The Iceman Cometh
Any prosperous relationship has to be built on mutual respect and trust. The next in the Arsenal trailblazer series was a marriage of mutual convenience, a tightly bound union between player and club. Dennis Bergkamp is often credited with elevating Arsenal onto another plateau in the scope of world football. Whilst this argument will not meet much derision from any football fan, let alone Gooners, the truth is Bergkamp needed Arsenal as much as we needed him. The Dutchman is always quick to point out the respect he feels for the club and the respect they have afforded him. In 1995, Arsenal and Bergkamp had come to a reflective crossroads in their respective histories. It was to culminate in an enduring love affair.
Dennis Bergkamp was born in Amsterdam on May 10th, 1969, one of four sons. Dennis was born into a family fanatical about football, he was even named after Manchester United legend Dennis Law. The young Bergkamp followed his father's penchant for entertaining playmakers, idolising the suave Glenn Hoddle (but did not support Tottenham as lazily presumed by most). Bergkamp was inducted into Ajax's legendary youth academy at the age of 12. He instantly stood out amongst his age group and made his inevitable debut at the age of 17, with his manager Johan Cruyff, credited with speeding upthe evolution of football and feted as a demi God in his home country, looking upon Dennis as a kindred spirit. Bergkamp made a swift impact on the first team, becoming a regular and playing in the 1987 Cup Winners Cup final by age 18. Bergkamp became the fulcrum of a side that won the Eredivisie in 1990, the UEFA Cup in 1992 and the KNVB Cup in 1993. Young Bergkamp finished top scorer in 1992 and 1993, being voted as Eredivisie player of the year on both occasions.
In 1993, the Serie A gravy train rocked up in Amsterdam. Inter Milan, whose eye had been caught by Bergkamp's 122 goals in 239 games, paid £12m for his services. Milan took his team mate Wim Jonk too for good measure. But Bergkamp suffered a torrid time in Italy, frustrated by being played as a lone striker as well as Italy's ultra defensive style. Not to mention the cynical way in which Italian defenders foil playmakers. As a result, Bergkamp was dealt with harshly by the Italian press. One Milanese newspaper renamed their weekly 'Donkey of the Week' competition, 'Bergkamp of the Week.' Dennis also endured a frosty relationship with several of his team mates. He won another UEFA Cup in 1994, though 'flu ruled him out of the second leg of the final. Bergkamp had two unhappy seasons at Inter and wanted out, having scored 11 goals in 50 appearances. On a flight to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, Bergkamp's departing flight was interrupted by an epileptic fit for the pilot. His flight back was preturbed by a bomb scare. Bergkamp vowed never to fly again. The bright young Bergkamp star had waned and at 25, he had reached a crossroads.
In the summer of 1995, Arsenal was a club in crisis, having finished a miserable 12th in the Premiership and lost the Cup Winners Cup Final in the last minute of extra time. George Graham had just been sacked for financial irregularities and Paul Merson was overcoming personal problems. New manager Bruce Rioch saw a chance and fended off interest from Real Madrid to purchase Bergkamp for a club record £7.5m. Bergkamp and Arsenal found one another at the right time. Dennis was a signing that reinvigorated a club mired in mediocrity and gave it an injection of optimism. Bergkamp also endured a chance meeting with new teammate Ian Wright in a road arge incident! Interest was huge as a pre season friendly between Arsenal and Inter saw Highbury packed to the rafters. Sky TV televised his debut, a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough. However, the British Press were soon to give Bergkamp short shrift too as he looked to acclimbatise to England. Foreign imports were only just becoming a regular feature in the Premier League and the Press were as cynical as ever. Following a League Cup victory over Hartlepool, in which the Monkey Hangers had their keeper sent off, Bergkamp was ridiculed by the Sun newspaper in particular.
However, in his eighth match Bergkamp lit the blue touch paper. A Glenn Helder cross sailed over from the left, Bergkamp watched it onto his right boot, before volleying a low shot into the corner. Highbury erupted, but the Iceman was just warming up. Later in the game, he drifted in from the left, past Ken Monkou and smashed a long range shot in off the post. He was up and away. Bergkamp would later claim he had no idea that the press were on his case as he was too busy house hunting. A winning goal against Manchester United as well as two goals in an ill fated League Cup Final versus Aston Villa elucidated his importance. But his season would be sealed in the final five minutes of the campaign, Arsenal were trailing relegated Bolton with ten minutes left in a game where only three points would secure European qualification. Platt pulled the scores level before a trademark Bergkamp master blaster with five minutes left won the match. 1996-97 would see Bergkamp continue in the same vein. A beautiful touch and finish against Spurs at Highbury and an exquisite double dragback and curler at Roker Park gave us an idea of his repetoire. But questions were still abound about his physical attributes. Bergkamp found himself a target for bullies and he revealed a temperamental facet after a stamping incident against Sunderland.
But 1997-98 would reveal Bergkamp's apotheosis stature. Wenger built the team around him, bringing the pacy Anelka and Overmars into the fray to feed on his telescopic passing. The goal that epitomised his newly acquired upper body strength came at the Dell in August. Bergkamp made a beeline towards goal when arch bully Francis Benali tried to haul him back, Dennis literally threw Benali off before smashing the ball into the net. That August Bergkamp's hat trick against Leicester City revealed we were dealing with no ordinary footballer. In particular, the third, where he juggled the ball in the area, defied belief. Bergkamp became the only player ever to finish first, second and third in the goal of the month competition. Bergkamp continued mesmeric form and following a 5-0 mauling of Barnsley that October, his manager Arsene Wenger asserted, 'if there is a better player in the world, I haven't seen him.' Commendation followed from Marco van Basten, 'if Ryan Giggs is worth £20m, then Dennis Bergkamp is worth £100m.' He continued his whirlwind form (and frequented trouble too, a crude forearm smash on Steve Lomas comes to mind) until he was cruelly injured in late April. The calf problem would rule him out of the title run in as well as his childhood dream of an F.A. Cup Final at Wembley. Though he would win the domestic Double as well as the Football Writer's Player of the Year and Goal of the Season. He would also score one of the greatest ever World Cup goals against Argentina that summer.
1998-99 would start slowly for Bergkamp, but he forged a deadly partnership with Nicolas Anelka, chrystallized by two goals at Villa Park that December. In February 1999, Bergkamp would provide all five assists in a 5-0 mauling against Leicester. The Gunners would go neck and neck with United in pursuit of another domestic Double. In an F.A. Cup semi final replay at Villa Park, Bergkamp would level the scores with Manchester United. In the last minute, Arsenal won a penalty. Bergkamp had a second chance to secure his dream of a Wembley final. But Schmeichel beat the spot kick away. United won the treble and Dennis never took another penalty kick again. The next season would see the effects on Bergkamp as his past heroics began to become less regular. In reality, at the age of 31, Bergkamp was also exiting his prime and suffering from being partnered with a similar forward in Kanu.
Bergkamp would be reinvigorated by the emergence of Thierry Henry as a strike partner. Bergkamp was part of a side that lost the 2000 UEFA Cup Final on penalties. Dennis would finally fulfil his dream of playing in an F.A. Cup Final in 2001, but a heartbreaking 2-1 reverse against Liverpool would waylay his ambitions. Bergkamp's fortunes would accelerate in the next campaign, the magic began to return in tandem with Henry and Pires. Glorious assists against Middlesbrough and one in particular against Juventus, when he pirouhetted, dragged the ball back and triple piked before lifting a gorgeous through ball to Ljungberg stood out. But his coup de grace came at St. James' Park, Pires drilled the ball to Dennis with his back to goal, Bergkamp flicked the ball impossibly around Dabisaz, turned and slotted past Given. It was a goal that not only defied belief in its execution, but the thought process stumps me every time. Put yourself in that position, you receive a quick pass with your back to goal, at what point does your brain arrive at that conclusion? Bergkamp would form a telepathic understanding with Freddie Ljungberg that would see Arsenal romp to another double.
Bergkamp's role became reduced thereafter, but even now it is hard to think of a player in their mid thirties who makes any kind of contribution to a club of our size. Bergkamp was an integral part of the Invincibles in a 49 match unbeaten run. Assists for Vieira against Leicester and Chelsea, together with exquisite goals against Birmingham and Bolton proved that his class was evergreen. At the beginning of 2004-05, Arsenal's unbeaten record looked in danger as they trailed Boro 3-1 at Highbury, skipper Bergkamp stepped up with a mesmeric display and inspired the team to a 5-3 victory. The final match of that season saw the magic as prevalent as ever in a viruoso display in a 7-0 mauling against Everton. Bergkamp would win another F.A. Cup in 2005. His final season would see him as a frequent substitute. His final start came in a League Cup semi final against Wigan. However, there were still memories to be conjured. In April 2006, Arsenal fans decreed that one of Highbury's final salute theme days should be dedicated to him. The Iceman would grace his coronation against West Brom with a trademark curler. It would be his final goal for the club and would simulataneously confirm him into the club's top ten all time scorers. His final competitive appearance against Wigan in the final match at Highbury would have a touch of poignancy. His introduction from the bench would exactly coincide with a Yossi Benayoun against Tottenham which would seal fourth place for Arsenal. Bergkamp retired in 2006 and his testimonial against Ajax Amsterdam, touchingly kicked off by his terminally ill father, would be the official opening match of the Emirates Stadium. The gesture was a revealing gesture as to how highly the club thought of him. The fact that Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten were in attendance reveals that its not only North London that reveres his talent.
Bergkamp was not only a player of unfathomable intelligence and vision, but a consummate professional. Despite his stature on the world stage, it is hard to remember a time when he was linked with Barcelona or Real Madrid. His professionalism preserved his career into his late thirties. Arsene Wenger said, 'In the ten years I worked with him, I never once saw him in one training session, for one single second drop his focus below 100%.' Thierry Henry will instantly answer Dennis Bergkamp every time he is asked who his most talented team mate is, 'Dennis is a striker's dream, no matter where you are on the pitch he sees you.' On one of my many sojourns to Amsterdam watching Arsenal, I once wore a Bergkamp tee shirt in a Dutch pub. My first three rounds were taken care of, when I finally was allowed to reach into my wallet, my crumpled euros were waved away by the barman. Bergkamp was about to line up against Ajax some hours later. 'We would still cheer if he scored against us tonight' one Ajax fan told me. Bergkamp escalated Arsenal to another level and put us on the map of world football. Which is quite ironic considering his aversion to aeronautics.LD.