You could fill a page with a list of outstanding goals scored by him. You could fill two pages with a list of the goals that had their genius in his vision. And you could fill a dictionary with a list of superlatives used to describe his 11-year career with Arsenal. Dennis Bergkamp is quite simply a legend of the game.
In the last two decades many one-time unknowns have left Highbury with a fearsome reputation and much-warranted acclaim. But, in a way, Dennis was an exception; he came, and left, with a world-class calibre.
His arrival signalled a daring change in outlook from the men in charge at Arsenal. George Graham had been replaced by Bruce Rioch and ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’ was to be replaced by something altogether more beautiful. Bergkamp was the catalyst.
Of course Rioch’s Highbury sojourn came to an abrupt end and in September 1996 Arsène Wenger took the reins. Bergkamp needn’t have fretted over his place in the Frenchman’s plans, though, and Wenger later claimed Dennis’ presence in the ranks had been “a blessing, a gift when I arrived”.
And so it was that under the tutelage of Wenger, Bergkamp redefined football in England’s top division. His textbook technique, physical prowess and second-nature for picking out the killer pass made him the ultimate symbol of fantasy football. Indeed when Arsenal usurped Manchester United as the country’s best team in 1998, Bergkamp, too, succeeded Eric Cantona as the Premier League’s brightest beacon of European excellence. That Double season Arsenal’s No 10 was outstanding and his reward at the end of the campaign was both major Player of Year awards to go with his Championship and FA Cup medals.
But, strangely, Bergkamp had had a fitful beginning to life in London, failing to score in his first seven senior outings. Pressure was mounting not least from the tabloid media who had branded the Dutchman ‘Hartle-Fool’ after failing to score against the North East minnows in a League Cup tie. How wrong they were. Within a week the Iceman confounded his critics with a cool brace at home to Southampton. He never looked back.
Numbers alone will not convey his pioneering pedigree. For the record though, Bergkamp plundered 120 goals in his time with Arsenal, making him the 10th highest goalscorer in the Club’s history; quite the achievement for a man who doesn’t do tap-ins.
The swivel at St James’, the lob against Leverkusen — goals coming just four days apart — the Filbert Street finale and of course the belter against Bolton that assured Arsenal a place in Europe. Everything Bergkamp did oozed class. From his rifle-sight accuracy with either foot or his exploitation of space, the Dutchman was the hub of Arsenal creativity for a decade.
Even age couldn’t wither his genius. Four years after guiding Arsenal to Premier League domination Bergkamp was at it again as Wenger’s men ruled once more. It was a similar story in 2003 as the Gunners marched to another FA Cup triumph, but by now Dennis was almost 34 and his contract was up. But Arsenal couldn’t let him go and he penned a one-year extension. Bergkamp repaid the faith shown in him with a typically classy season. The ‘Invincibles’, especially Messrs Henry, Ljungberg, Pires and Reyes, had a lot to be thankful for.
But time eventually caught up with Dennis and he decided, as Arsenal left Highbury, that his playing time was up. Only something massive and memorable would be good enough to reflect the impact the Dutchman had on the Club. The occasion of Bergkamp’s testimonial fitted the bill perfectly. The stars came out in force to honour one of the game’s greats - Marco van Basten and Johan Cruyff to name but two.
And the honours kept coming. In September 2007, Bergkamp was inducted in to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, the first Dutchman to achieve such acclaim.
Some players elicit admiration, some provide inspiration, and a precious few can do both. Bergkamp was one such individual. His cast-iron technique was forged on the youth team training ground at Ajax and his steely character developed at Inter. But his best years will always belong to Arsenal.