’90s Heroes: Dennis Bergkamp

’90s Heroes is a series by Adam Hurrey on the Bet Bright football blog which looks back on the legends of the game in what now seems a simpler time for football.

Duncan FergusonJurgen KlinsmannFaustino AsprillaJuninhoTony YeboahGeorgi KinkladzeDavid GinolaChris WaddleGianfranco ZolaNiall Quinn and Kevin PhillipsDion DublinRobbie FowlerStuart PearceMark HughesPaul GascoigneMatt Le Tissier; Ron Atkinson and Richard Keys; Teddy Sheringham

The very moment that Alexis Sanchez negotiated the swift sale of his exquisite dummy to Darren Randolph in Arsenal’s recent win against West Ham, it ensured the revival of one of the more complex historical debates.

The hat-trick is a perfectly poised footballing achievement, but the manner in which it is completed invariably ensures how fondly it is remembered. The Premier League has witnessed 301 trebles (to employ the less acceptable synonym), 11 of them by Alan Shearer and most commonly as part of an emphatic 4-0 win, which is ideal – the rounding-off of a hat-trick should also act as a handy cake-icer.

Perfect hat-tricks are a tidy way of doing things – Jimmy Floyd’s Hasselbaink’s left foot, right foot and head against Spurs in 2002 a notable example – but there’s nothing imperfect about punishing a team in the same way thrice, as Gareth Bale’s carbon-copying binge against Inter in 2010 surely attests. There are unquestionably good hat-tricks – Rivaldo v Valencia (2001) stands alone there – and there are even bad ones:

Anyway, the scene is sufficiently set: you already know this is about Dennis Bergkamp and you can probably now deduce what particular piece of Bergkamping will be forensically overnalysed further down. Unfortunately, if you’re in something of a rush, it’s worth examining how he ultimately came to be at Filbert Street on a Wednesday night in August 1997.

The 26-year-old Bergkamp on which Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch was risking a British record fee of £7.5m hadn’t been irreversibly blunted by his Serie A experience with Inter, but he was desperate to escape its stifling confines.

Nor had Bergkamp been a catastrophic failure in blue and black. A mere eight league goals in his first season after a £12m move from Ajax (five of them penalties) were mitigated by 17 in 24 in cup competitions. Bergkamp scored eight goals on the way to Inter lifting the UEFA Cup, back at a time when 1) Europe’s second-tier trophy hadn’t quite yet been suffocated by its bigger brother and 2) Italian TV still boasted the finest graphics ever seen:

By no means unaccustomed to British football – a devotee of Glenn Hoddle and named after Denis Law, after all – Bergkamp was well prepared for his eventual escape route from Milan.

The UEFA Cup third-round draw took Bergkamp, Bergomi, Zenga et al to Carrow Road to face the might of Jeremy Goss and Norwich City. 81 minutes of being frustrated by Bryan Gunn and Ian Culverhouse was probably enough to crush anyone’s ego, before a Rob Newman sliding tackle on Ruben Sosa proved a culture clash too far and Bergkamp steered home a nerveless penalty.

Bergkamp’s suffering at Inter would really kick in for the 1994/95 season, after a draining summer at the World Cup – a trip England would be denied thanks, in part, to the Dutchman’s flourishing party piece. If a ball dropped out of the sky, a Bergkamp toe was the safest place for it to land:

So, then, the signing of this “skilful, deep-lying six-footer from Amsterdam”, to quote the Independent report of the time, perhaps wasn’t such a huge roll of the Highbury board’s dice.

Rioch unwittingly touched an Arsenal nerve for the next two decades by declaring that Bergkamp’s arrival “clearly indicates our ambition, intention and determination to compete with any club for the very best players”, but – in the summer of 1995 – this was more than enough of a statement in a Premier League now fully in awe of expensive imports, regardless of any recent struggles. For extra, crucial context, consider this little aside (innocent at the time, but delicious now) from the Independent:

“Rioch’s coup rather stole the thunder from Spurs, who had earlier agreed to pay £4.5m for Chris Armstrong, the Crystal Palace striker.”

Intensified by the record fee, a debate soon began over whether Bergkamp could hit the ground running in English football. The Independent’s David Winner – later the author of the masterful “Dennis Bergkamp: Stillness & Speed” – asked that summer: “Have Arsenal acquired one of the world’s greatest footballers or is he a fragile artist irreparably damaged by his experience in Italy?”

In Holland, opinion remained divided. Radio commentator Leo Driessen backed Bergkamp to flourish – “even if Arsenal is a defensive team by English standards, they attack more than any team in Italy” – but Voetbal International’s Ron Westerhof rather emphatically disagreed:

“I don’t think he will succeed in England. Of course he is still one of the best players in the world, but he’s weak mentally. He’s not a winner. He’s a loser. He’s a sissy.

Naturally, that was a sentiment shared by the Proper Football Men of the time, including some oddly stilted back-page words from Stuart Pearce under an unequivocal headline.

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Pearce’s withering observation that “the guy is now trying a different country in the hope of rediscovering the form he had in Holland” foreboded a similarly dismissive remark from Alex Ferguson barely a year later when the other transformative figure in Arsenal’s modern history arrived: “Arsene Wenger has no experience of English football — he’s come from Japan.”

“I could have signed Bergkamp,” revealed Pearce’s Nottingham Forest manager Frank Clark. “His agent rang us but I wasn’t interested. Bryan [Roy] is more dangerous, he’s got more pace…he’s the best foreigner in Britain.”

Meanwhile, undeterred, Bergkamp was familiarising himself further with the minutiae of English football culture. Returning from his press-conference unveiling, the reality of his new surroundings only finally hit home when he turned on Ceefax in his hotel.

“We get the BBC in Holland so I know about Ceefax. I call up Page 301 and I’m shocked. The first two lines are in huge letters: BERGKAMP JOINS ARSENAL. For the first time it hits me: ‘Woah! What’s going on here?’ Quickly, I go to Page 302, the football page*, and there it is in more detail: DUTCH STRIKER GOES FOR £7.5 MILLION.”

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[*I didn’t really care that much for Bergkamp, but this has finally converted me.]

Before his new challenge could be probably weighed up, Bergkamp had one awkward formality to complete. The terms of the deal with Inter included a pre-season friendly at Highbury, apparently notable only for the visiting players – who had previously nicknamed him “Beavis”, which by definition could have been worse – being politely advised by Tony Adams to leave Bergkamp alone.

That early glimpse of English footballing charm certainly won over the new signing, who later told FourFourTwo: “We were successful because of our English defenders. They put the spirit in the team, which the Europeans lacked. They would say, “Get stuck in!” and all sorts of other phrases. I loved it, especially: “How much do you want it?” I thought about it. It stuck with me.”

Such an attitude would come in handy early on for Bergkamp, as Pearce’s haughty prediction briefly threatened to become reality. A pre-season hat-trick against St Albans City of the Isthmian League wasn’t quite the springboard he needed, and six games went by in August and September without a goal.

A League Cup trip to Hartlepool didn’t bear fruit either. The Mirror published a clock that ticked over with his goal drought. Another tabloid printed a photo of a goal to remind Bergkamp of what one looked like. The Independent were slightly more measured: “Arsenal supporters are beginning to view a goal by Dennis Bergkamp in much the same light as a small child regards Christmas: they know it is coming, it is just the wait that is unbearable.”

In total, 10 hours and 47 minutes went by until, against Southampton at Highbury, he rifled home a volley from a Glenn Helder cross. Once his personal duck had been broken, Bergkamp was soon needed for the collective cause. The visitors pulled it back to 2-2 by half time, but Bergkamp wasn’t going to have to wait another seven games for his next moment.

The floodgates seemed to be easing open. Nine goals came in those next 10 games, including the winner against Manchester United at Highbury and (despite Armstrong scoring the winner for Spurs to end his own drought) a goal for Bergkamp in his first North London derby.

Sixteen goals in 41 games in 1995/96 and then, in Wenger’s first season at the club, 14 in 34 were certainly not troubling alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright at the top of the English-dominated goalscoring charts, but Bergkamp’s contribution was increasingly more subtle.

“At Ajax you knew you’d get five chances a game. At Inter you were lucky if you got one. And at Arsenal I was always more comfortable playing behind a striker, just outside the box. It wasn’t my quality to go in the box at the right time and tap in.”

While his creative instincts were eclipsing his goalscoring exploits, the other rather underappreciated side of Bergkamp’s repertoire was beginning to show itself. A knee-high tackle left Sunderland’s Paul Bracewell in a heap and Bergkamp heading down the Roker Park tunnel in January 1996 – but Arsenal would return just four days later for an FA Cup tie.

A single boo could just be heard when Bergkamp received the ball from Paul Merson but – after a 270-degree dragback/pirouette, perfectly curled top-corner effort and a slightly sad attempt from Lionel Perez to save it – there was nothing but a ripple of polite, resigned applause from the Sunderland fans.

The following weekend, Bergkamp starred again against Everton at Highbury. The Premier League was well and truly being won over and Wenger was equally satisfied: “Every time he comes in the dressing- room, he has a bottle of champagne with him. He has enough to open a shop.”

By the 1997/98 season, Bergkamp’s third in England, the debate was no longer whether he could cut it in the Premier League; now, it was up to him to show if he was a great goalscorer or simply a scorer of great goals. The Eredivisie duck-shoot of his early years nothwithstanding, Arsenal’s Double-winning season was the closest he ever came to both.

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Having opened with two goals (and a booking, of course) against Southampton four days previously, Bergkamp ventured to Filbert Street for another textbook Premier League away-day test: Martin O’Neill’s low-nonsense Leicester City.

Marc Overmars trotted over to take a ninth-minute corner and, perhaps spotting a penalty area filled with Steve Walshes, Matt Elliotts and Spencer Priors and thinking better of it, sidefooted it to Bergkamp on the corner of the box. With Emile Heskey charging out to make a good job of obscuring the view, Bergkamp took a swift but delicate first touch to control the ball across his body and on to his right foot.

Then came that particularly Bergkampian curler – not quite as much cartoonish loop as a Zola, nor the aggressive whip of a Beckham, but better economy and disguise than both – that pinged in off the stanchion. At no point (before, during, after) does Leicester’s goalkeeper Kasey Keller seem to know what the hell is going on.

61 minutes: 2-0. Ray Parlour leads a galloping Arsenal counter-attack – the Leicester chase hampered by 1) the huffing and puffing Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzett and 2) massive, massive shorts – and Patrick Vieira pings a pass into the middle.

Bergkamp’s sub-collection of goals comprising of a devastatingly decisive first touch followed by a clever finish will eventually deserve their own YouTube compilation but, for once, his instep is a little rigid. Vieira’s bouncing pass is steered past a flat-footed Pontus Kamark, but Bergkamp is now in a rush. Kasey Keller bounds off his line, but Arsenal’s No.10 gets there first with a toe or two, dinking it up off the keeper’s body and in – about as scrappy as a Dennis Bergkamp goal gets, made slightly scrappier still by the absurdly taut Filbert Street goalnets.

That particular August, Premier League hat-tricks were in vogue – Coventry’s Dion Dublin had served the Chelsea defence’s backsides to them on a plate, Chris Sutton had taken just 20 first-half minutes for Blackburn against Aston Villa and Gianluca Vialli had left Barnsley one match ball down.

Bergkamp had some more waiting to do, though. First Heskey bundled in via the Leicester kitchen sink in the 84th minute. Then, in the 92nd, Elliott left Lee Dixon on his arse with an almost non-existent dummy to fire in a deflected equaliser.

93 minutes. Arsene Wenger doesn’t have a kitchen sink. Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Stephen Hughes complete a tidy passing square just inside the Leicester half with David Platt, who waits patiently for the Bergkamp run.

The ball sails over Elliott’s head and pops up off that Bergkamp toe. A left-foot volley is on – bit too obvious, though. The second keepy-up brings the ball inside – somehow managing not to hit the proper footballing torso or arm of the defender.

A Leicester fan screams. A third touch sets the ball for Bergkamp’s most reliable weapon of all. Keller sets himself for…something, but the Dutchman’s mind is already made up, and the sidefooted finish is way out of reach, even from six yards out.

It’s almost been conveniently forgotten that Leicester relocated the mixer one more time to rescue a point with a barnstorming, 96th-minute Steve Walsh header, which is some going. Thanks to that other-worldly hat-trick clincher, Bergkamp’s reputation was now watertight – and 11 goals in 9 late-summer games was his purplest of purple patches in England.

His season still had room for some pinpoint snidiness, too. Nine Premier League bookings were garnished with the most clear-cut of FA Cup elbows, which left Steve Lomas without those boyband looks forever after and referee Mike Reed almost laughing at the Arsenal protests. It’s as watchable as any of Bergkamp’s 120 Arsenal goals.

League and Cup winner’s medals were soon in the bag, however, along with both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards and the BBC’s Goal of the Season. But, just to prove Filbert Street was no fluke, Bergkamp went to the World Cup with Barry Davies.

“Beautifully pulled down by BergkaaaaAAAMMPP…”

For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes check out the Bet Bright football blog this week.

90s heroes

’90s Heroes: Dennis Bergkamp
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