This summer, when Chelsea go out and lavish £31 million on Sheva, English football does not bat an eyelid. Galacticos come to play in the Premiership these days. 11 summers ago, it was very much a shock when Dennis Bergkamp arrived in London, because in 1995, the world’s very best players went to Italy, or Spain, but not England. His coming was trumpeted in the tabs – ‘£7.5 million for Bergkamp!’ – a seismic backpage, and his arrival, along with that of Ruud Gullit, marked a great change in the national game. Rupert had delivered bucketfuls of satellite cash and the Taylor Report and Euro ’96 had delivered mordern, comfortable all-seater stadia. Now the clubs needed to fill them and had the cash to compete with the likes of Milan and Real Madrid. The English wanted in on the European big transfer jamboree. Bergkamp arrived.
He was damaged goods apparently, having failed to set Serie A alight at Internazionale, and he was extremely un-Arsenal-like. This was the Gooner side of Jensen, Hillier, Parlour and Selley and despite the best efforts of Ian Wright, it was a team defined by its capacity to defend, rather than to attack. Tony Adams was the totem, the heart of both club and first team, but Bergkamp changed the focus. Not on his own of course, as it was the arrival of Monsieur Wenger that provided the catalyst. Nethertheless, Dennis was undoubtedly the agent of change. He was technique, vision, focus and attack. Adams was strength, passion and defence. Wenger built his side around Bergkamp and Arsenal moved on.
And how Dennis moved us. There were the goals of course, all marvellous, no tap-ins for Bergy. But in a way the goals were a smokescreen, in that they sometimes blinded us to his true value to that team. Bergkgamp was the fulcrum of Wenger’s footballing version of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s fast-break LA Lakers, receiving the ball from the powerhouse midfield (Viera, Petit) and passing it in an instant to the fightening pace that surrounded him (Anelka and Overmars to start with, and then Ljungberg, Pires and Henry). There was not a pitch in the top division less suited to this kind of game than Highbury, with its cramped parameters seeming tailor-made for the offside-trap pressure pressure midfield warfare of the latter George Graham teams. But Bergkamp made those dimensions irrelevant. To quote the Dutch artist Jeroen Henneman in David Winner’s ‘Brilliant Orange’ – “One moment the pitch is narrow and crowded. Suddenly it is huge and wide.” The picture in the corner of this post was sketched by Henneman and perhaps it expresses the foundation of the Bergkamp genius: vision and technique.
His influence on the club has been massive – where do you think Thierry learnt his signature goal (one one one with the keeper – open up the body – curl it in to the far post)? And now Arsenal must replace the irreplaceable. Dennis – you shall be missed, we salute you.
The facts .
Some vintage Bergkamp.