There was only one Dennis Bergkamp
Always stylish, sometimes breathtaking and occasionally a bit naughty. As the incomparable Dutchman takes his leave of football today, Nick Coleman remembers the player who transformed the image of Arsenal Football Club
Saturday 22 July 2006
These hello-goodbye situations are never easy. Dennis Bergkamp entered the press room at Arsenal's new Emirates stadium on Thursday as one imagines he has insinuated himself into confined spaces thousands of times before: as imperceptibly as a hair in the breeze. One minute he is nowhere, the next second, zing! It's Dennis! - adzed features closed, composed, almost devoid of expression, except perhaps for the beginnings of a hint of a smile. There is something android about him. Bergkamp doesn't arrive like most people do; he materialises.
As in life, so in football. It has been the non-flying Dutchman's abiding gift as a footballer to insinuate himself like a stray hair into unexpected areas of the pitch and then make a pass as killing as an android's smile, before dematerialising again, as if he had never been.
It is Bergkamp's stealth, above all things, that we are saying goodbye to this weekend; his stealth allied to an array of technical armaments which have had few equals in subtle lethality, in addition to a remarkable capacity for disappearing from matches altogether.
It's an awful shame that the Emirates, which hosts Dennis's testimonial game tonight (Arsenal v Ajax), will never again resound either to choruses of "There's only ONE Dennis Bergkamp!" or its stentorian obverse, usually voiced by frustrated single Clock Enders going into spasms as another November afternoon drifts into frustration and anomie: "Where the FLIP is bloody Bergkamp?"
So, it's a big hello to the handsome ellipsoid edifice, glowing like a spaceship in the purlieus of Drayton Park; a sad farewell to the handsomely angular creature of flesh and bone who, as a player, has arguably done more than any other of his contemporaries to help put it there.
Do I mean it? The bit about being sad? Yes, I do, I really mean it. Dennis Bergkamp has enhanced my life, as he has enhanced Arsenal's, and the lives of the 38,000 other souls who have congregated at his workplace over the past 10 years to watch him go through his repertoire of feints, dinks and solid left-arm slams into the mugs of centre-halves uncouth enough to stand on his heels. The guy is a genius, any way you slice him. And like all geniuses, he will drive you mad.
How will our memories capture him in flight (as it were)? Perhaps with the fantabulous pull-down and angled shot which made his favourite goal - the one which completed his hat-trick - at Leicester City in the first Double-winning season of 1998; perhaps with the exquisitely balletic ball-goes-thisaway, I-go-thataway pirouette past Newcastle's defence in 2002, arguably the most divinely intuitive goal ever seen in English football. Both of those moments are football expressed as filaments of poeticised science: the art of the only-just-possible.
But neither of those moments took place at Highbury. I only saw them on telly. So, for me, the memory of Bergkamp in flight is a composite one, and a rather broken one - it's a kaleidoscopic whoosh of sudden passes at unimaginable angles; spooky bursts of acceleration into culs- de-sac (followed by immediate emergence from same with ball at bootlace); lashing, dipping drives; flying headers (oh yes, Dennis can head the ball all right); and painfully indignant on-field sulks which go on and on and on.
You see, Dennis wasn't always as good as he could be. In fact, the truth of it is that he seldom was. He was certainly never again as good as he was in the first half of that first Double-winning season in 1998. But then again, has anyone else ever been as good as that? This is the Clock End speaking, of course. We are gloomy on our stretch, tucked away under our low concrete ceiling. The glass is not half-empty up there; it's rolling between the seats with a dreg in it.
But for all his frailties and failures to turn up at the party, Bergkamp's status as an Arsenal colossus is assured for something less obviously beautiful than his technical gifts, but for a gift the more valuable because it has reached real fulfilment, enshrined by the new stadium, embodied by the way Arsenal now play football.
You see, just by coming to Highbury Bergkamp raised the bar of expectation at Arsenal. He foreshadowed Arsène Wenger, and then, when the Blessed Alsatian materialised on north London soil at last, Bergkamp expressed the first flowering of that new understanding in a way that has only lately been truly expanded on, in the realms of virtuosity, by Thierry Henry.
Bergkamp is Arsenal's John the Baptist. His was the voice that reached out of the wilderness of the unspeakable mid-Nineties and filled a generation of Gooners with hope. (And if Dennis is John the Baptist, what does that make David Dein and Bruce Rioch, who brought him to the club? Another time perhaps.) But never mind the metaphysics. What kind of a man has Dennis seemed to be? A very elusive one, for a start.
No one knows Dennis Bergkamp. We know he's a family man. We think he's held on to his dosh. We're confident that the on-pitch ice-man demeanour curtains a private life of irreproachable bourgeoisitude. But that's about it. We suspect that Dennis probably isn't a dogger.
I have a vague, unresearched memory of Bergkamp appearing in a glossy magazine feature at least half a dozen years ago. The feature, or so my memory tells me, photographed a number of celebrated sportsmen and women in the garb and place of work of their "natural" destiny, had high sporting achievement not supervened.
Dennis was a cheesemaker. There he was, the android smile warmed and widened almost to a grin, dressed in a white coat and little white bonnet, doting on a giant cheese.
Blessed are the cheesemakers, obviously. That's a given. But what I loved about that picture was not the fact of Dennis's alternative-universe job - come on, we can all imagine Titi Henry as an art teacher and Nelson Vivas as a barbary pirate - but the fact that Bergkamp looked so terribly, almost Buddhistically, content to be surrounded by cheese. He looked completely at ease, the image of a man whose inner life does not give him indigestion; a man neither reduced by his narcissism, nor inflated by it.
The real Dennis Bergkamp could have been a cheesemaker. Instead, he became a contender for the status of greatest player ever to don the red and white of Arsenal Football Club. He goes into non-specific retirement (he won't say what he's going to do) with our blessings crashing down on him in a great wave. Let us hope that he takes tonight's testimonial as the baptism of a new life.
His favourite goal
* LEICESTER v ARSENAL (Premiership, 27 Aug 1997, Filbert Street)
Bergkamp picked out the third goal of his hat-trick. "It was one of those occasions," he says, "when everything went exactly as I planned it in the second before it happened - the movement, the control, the finish."
His favourite game
* ARSENAL v MIDDLESBROUGH (Premiership, 22 Aug 2004, Highbury)
It was not a Championship clincher or a Cup final or even a 1-0 dogfight with Manchester United, but the 5-3 walloping of Middlesbrough, when Arsenal recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win with an attacking fluency that bordered on the delirious.
"That was special," Bergkamp says. "I was captain for the day - I really felt like I was a leader on the pitch."
* BORN 10 May 1969, Amsterdam, Netherlands
* GAMES AND GOALS
Total Club 661 240
Total League 552 203
FA Cup 39 14
English League Cup 16 8
European/Others 54 15
Apps (as sub) Goals
79 (0) 36
Apps (sub) Goals Y R Assists
424 (78) 121 42 4 124
315 (62) 87 35 1 n/a
39 (5) 14 3 3 n/a
16 (0) 8 0 0 n/a
54 (11) 12 4 0 n/a
* SEASON-BY-SEASON BREAKDOWN (League only)
24 appearances, 2 goals
2004-05 Arsenal 29, 8
2003-04 Arsenal 28, 4
2002-03 Arsenal 29, 4
2001-02 Arsenal 33, 9
2000-01 Arsenal 25, 3
1999-00 Arsenal 28, 6
1998-99 Arsenal 29, 12
1997-98 Arsenal 28, 16
1996-97 Arsenal 29; 12
1995-96 Arsenal 33, 11
1994-95 Inter 21; 3
1993-94 Inter 31; 8
1992-93 Ajax 28; 26
1991-92 Ajax 30; 24
1990-91 Ajax 33; 25
1989-90 Ajax 25; 8
1988-89 Ajax 30; 13
1987-88 Ajax 25; 5
1986-87 Ajax 14; 2
Dutch Championship 89-90
Dutch Cup 87; 93
European Cup-Winners' Cup 86-87
Uefa Cup 91-92, 93-94
English Premiership 97-98, 01-02, 03-04.
English FA Cup 98, 02, 03, 05
Dutch Topscorer 90-91, 91-92, 92-93
Dutch Player of the Year 92, 93
English PFA Players' Player of the Year 98
English Football Writers' Player of the Year 98
Goal of the Season 98, 02
First Arsenal line-up (v Middlesbrough, 1-1, 20 Aug 95, Highbury): Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Keown, Parlour (Helder 71), Platt, Merson, Bergkamp, Wright
Last Arsenal Line-up (v Wigan, 4-2, 7 May 2006, Highbury): Lehmann, Campbell, Cole, Eboué, Touré, Gilberto Silva, Fabregas, Hleb (Van Persie 79), Pires (Ljundberg 74), Henry, Reyes (Bergkamp 79).
1969 One of four sons; named after former Manchester United player Denis Law.
1981 Joins Ajax aged 12.
1986 Makes debut in December against Roda JC.
1987 Comes on as a substitute in the European Cup-Winners' Cup final against Leipzig, which Ajax won.
1990 Makes international debut against Italy. Scores first international goal against Greece.
1992 Joint top goalscorer at Euro 92 with three goals.
1993 Leaves Ajax having scored 103 goals in 185 League games.
1994 Excellent World Cup; scores three goals in five games.
1995 After troubled stay at Inter, Bruce Rioch signs him for Arsenal for £7.5m but fails to score in first eight games.
1998 Comes first, second and third in Match of the Day's Goal of the Month competition. Scores three, sets up three at World Cup as Netherlands finish fourth. Retires from international football.
2003 Scores 100th Arsenal goal 2003-04 Goes Premiership season unbeaten
2005 Makes 300th League appearance
2006 Scores on "Dennis Bergkamp Day" at Highbury in victory over West Bromwich
What they said
If Ryan Giggs is worth £20m, Dennis Bergkamp is worth £100m Marco Van Basten
Intelligence and class. Class is, of course, linked to what you can do with the ball, but the intelligence makes you use the technique in an efficient way. It's like somebody who has a big vocabulary but he doesn't say intelligent words, and somebody who has a big vocabulary but he can talk intelligently, and that's what Dennis is all about. What he does, there's always a head and always a brain. And his technique allows him to do what he sees, and what he decides to do. Arsène Wenger
Can you not say he is the best player in the world right now? If there is a better one, then I have not seen him. Wenger, on Bergkamp's form during the 1997-98 season
Arsenal will be lucky if Bergkamp scores 10 goals this season. Massimo Moratti, president of Inter, on Bergkamp's transfer.
I have always said Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner I have ever had. He is a dream for a striker. Thierry Henry
A lot of people think that I've never flown but that's not true. I just suddenly decided not to fly again. Flying was affecting me and my game. I've played the best football of my career at Arsenal, since I made that decision. Bergkamp
Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought. Bergkamp
He needs fewer touches to score. Sometimes just one, when others need two or three. Wenger
What he'll miss...
* EMIRATES STADIUM
Capacity 60,000; 26,500 fans on the Upper Level and 24,200 on the Lower Level. Seats 128 seats in the directors' box
Disabled spaces 500
Press spaces 215
Away fans 1,500-9,000
Stadium dimensions: Distance between the North and South stands is 245.6m, between East to West is 199.6m. The total height of the stadium is 41.466m with the eaves reaching a height of 34.190m. Over 17 acres
Build time 124 weeks
Project cost £390m
Jobs created 1,800
Houses built as part of the project 2,000
There will be:
4,500m of metal handrailing 2,000 doors
100 flights of stairs
900 toilets and 370m of urinals
475 plasma screens
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