When Dennis Bergkamp touched down in North London in 1995, nobody expected him to have the revolutionary effect he’d cast over Arsenal during his 11-season spell there. This was a man who had been handed his professional debut by Johan Cruyff at the age of 17, having come through Ajax’s famed academy; he’d dazzled supporters in Amsterdam for seven years with his sublime technique; he’d scored for the Dutch against Brazil in the World Cup the year before his transfer and was so clearly a supremely talented player. However, all this had been tainted by the two-year struggle he’d endured at Inter before his move to Highbury.
Bergkamp had failed to truly settle on the San Siro pitch and was out of favour with the supporters, despite helping to them win the UEFA Cup. After Massimo Moratti bought the club, he soon drafted in Atalanta striker Maurizio Ganz and Bergkamp was sent packing. The Gunners signed him for £7.5 million, trebling their previous record transfer fee, and was handed his favoured number 10 shirt. To some it may have seemed a risk to pay such a fee for a player who’d been struggling, but this was an Arsenal side that had only produced mid-table mediocrity the season before, finishing 12th. It was imperative they took a risk or two.
The Dutchman was manager Bruce Rioch’s first signing as Arsenal boss and he was joined by David Platt, who’d come in from Sampdoria. When the 1995/96 campaign began, Bergkamp initially found it tough. However, Arsenal supporters were given their first peek at the Dutchman’s match-winning credentials seven games into the season, in a 4-2 home win against Southampton.
He opened the scoring in the 17th minute, meeting Glenn Helder’s cross with an exquisitely hit volley into the bottom corner. As he always seemed to do, Bergkamp set a tremendous standard only to better it with his second goal. With the score at 2-2, he received the ball near the halfway line and nonchalantly strode forward with it. Then, out of nowhere, cut onto his right foot and unleashed an emphatic strike from 25 yards out which cannoned off the post and in. He was rushed by his teammates, who looked as if they couldn’t quite believe what they’d just witnessed.
Bergkamp went on to be Arsenal’s second-highest goalscorer during his debut season, grabbing a total of 11 goals, including the sole strike in a memorable win against Manchester United. While the tally of Bergkamp’s goals was undoubtedly important in helping his side reach an improved fifth in the table, there was so much more to his game than any statistic could convey.
The number 10 became known for his delightful touches, but during those first six games without a goal, the Dutchman showed an important intrinsic grit and determination. Following his unimaginative spell at Inter, to go so long without a goal would have knocked the confidence of many a forward. There was a swagger about Bergkamp, though, and with it the feeling he’d come good sooner rather than later.
Bergkamp also possessed an unrivalled touch and control. Over the course of his career, the man himself has given numerous accounts of his fascination with the dynamic of a first touch. As a child, he’d spend countless hours kicking a ball against the wall outside his home in Amsterdam. To many this is a simple act, but a young Bergkamp invested deep thought into the practice. He’d hit the ball against different parts of individual bricks, varying the power and spin of his strike so that he could study how to manipulate the ball once it returned to him. His love of the first touch never departed and is one of the defining features of what made him such an incredible player.
Arsène Wenger arrived after Bergkamp’s first season in red and white and quickly went about harnessing the Dutchman’s absurd technical ability. Both shared a love for attacking football and Bergkamp soon became the focal point of Arsenal’s attack. Throughout the rest of the 90s, Bergkamp’s moments of brilliance reared their head so often they almost became normal; except they were far from normal.
Bergkamp provided one of these moments during Wenger’s first North London Derby. The forward had won a penalty, which Ian Wright converted to give the Gunners the lead, but a Spurs equaliser had meant the scores were level going into the dying moments. In the 88th minute, Bergkamp flicked the ball up with the perfect weight for captain Tony Adams to volley it in without having to break his stride.
To rub salt in Tottenham’s wounds, he added a goal of his own before the game’s end. Wright had sent a cross towards the back post, with Bergkamp being tightly marked but, exuding elegance and agility in equal measure, he touched the ball back towards goal with the inside of his left boot and then spun to reach it before the defender and passed it into the far corner of the net with his second touch.
Both Arsenal’s league standing and the objective quality Bergkamp’s goals continued getting better and better. The Gunners finished third that campaign, but it was the season after when Bergkamp and his teammates got their first collaborative taste of silverware. They topped the league and won the first of seven FA Cups Arsène Wenger would lift as Arsenal manager.
There was a more unique accolade which Bergkamp received that season, though. To this day, he remains the only player in Premier League history to come first, second and third in the same Goal of the Month competition, achieving this inimitable honour in August 1997.
The winning goal of the three, which also won the league’s Goal of the Season, is the epitome of all that is great about Dennis Bergkamp. It’s also arguably his best ever goal — yes, even when compared to that turn and shot against Dabizas’ Newcastle. It came in a 3-3 draw against Leicester City, but years have passed since anybody last took notice of the score of that game; people only look back to this game to gawp at the brilliance of the man who adorned Arsenal’s number 10 shirt.
Bergkamp had already scored two beautifully struck goals when David Platt sent a well-weighted long pass into his path. The Dutchman, who had two defenders in his vicinity, allowed the ball to float over his shoulder, cushioning it up with his right foot. Without letting it drop he flicked the ball away from the hapless defender closest to him with his left. As it hit the floor, he touched the ball with his left foot and side-footed it into the net, out of the sprawling goalkeeper’s reach. Four touches. That’s all it took to epitomise exactly why Dennis Bergkamp was so incredible on a football pitch. The control, the composure, the agility, the technique, the strength. It capped off what has to be one of the most aesthetically brilliant hat-tricks in Premier League history.
After the extreme highs of the 1997/98 season, the following campaign was a tad underwhelming. The Gunners finished second in the league and were knocked out of the FA Cup semi-final, losing out to Manchester United both times. The 2000s, though, saw plenty of time for trophies. Bergkamp picked up two Premier Leagues and three FA Cup winner medals in red and white after the turn of the century.
However, while a trophy count can be the be-all-and-end-all for the careers of some players, it wasn’t for Bergkamp. What made him so special was the magical qualities he had with the ball at his feet, the kind that stopped time, time and again, imploring kids across the country to try – and most likely fail – to replicate his technique. That’s what made Bergkamp one of a kind.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95