Football: Best is yet to come for Bergkamp

Gardening, shopping, goalscoring - they all come easily to Arsenal's debonair Dutchman. He talked to Glenn Moore
Click to follow
The professionals are agreed: Dennis Bergkamp is special. "A great player," Don Howe, England's most experienced coach, said. "He's got class," said one of his fellow Premiership strikers, Dean Holdsworth of Wimbledon.

He is even skilful by Dutch standards. Bert van Lingen, staff coach of the Dutch FA and assistant to the national team said: "He has fabulous technical skills."

The public, however, seem to be unsure. Bergkamp's goals are as spectacular as Jurgen Klinsmann's, his sleight of foot more bewitching, his team more successful - Arsenal sit in second place for today's visit to Manchester United. So why has Bergomania not swept the country like Klinsmania did?

It may be because everyone affects to hate Arsenal. It may be because the spotlight has moved on to Ravanelli, Vialli and Zola. But it is more probably because Bergkamp is simply not that type of player, not that type of man. He is undemonstrative on the pitch and private off it.

We met yesterday, just before he boarded the team coach to travel to Old Trafford. He preferred talking about football to his personal life and was eager to quash comparisons.

He had been quoted as saying he wanted to be more successful here than Klinsmann, but he denied this: "I did not say that. You cannot compare players. Every person is different. Even the way he played at Tottenham is different to the way I play at Arsenal. I was compared for many years to Marco van Basten, but I am not like him either."

Bergkamp has played in Klinsmann's centre-forward role with Internazionale in Italy and, at times, with the Netherlands. At Arsenal, however, he plays about 15 yards behind Ian Wright.

"I like to play there, but every game is different," he said. "I start there but it can change. You have to learn where the space is in each game: that is where I like to go. Ian is a very good player. Easy to find, easy to play with, and a great finisher."

Easy to find. Watch Bergkamp and you see an unselfish, positive player. Howe said: "A lot of forwards in this country come on to the ball, lay it back to midfield and go again. He gets it and he wants to turn and play it into Ian Wright, to go forward."

Bergkamp agreed: "That is what I like most - to go straight to the goal - and Ian is a player who wants that as well."

Wright's goals are one reason why Bergkamp has not monopolised the headlines. The other is his lifestyle. He lives quietly with his wife, Henrita, and eight-month-old baby, Estelle, in a leafy area near the northern edge of the M25. He is so settled he even spent his summer break there rather than return to the Netherlands. Life consists of gardening - he has been spotted stocking up at a local garden centre - and "we go for walks, do some shopping. In the evenings we don't do much because of the baby."

What's this? Attack-minded player with "boring Arsenal"? A quiet family man among a dressing-room famed for its hell-raisers? He must be the odd one out.

Far from it. After Italy, where he felt unfairly blamed for Internazionale's struggles and oppressed by the intensity of the dressing room, he is enjoying Arsenal. While rarely taking the lead in dressing- room banter, he feels at ease.

"It is much more relaxed," he said. "You are allowed to do your own warm- up and preparation. And we have music. We don't know in Holland or Italy about music before the game, very loud music too, that is not allowed. It is good. Arsene Wenger has changed a few things - mainly the time we arrive, much earlier - but he has left the music." It will surprise nobody that Wright is the musicmaster.

Van Lingen, speaking from his experience with the Dutch team, added: "He needs a good environment. It is very important that he feels comfortable and he does in England. The atmosphere is more about football, less about the press and business."

Bergkamp said: "The football is fine, the private life is great. I have no complaints. Sometimes people recognise you, but they leave you alone. That's nice. You can be yourself. You are not really special in a big town like London. In Italy they want to touch you, to talk to you, to follow you.

"The football is more attractive here, for the players and the fans. Teams try to score goals. The fans won't allow you to pass it around the back five or six times. They want it forward. A draw is not enough, even for teams near the bottom.

"It is mainly what I expected, but the standard is much higher than people in other countries think. The first month I was here I found it really hard to get involved in the rhythm of the game, it was so quick."

Today's match will be closely followed in the Netherlands by Wim Bergkamp, his father. A Manchester United fan, he named his son after Denis Law. "I have two n's as we are only familiar with that in Holland," Bergkamp Jnr said. "Denis with one n does not really exist."

This afternoon's game is a chance for another comparison, with Eric Cantona. Howe said: "People go on about Cantona - how he finds space, the way he combines midfield and attack. Bergkamp plays that role as well as anyone. There is another parallel in the way they play when they are further up. They have both done it and neither looked comfortable.

"He doesn't get the headers that Cantona gets, those far-post goals. He could get a few more bread-and-butter goals, but he probably thinks he gets enough. Besides, at Arsenal Wrighty is in those positions. He gets chances around the D and he's the best finisher in the Premiership from there. He's got such variety. He can drill it hard and low, he can bend it, he can slam it high into the corner.

"He's a Rolls Royce, he's so smooth, his vision is perfect. He knows just where to be at the right time. And when he gets there he's got a lovely touch. Whether he's playing a little pass, or a flick, or a firm ball into Wright, he recognises very quickly what is required and carries it out. His education as a young player must have been fantastic."

Bergkamp was schooled at Ajax, but he was a late starter. "I could have joined at nine but Ajax was different. It was all people who thought they were rich but weren't. I didn't like them very much. After a few years it changed. A lot of normal players went there and I joined."

The electrician's son was given his debut at 16 by Johan Cruyff. At 20 he made his international debut. With 28 goals from 51 games he is now seven behind Faas Wilkes' pre-War Dutch record of 35. He has a better international strike-rate than Van Basten, but a poorer one than Cruyff.

In the summer of 1993 he joined Inter for pounds 8m before moving to Arsenal for pounds 7.5m two years later.

The Arsenal fans love him, partly because, as one admitted, "he is emblematic of what we want to be". He is stylish, exotic, skilful and envied. Last year he scored 16 goals. This year, despite hamstring and knee troubles, he has four in 10 starts - not bad when the best chances are snaffled by Wright.

Most importantly for Arsenal fans, Bergkamp, unlike Klinsmann, is still here. He shows no sign of wishing to leave before the end of his four- year deal and he should get better.

"He's done well for Arsenal," Holdsworth said, "but I think there is probably more to come. We've seen a taste."

"I try to be better every year," Bergkamp said. "So far it is better than at this time last season. I am finding my form now."

"He is a slow starter," Van Lingen concluded. "We think he will go on to bigger achievements."