes to paying tribute to the glittering 20-year career(including 10 years at Arsenal) of former Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp. Retired in 2006, head proudly held high in front of 75000 Arsenal fans at the new Emirates stadium for a testimonial, Dennis Bergkamp’s legendary exploits in the lush green fields of Highbury are still engraved in the memories of many fans, those of Arsenal and football itself.
Bought for a bargain fee of £7.5m from Italian giants Inter in the summer of 1995 by Arsenal Manager Bruce Rioch, Bergkamp’s arrival to a mid-table mediocre north London side raised a few eyebrows. Yet his best days lay ahead in the English capital with the arrival of Arsene Wenger to the club and the blonde Dutch becoming instrumental in bringing Arsenal to the pinnacle of domestic football as well as inspiring many other foreign talents to ply their trade in the English Premier League.
Born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1969, Bergkamp owes his first name to the fact that his parents were Manchester United supporters and chose it after the United and Scotland legend Denis Law (Dutch regulations forced the Bergkamps to spell the name as ‘Dennis’ instead of ‘Denis’). A young Dennis Bergkamp was a fan of Glenn Hoddle and was famously quoted as saying: “Maybe I was….maybe I am a little different from other players. They will tell you that Pele, Maradona, Cruyff are their idols and I will say Glenn Hoddle.”
Bergkamp joined the famed Ajax Amsterdam youth academy at the age of twelve but for years he struggled in the youth team as the Ajax coaches thought he was too lightweight to be a football. In his biography, Bergkamp was quoted as saying about his early life at the Ajax academy: “The normal things for professional players now, I already did when I was 12-years-old. I didn’t have time to go out. If we had a game on Saturday, I would stay in on Friday night. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink. I stayed in on Saturday nights and Sunday to do my homework so I could train two or three times a week.”
The early exposure to the hard reality of life as a professional footballer at such a young age sowed the seeds of greatness in Dennis Bergkamp’s destiny. His hard work paid off when Dutch stalwart and legend Johan Cruyff returned to Ajax as Manager and his sharp scouting was never going to miss the talents on show by the then teenaged Bergkamp. Cruyff wasted no time and he brought him into the first team and Bergkamp was handed his Ajax debut at the age of 17 on December 14, 1986 against Roda JC. From that moment little Dennis never looked back, becoming ‘Dennis the menace’ for Ajax’s Eredivisie and European opponents. During his debut season, Bergkamp went on to make 14 appearances and feature in the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, as a substitute, against Lokomotive Leipzig that Ajax ultimately won.
At Ajax, Dennis Bergkamp’s role was to operate behind two forwards and he relished this natural position by creating innumerable chances for his teammates. He was also amongst the goals himself coupling an attacking mindset with visionary instincts up-front. Since his debut in the 1986 season, Bergkamp became a regular at his hometown club winning the Dutch League in 1990, the UEFA Cup in 1992 and the KNVB Cup in 1993. From 1991 to 1993, Bergkamp was the top scorer in Holland and in one of the seasons he set a record for scoring in 10 consecutive matches. He was selected the Player of the Year for two seasons running in 1992 and 1993. Overall, from 1987-1993, Dennis Bergkamp scored a staggering 122 goals in 239 games for his beloved Ajax Amsterdam whilst creating many more for his teammates.
Unsurprisingly, his terrific form at Ajax and his eye-catching performances with the Netherlands in Euro 92 captured the attentions of many a club in Europe’s bigger leagues. Milan and Barcelona were among his many suitors but when Inter came knocking on his door, Bergkamp made his biggest career mistake by accepting the Nerazzurri’s offer. Johan Cruyff never wanted him to sign for Inter as the legend thought that the Italian team’s stifling defensive football culture would greatly nullify Bergkamp’s attacking instincts and destroy his fluency and flair. Yet the new Dutch national team hero wanted a new challenge and left his home for Milan in the summer of 1993 as the Italians signed him for £12m – a fee that made him the second most expensive player in the world at that time. He soon realised his mistake and life in Italy seemed so meaningless for him during the two years of his stay in the northern city of Milan. Although Bergkamp did win a second UEFA Cup with the Italians in 1994, he was finding it extremely difficult to settle into Serie A partly because of the club’s defensive mentality and partly because of his frosty relationship with the Italian Press and some of his Inter teammates. Dennis Bergkamp scored just 11 goals in 50 appearances during his two-year stay in Italy.
The Dutch forward was given a lifeline by Arsenal when Rioch snapped him up in 1995. It was a high-profile signing by a mediocre English side at a bargain price that made Europe sit up and look. Many thought that Dennis was just trying to escape from Italy at all costs and Arsenal’s modest offer was just a way out for him. Even in one of his press conferences, the Dutchman himself hinted at his relief of just being out of Italy: “The decision I made was to leave Italy and the first team that knocked on the door was Arsenal. They were a solid team and that’s what you want, a base where you can fit in before you try to add something. Straight away I thought ‘This could work’ and I didn’t know anything about ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ at that time.”
Bergkamp knew that it would be pressure right from the start and he needed to adapt to the physicality of the English game as soon as possible. He made his debut against Middlesborough on August 19, 1995. He took to the pitch with the words of the Inter President still ringing in his ears when he left Milan for London with President Massimo Moratti quoted as saying: “They (Arsenal) will be lucky if he scores 10 goals this season.” An utterly false judgement by a man who bought Bergkamp with the promise of a change of team playing-style only to restrict the Dutchman’s flair by maintaining the Italian defensive mentality. Yet, with each passing game at Arsenal pressure grew on Bergkamp to score with some unfair media attention on the player’s playing style adding to the climate. Bergkamp was not a target man at Arsenal and his main role was to link with his forward and create chances for his teammates, similar to the football he used to play at Ajax under Cruyff. For the first seven matches, stats showed that Bergkamp was involved in 75% of Arsenal goals but the Netherlands international only silenced his critics with two stunning goals in his eighth game as an Arsenal player against Southampton at Highbury to kick-start a wonderful career at the north London side.
Looking back to the first goals he scored for Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp told the BBC: “You could call it a bad start