Dennis Bergkamp: Part sh*thouse, part dancer…

Date published: Friday 19th June 2020 11:59 - Matthew Stead

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Johnny celebrates the people and things in football that we all love…

 

Who’s this then?
Dennis Nicolaas Maria Bergkamp is a six-foot Dutchman, born in Amsterdam, now 51 years old, who played for just three clubs in his entire career: Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal.

He was a product of the Ajax academy, manager Johan Cruyff giving him his first-team debut way back in December 1986, aged just 17. He’d go on to play 237 times for the club, scoring 122 goals along the way, winning the Eredivisie in 1989/90, the KNVB Cup in 1986/87 and 1992/93, the 1986/87 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup in 1991/92.

His outstanding form at Ajax led to a £7.1million move to Inter where he struggled to make an impression. But they did win the UEFA Cup against Austria Salzburg, Dennis scoring in the semi-final second leg against Cagliari. His eight goals in the tournament made him joint top scorer. His second season was bedevilled by injury and after playing 74 times in Italy and scoring 22 goals, he left for £7.5m to go to Arsenal.

Bruce Rioch broke the club’s transfer record to buy him. His introduction to top-flight English football was in a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough and there was initial press scepticism because he didn’t get off the mark for half a dozen games. And it should be said because he was a foreign and thus to be mistrusted by the more shallow press. At this time, non-British or Irish players were relatively unusual and players arriving with their peak years ahead of them even more so.

It was a culture shock for him to join a club with such a notorious drinking culture. Later he said: “We went to Sweden and trained twice a day. The first evening I went for a walk with my wife and saw eight or nine Arsenal players sitting outside a pub, drinking beer. I thought: This is unbelievable. You’ve just had two hard sessions to prepare for the season, and now everything you did is going down with the alcohol.”

However, Arsene Wenger’s arrival (carrying bags of pasta) within weeks of the new season starting, was to transform Bergkamp. In that first season he played 41 times, scored 16 and made 13 assists. He also got his first red card with a high tackle on Paul Bracewell of Sunderland.

The following season he was top scorer and Arsenal won the double. To say he was instrumental in that achievement would be to underestimate how much influence he had on the team. It was the season he scored THAT goal in a hat-trick against Leicester, one of the finest in the modern era and his own personal favourite. He also elbowed Steve Lomas in the face and got a three-game suspension. Dennis could do a bloody good elbow and did get criticised for being, let’s not dress it up, dirty.

He was part of the Invincibles too, of course. Over 11 years in north London he played 423 games, scoring 120 goals. He picked up three league titles and three FA Cups, though European success evaded him at the Gunners.

He retired aged 37 having played 734 games and netting 264 times.

His international career extended to 79 caps and 37 goals including one of the most memorable of his career against Argentina in 1998.

 

Why the love?
Has there been anyone else quite like the non-Flying Dutchman? Schooled in the ‘total football’ way at Ajax, he just seemed to be able to do most jobs on the pitch to a very high standard. He played on the wing for three years and could have been a specialist number 10 or an out-and-out number 9. In fact, he was both rolled into one, equally at home scoring goals as assisting others to score goals. His goal and assist numbers were often close to each other in number.

His skill set was exemplary; he was pretty much two-footed. Though he scored mostly with his right, his passing with his left was superb. Looking at his clips again now, one other thing is noticeable. He was really light on his feet and far quicker than maybe we remember. There’s no thunder-clunk about his running style at all. A six-footer running with speed and economy must’ve been a scary prospect. He also doesn’t look like a modern footballer at all. He has the physique of a tall, fit man, but not of the middle-distance athlete more common today. Do we now sacrifice skill for ceaselessly improving fitness stats? Don’t we want someone to dance like Dennis rather than be able to cover 15km in a game? What you do matters more than how much you run, surely.

He was able to control the ball with one light touch and had the ability to marry those skills with the sort of vision in a game which allows you to find space. Time and again, he would take control of the ball in an instant while turning 180 degrees, defenders flailing around him, his quick brain always two steps ahead. His shifts of direction were legendary and feature in those classic, classic goals we always remember him for. He seems to be able to move weight from one foot to another quite effortlessly, causing defenders to fall like heavy trees as he does so.

And also he played with a rare intensity, forever concentrating on the ball and what he wanted to do with it. If you look at most photos of Dennis with the ball in front of him, he is giving the ball the death stare. While his skill seemed innate, Dennis always gave you the impression that he had studiously worked on his game too. This wasn’t one of the grunt labour players, nor someone for whom it is all too easy. An intelligent and thoughtful man, he played a kind of intellectual football, punctuated with shards of aggression, often delivered by those sharp elbows.

Because despite being a relatively shy, retiring character, he was no pushover with that nasty, aggressive side to his play which saw him get a couple of red cards and an impressive 45 yellows.

Any player that can combine high-octane skill with physical aggression is always going to be a fan favourite of course, and Arsenal fans absolutely adored him while others admired him. If he was playing against your club, you feared him.

Even his aviophobia and consequent refusal to fly kind of added to his specialness and aura.

 

What the people love
If you saw him play in the flesh, you wouldn’t forget it. He had that ability to stand out, almost as if there was an invisible forcefield around him, giving him space to pass and move. Frequently the best player on the pitch, it was no surprise to receive a bulging post bag of paeans in praise of Dennis…

The first touch of a quilt and the elbows of a bayonet. Not even close to being an Arsenal fan, but the goals against Leicester, Argentina and Newcastle are touchstone moments

Absolutely, unbelievably sublime. One of those players, like Ronaldo for example, where I hate the fact I’ll never see him play live again. He was an amazing player, arguably the best we’ve had in this country, and I’m a United fan. There can’t be many who do not love his game.

Named after Denis Law, beautiful, silky, unbelievably skilful and just a little bit joyous when he went past players – I also liked that he took no prisoners.

That story of playing in every position in the Ajax youth team growing up.. just gave you the impression the guy saw everything on the pitch perfectly..and of course gave him even better insight in how to make defenders turn like oil tankers in comparison to his jet ski prowess

Never out of control – only Zidane rivalled him for balance and elegance mixed with strategic bastardry.

Dennis Bergkamp…DENNIS BYERGKAMP DENNIS BYERGKAMP DENNIS BYEEERGKAMP DENNIS BYERGKAMP DENNIS BYERGKAMP DENNIS BYERGKAMP OOOOHHHJJJHDBCCKXYAJCHCXKBJMX!!!

The first player that my impressionable young mind fell in love with. What followed was a lifelong association with Arsenal. The bastard.

His worth in the (current) modern game would be unmeasurable.

As a United fan, I wanted to hate him, but never could. Capable of staggering beauty and skill, but never a ‘luxury’ player. Vision and composure off the charts.

An incredible footballer blessed with great vision, touch and could be a bit of a bastard too. Couldn’t believe it when we signed him in 95 it was a real moment holy shit we just signed Dennis Bergkamp.

The optimum amount of snark and shithousery when required. But he played like a ballet dancer. So controlled, so elegant, so uniquely talented. Just amazing.

On a totally different level to england team in WC 94 qualifiers. Impossible to defend against in those games.

In reality the Dutch TV commentator for the Argentina goal has come closer than most to articulating what he was all about. I have never seen a better goal than that before or since and his reaction to it was priceless.

The first genuine world class player at his prime to move to the PL. Fantastic artist.

Bergkamp was a beautiful artist. I saw him make his debut for Inter. The San Siro was buzzing about their new superstar. If he ever miscontrolled a pass, I haven’t seen it. Scorer of perhaps the best goal ever by a visiting player at both Newcastle AND Sunderland.

Timeless class.

The first game I saw at Arsenal he scored his first goals against Southampton and I was in love. I had a VHS compilation of him playing for Ajax and watched it every Saturday morning for about 3 years. Even with its mixture of Dutch commentary and Jonathon Pearce calling him “Boom Boom Bergkamp”. I had to be at the Emirates for his testimonial as well. In between I named my hamster after him and then 3 years ago the top table at my wedding was the Bergkamp table. Even though Thierry is king, Bergkamp will always be the best. I love him.

The best player I’ve seen playing for Arsenal, and I include Henry and Vieira in that. Simply put, when he played well, the whole team played better. Henry saying he’s the best player he’s played with is high praise indeed.

Grace under pressure – as influential an import in British football as there’s been.

Neither Messi or Ronaldo have done anything as skilful as the WC goal against Argentina. I’m not sure anyone has to be honest.

Made the most difficult things look effortless. For that I both love him & hate him.

When interviewed post winning goal v Argentina in 98 WCQF he said he’d scored it for the people of The Netherlands but also for the people of England. Loved that and what a player.

Never showboated, just always did everything as efficiently as possible.

By far my favourite player for a club I don’t support. His goal vs Argentina was on of my first football memories (after the England Argentina game)

As a United fan it’s hard to say but he was the equal, if not better than Cantona. If he’d shown the same enigmatic charisma of the Frenchman then he’d likely have gone down as the best to play in the Premier League. His highlights reel is football porn.

Went to a game at Highbury in his 2nd season. Watched him smash shots into the corner of the goal from 25 yards in the warm up. Did it again and again and again. Sure enough, a chance came up in the game and he smashed it in. A total joy of a footballer but understood hard work.

I’m not an Arsenal fan but I think that Dennis Bergkamp would have been within his rights to say, “Okay, you lot, THIS is how you play football”. Brilliant, brilliant player.

Remember @rioferdy5 saying how unnerving it was when Bergkamp played a whole game without even noticing Rio was there: no talk, no interaction, just blanked him. Imagine being able to dismiss someone that brilliantly for 90 mins? Almost Tory-like disdain for others. Regal stuff.

 

 

Three great moments
It never gets old and it is still not really quite clear what he did. It seems almost above and beyond nature, verging on the supernatural. Performed with the poise and rhythm of a dancer.

 

Sod fannying around with your little tippy tappy passes, get it down the pitch. One of the greatest long ball goals of any World Cup. And superb Dutch comms too…

 

The greatest hat-trick ever? There can’t have been many better

Oh go on, have a bonus moment. Aye, the boy’s a dancer, alright.

 

What now?
Initially he had no interest in coaching but has subsequently dipped in and out of it, notably at Ajax working under Frank de Boer, but his last gig was in 2017. Since then there’s been media work often talking about those great goals, goals which it seems we can be never seen too often.

He doesn’t seem to be the sort of character who would ever be interested in management and the fear of flying would impinge in that regard anyway.

When you’ve been at the absolute top of your profession for 20 years, retirement must offer some challenges to overcome. You know you will probably never reach such heights again in any capacity and that must be quite demotivating. Most strive to improve in some regard as we age, but Dennis has already been to the top of the tree. I guess it is finding interest and passion in sitting on the lower branches that you fill your time with.

The amazing thing, looking back on his career which ended and incredible 14 years ago now, is how it has tattooed itself on the English game to such an extent that it almost feels like he’s still around and playing. It doesn’t feel like 14 years of football waters have flowed under the bridge of time since then. Perhaps this is because he was such a modern player within his time and as such ahead of his time.

Whatever the future holds for Dennis, we will keep hungrily feeding on his past.

John Nicholson

 

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