Welcome back to the latest series of articles from Last Word on Football. Today we look at a player who entertained the Premier League for 11 years and is widely recognised as one of the best foreign players to ever grace the Premier League – Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp.
Where It All Began for Bergkamp
The origins of Dennis Bergkamp, named after Scottish legendary striker Dennis Law, started in his native Amsterdam. At 11 years old, his natural ability with the ball attracted the attention of the city’s historic club Ajax. Originally playing as a wide midfielder, Bergkamp progressed through the club’s fabled youth academy of De Toekomst. Six years later at the tender age of 17, he would make his professional bow for Ajax. It was a home game against Roda JC coming on as a late substitute. It was a happy debut with his side running out 2-0 winners.
The Becoming of Bergkamp at Ajax
By now, the Dutchman changed his position to a striker. In seven years with the Amsterdam outfit he played 185 matches, scoring 103 goals. His final three seasons at Ajax would bring a goal glut ranging in the mid twenties. In his final season, he scored a remarkable 26 goals in 28 games in the Eredivisie. This achievement cemented himself as one of the best talents in world football.
During his time in Amsterdam, he won the League, Cup, European Cup Winners Cup and the 1992 UEFA Cup Final edition defeating Torino over two legs. Not only in club football was he shining, but on the international stage too. He scored a career-best seven goals in 11 games for the Oranje during the calendar year of 1992.
The Ill-Fated Italian Job
As Bergkamp was exhibiting himself at the top level, the top European heavyweights would start to circle. It was Inter Milan who won his signature back in the summer of 1993 for £7.1 million pounds. His international teammate Wim Jonk would also join him as it was a case of double Dutch for the Italians.
The attraction for Bergkamp in Serie A was that the Italian league was the best at the time. Also, there was an opportunity to play in a big stadium atmosphere. It looked the perfect fit, yet, for all Bergkamp’s quality and skill, he never got to grips with the tactical and defensive prowess that Serie A was characterized for. Domestically, it was indeed an ill-fated spell. He scored only 11 goals in 52 matches in his two seasons at the San Siro.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. He still enjoyed success in Europe. In his first season, he racked up eight goals in 11 matches in the 1993/94 UEFA Cup season. This ensured Inter Milan won the trophy 2-0 on aggregate against Austria Salzburg. Bergkamp had such a good season he finished joint top scorer with Edgar Schmitt of Karlsruher SC on eight goals.
This was a run which included beating Norwich City 2-0 over two legs. Bergkamp scored with a penalty and an outfield goal. The striker had a happy memory of that game and soon after he would be back playing in England for real where his career hit the heights of legendary status.
Arsenal’s Jewel in the Crown
As his time at Internazionale came to an end, the Londoners of Arsenal prised him away for a club-record fee of £7.5 million pounds. But he had an average first season in England where both supporters and the press expressed doubts in the Dutchman. However, he would fully flourish under new manager Arsene Wenger. Aware of his technical ability, Wenger made him his main man and changed his position to a second striker role. Also, thanks to some revolutionized dietary and sports medicine and practices, Arsenal became the pioneers of that Premier League era with Bergkamp spearheading the Gunner’s success.
Bergkamp and That Hat-Trick
One of the most talked-about moments in Premier League history is the famous hat-trick by Bergkamp against Leicester at Filbert Street on the 23rd August 1997. Three goals, three different goals of pure class.
Firstly, a superb curling strike from outside the box arrowed into the top right-hand corner. Next, a lovely lob for his second but the pièce de résistance was the hat-trick strike. A ball from deep arrived at the feet of the Dutchman and with the poise and intelligence, he firstly controlled the ball with his right foot. Then, with his left foot, he flicked the ball past the bamboozled defender Matt Elliott with both touches of the ball not even touching the ground. Finally, Bergkamp showed his guile and coolness to slot the ball past goalkeeper Kasey Keller into the top right-hand net.
A moment of brilliance and a hat trick of the highest order. He remains the only player to have the distinction of all his goals included in the top three best goals for Match of the Day viewers to chose their goal of the month. The only time in 50 years. Remarkably, it was Bergkamp’s only hat-trick with the Gunners. A milestone tinged with slight disappointment that the hat-trick didn’t earn the victory it deserved. The game at Filbert Street finished a thrilled 3-3 draw.
The Brilliance of Bergkamp
18 years ago in 2002, Bergkamp would score one of the great Premier League goals against Newcastle United. This was a goal which encapsulated all the hallmarks of the talented Dutchman. He showed his creativity and imagination to think of the flick and turn. He demonstrated his technique and skill to actually make it happen by tapping the ball one way and swivel the other past a bewildered Nikos Dabizas. In addition, his brute force to outmuscle himself past the defender also marks another reason why this goal is right up there with the best goals ever produced.
The Non-Flying Dutchman
During his career, it was well documented his fear of flying. An incident occurred during travelling for the 1994 World Cup held in the United States of America when an engine failed to start on the aircraft he was flying on. Add to that, his unease at travelling in small planes with Inter Milan triggered his phobia to the point he would get anxious at the thought of flying. Naturally, this made it troublesome in travelling abroad for his side Arsenal’s European games and with the National team. But he managed to travel by train and car to as many games as possible due to warm support of his club Arsenal and The Netherlands Football Association.
The relative close proximity of the 1998 World Cup held in France made it easier to hop on the Eurostar and take part in the tournament. Supporters all over the world, apart from Argentina, glad he did. That summer was lit up by the famous strike he scored in the Quarter Finals at the Stade Velodrome.
A lovely arrowing ball from deep from Frank de Boer found Bergkamp who, marked by the great Argentine defender Roberto Ayala, coolly trapped the ball, turned the defender and delicately caressed a wonderful strike past goalkeeper Carlos Roa into the net. Just 2.51 seconds separated three wonderful touches to bring worldwide acclaim as one of the goals of the tournament. No wonder he was nicknamed the ‘iceman’, so cool under pressure.
End of an Era for Bergkamp
Returning to club matter, in his final league appearance for Arsenal, he came off the bench with the score 1-1 against West Bromwich Albion. The retiring striker would give an assist to Robert Pires before scoring an 89th-minute strike to taste victory at the end. It was to be his last competitive goal.
A Fitting Testimonial
Given his status, Arsenal awarded Bergkamp a testimonial match against Ajax on 22nd July 2006. It was to be Arsenal’s first match at the Emirates Stadium. The first half lined up an Arsenal vs Ajax current team. Meanwhile, in the second half, the legends of both sides took part. It was a young Klass-Jan Huntelaar who would have the honour to score the first goal at the stadium. A match won in the end by Arsenal 2-1 thanks to Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu.
Above all, the day belonged to Bergkamp and opening the stadium and new era was a fitting finale to close the chapter on the glittering era of Dennis Bergkamp. A hugely influential player in a transformational crossroads moment in the Premier League. A supremely gifted footballer and his 315 goals and 87 goals for The Gunners earned him hero status. His glorious career truly solidified him as a Premier League great.
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