Five players who overcame dreadful starts

Date published: Friday 30th October 2015 9:14

Some inspiration for Memphis Depay and anyone else struggling to shine after big transfers…


Denis Bergkamp – The former Ajax star arrived from Inter Milan in 1995 as Bruce Rioch’s first signing for a whopping £7.5million – three times Arsenal’s previous record fee. The Dutchman was joining a team that had finished 12th in the Premier League the previous season, and his arrival, combined with the recruitment of David Platt, signalled the club’s intention to get back to the top.

Despite his status as one of the most talented players in the game, Bergkamp took his sweet time to settle into the Premier League and he was ridiculed for it. No goals in his first seven games drew derision from the national press until he got going with his first goals. And when they arrived, they were worth waiting for. 

After a slow start, Bergkamp went on to play for over a decade at Arsenal, scoring 120 goals, winning three league titles and three FA Cups. Now there is a statue of the Dutchman at the Emirates. Likewise Thierry Henry, who also initially struggled with the Premier League. There’s hope for Joel Campbell yet.


Gareth Bale – Two years, five months and one day…

That’s how long it took for Bale to taste Premier League victory in a Tottenham shirt, and that only came after coming on as a sub in the 85th minute of a 5-0 win. Bale was the butt of many a joke as a consequence of his 24-game winless run, which lasted over two injury-hit seasons.

There was little indication of what was to come for Bale while he was being kept on the bench by Benoit Assou-Ekotto, whose injury gave the former Saint an opportunity to show what he could do. The Cameroon full-back’s return in 2010 prompted Harry Redknapp to shift Bale further forward, from where he tore Maicon a new one.

Bale transformed himself into one of the world’s very best attackers and earned himself a world-record move to Real Madrid. In Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, he was a slow burner at the Bernabeu too, but by the end of his his first season he was a Champions League winner and had proved he belonged in the Portuguese’s company.


David De Gea – The Spanish teenager was described by James Ducker in The Times as ‘a kid who won a competition to play in goal for Manchester United’, while Patrick Barclay went even further: ‘The goalie is like a jelly. He isn’t physically capable. He’s Heurelho Gomes without the shot-stopping.’

Mick Dennis was equally as damning in the Daily Express: ‘He’s called David de Gea Quintana. But don’t bother learning all those names. There will be another chap along soon. There has to be.’

As consistently brilliant as he is now, De Gea’s first six months at Old Trafford were a nightmare. His goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, called it “horrendous”. But, possibly out of stubbornness and a lack of alternatives, Sir Alex Ferguson kept faith with the former Atletico stopper.

After two seasons under Ferguson, it was during David Moyes’ brief reign that De Gea truly blossomed. Handy really, as United were giving their keeper plenty of practice under the ‘Chosen One’.

From the skinny kid who “ate too many tacos”, De Gea is now one of the top three goalkeepers in the world.


Jordan Henderson – Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t fancy Henderson’s running style and after his first season at Anfield, it seemed like there was plenty of other obstacles in the way of the midfielder becoming a success.

In his first season on Merseyside, during which he made 30 Premier League appearances, it was difficult to identify what it was that convinced the transfer committee to fork out close to £20million for the 20-year-old. He wasn’t a defensive midfielder, nor was he a creative force. He just seemed to exist somewhere around the centre circle while games passed him by.

Indeed, one of Brendan Rodgers’ first tasks as Liverpool manager was to attempt to get rid of Henderson. The new boss wanted Clint Dempsey and was willing to let the young midfielder go to Craven Cottage in part-exchange. Luckily for the Reds, Henderson wasn’t ready to give up on Liverpool, even if they were willing to cut him adrift.

The midfielder established himself in Rodgers’ XI during the title-blowing season of 2013-14. The following year, he was keeping Steven Gerrard out of the side before taking the captain’s armband from him in the summer.


Andy Cole – He may have ended up a Treble winner and a Manchester United ambassador, but Cole was not the instant success Ferguson envisioned when he stunned the football world by parting with £6million and Keith Gillespie for the striker.

Arriving a fortnight before Eric Cantona jumped into the Selhurst Park crowd, Cole still managed 12 goals in the second half of the 94-95 season, though five of those came in one game against a dreadful Ipswich side. But his first season will be remembered best for the chances he missed at West Ham on the final day, when United needed just one more goal to win and retain the title.

It got worse. Though writing in the Guardian in 2007 to address the many wrong perceptions of Cole, Rob Smyth summed up his first full season:

‘He was nothing short of embarrassing, crushed by insecurity, the teething problems of a dramatic change in his footballing identity – United bought a goalscorer and made him into a footballer – and, most of all, the obvious contempt shown him by Old Trafford main’s man, Eric Cantona. Against Liverpool at Wembley, he came dangerously close to becoming the first player to have a nervous breakdown during an FA Cup final.’

Ferguson tried to ship him off to Blackburn in part-exchange for Alan Shearer, but Cole shrugged off that, pneumonia and a couple of broken legs courtesy of Neil Ruddock to play his part in another title triumph in 1996-97. It was only when King Eric abdicated his throne that Cole started to truly shine.

A year further on, and Cole became one half of one of the most deadly strike partnerships Europe has seen. He and Dwight Yorke were the first-choice strikers throughout the Treble season, notching 53 goals between them, with Cole scoring the vital winning goal against Spurs on the final day of the season to secure the title.  The five-time title winner also finished the following season as United’s top scorer with 19 goals in 28 Premier League games.


Ian Watson

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