Bergkamp on being King Henry's backing band

Tales from the Invincibles

DENNIS BERGKAMP

Undoubtedly one of the most gifted players in our history – and leading global talent of his generation – Dennis had already enjoyed a remarkable Gunners career by the time the 2003/04 season started.

Our Dutch No10 joined in a high-profile move from Inter Milan in 1995, and was voted both PFA and FWA Player of the Season as we won the double in 1997/98.

He was instrumental again in our 2001/02 double-winning campaign scoring 14 goals in all competitions, and had racked up five major honours, 316 appearances and 104 goals by the start of the Invincible season.

He featured in all but 10 games in the unbeaten campaign, and was joint-winner (alongside Edu) of the Premiership Player of the Month award in February. He had expected 2003/04 to be his last, but his form was such that he played two more after that, eventually retiring with 423 appearances, 120 goals and a club-record 94 Premier League assists.

Emirates Stadium opened with his testimonial match in July 2006, and his statue was unveiled in 2014. We caught up with the Dutch master recently to relive the incredible Invincible season.

At the start of that season, you gave us an interview saying it would definitely be your last before retiring. Did it make any difference approaching that campaign thinking it would be your last?

Well, I don’t remember saying that but I can imagine it, with the career I’d had until then. Arsène had the policy of only giving the players who were over 30 a one-year contract, and I was 34 at the start of that season. As a footballer you know if you play until about 33, especially in the Premier League with all the games and travelling and everything, you have done well.

At that stage you are always thinking it could be your last season, so yes, I was thinking that, but I never expected to have a season like that, and surely that changed my mind that I could go on longer. But I don’t think I went into that season any differently.

At 34 I would have just wanted to enjoy it and stay fit, and try to make it the best season ever. But at that age it’s all about fitness, and I think in that area I had a good season without big injuries, so I was free in my head to enjoy it.

You had plenty of battles with Manchester United throughout your career, but one
of the most intense was at the start of this season – the goalless draw at Old Trafford. What are your memories of that day?

When I arrived at Arsenal, Manchester United were the biggest team and we were one of the teams trying to compete with them. They were always seen as the big challenge, but at some point we got past them.

We became the better team and people looked at us that way. It showed in that game they were desperate to get a result against us, and in the end we were fairly disappointed with a draw. A few years before we would have loved a draw there, but we had changed and felt we could have got a result.

Then at the end with their penalty miss, there was a lot of emotion. I always want to be the peacekeeper if I can, not let things get out of hand, but of course when you are in the middle of it you want to protect your players. It’s football, you don’t want it to get silly, but we felt like we didn’t deserve to have that penalty against us.

There were a few decisions that didn’t go our way, and for them they felt disappointed they couldn’t break us.

“The pace of our game was unbelievably high. I believe in that area we could really compete with current football”

The first time you led us out as captain in your Arsenal career was early in that season, at Birmingham. Was that a sign of how many leaders we had in the squad at the time?

Yes, everything gets easier when you have that experience. It’s not a big thing any more when you play away at big stadiums, against big teams. You just know how to deal with the crowds and everything, and you can focus on the gameplan. You can go there, play the game, get the result and move onto the next one.

That’s basically how we saw it. That Manchester United result, for example – as a young player you might be annoyed, angry with not winning. But then you think, “Look, it’s not bad, could have been worse, let’s move on to the next one.”

You and Thierry Henry had played together for four years already – how would you describe your partnership at that stage?

The whole partnership was based on respect. We respect each other immensely and at that part of my career I was really happy to just play the backing vocals for Thierry! I wanted to help the team to be perfect by knowing exactly my role. My role was to gel with the midfielders and then provide the King – King Thierry!

He was just so unbelievably good at that moment you would have been silly to just focus on yourself or be selfish. This was a man who could score more goals and could win games for you. I was so happy just to provide him with chances, and link up together up front.

Playing with him was sort of easy. We knew each other through and through by then. I knew what he wanted to do, and he knew when I got the ball, exactly what run to make, or ask for a one-two. That came from experience, working in training and playing the games. But you have to be on a certain level with each other intelligence-wise, but also football-wise and street-wise.

You have to know from each other what the other one wants to do at that moment, and we knew that. So for me, it wasn’t that difficult because he was a player who – in every single area of football – was top. You can’t find a weakness in his game, and that’s great to play with because, between you, you can turn every situation into goals.

How enjoyable was it to live that moment, knowing that you and the team were at the very peak of your powers?

It was unbelievable. I really think we played close to perfection in that period. Our gameplan, and all the quality we had in the squad, but the main thing for me was the pace of our game. The pace was unbelievably high.

I believe in that area we could really compete with current football. We were flying all over the pitch, precision movement, combination play – everything. It was very, very enjoyable to play in.

Even in training the quality was so high, but we had the freedom as well to express ourselves, and we respected each other. Then the results were there as well. We had the perfect balance of experience, players who wanted to play, players who wanted to be solid. We all had the same mindset and that got us the results. It was a joy.

I was 34 but I felt like a kid sometimes because it was so much fun to go out there. That feeling you have when you know you are stronger than your opponent – that’s magical. We knew we were going to win, it was just a question of by how much and how are we going to do it. That’s a huge power that’s fantastic to experience. I had it a few times in my career but with this team it was very special.

"I was 34 but I felt like a kid sometimes because it was so much fun to go out there. That feeling you have when you know you are stronger than your opponent – that’s magical"

There were some unsung players in the squad too, how did the squad dynamic work with players who didn’t play as often?

In football there is always a hierarchy, and everyone knows how it works within the team. Sometimes it’s like the animal world, you look around and think, “OK, who’s the best player, who’s the strongest, how do I fit in?” And I think what Arsène did tremendously well was to fit in all the players.

Everyone in that squad knew their place, in the starting XI or whatever, and were happy to challenge for their place. There were no sad faces in training. Maybe one or two players wanted more minutes at certain times, but during the whole season people knew their role, and were happy.

Myself, I came from a position in the squad where I was the one to get the goals before, but I knew my position that season as well – Thierry was a much better player in scoring goals. So I found my position as well.

We had Gilberto and Patrick who worked tremendously hard to win the ball. Pires and Ljungberg knew their roles, the defence knew their positions, the goalkeeper was very serious – everyone knew how to win games. That was to provide the players up front with chances, so there were no hard feelings in that team.

Jens told us recently that you two were close, having sat together on the bus every matchday. What was he like off the pitch?

Well, first of all it’s not easy to follow a keeper like David Seaman so everybody was looking at him to see what he would bring for us. But for me he was a traditional goalkeeper, who worked hard in training sessions – day in, day out – improving his game.

He was very serious, maybe sometimes a bit too serious! But he was there to keep out goals. He wasn’t there to entertain the crowd, he was there to do his job. He was a true professional and I got along well with him.

I liked that idea of working hard every day and also we were a similar age, which helped. We looked at things in the same sort of way, and I enjoyed how he was there for the team, and to get the job done.

What were your own highlights in 2003/04?

I had about 20 starts in the league, so physically it was a good season, and I just enjoyed it all. I think my contribution grew more and more towards the end. I remember a few assists. The one at Chelsea for Patrick was quite nice, from a technical point of view I was really happy with that one. And of course the one on the last day against Leicester, also for Patrick, as it made us win the game.

But the highlight for me was the whole season – by the end of it I was 35, so to become an Invincible was really special, and it gets more and more special with each passing year. Then winning the league at Spurs as well – all those things came together, and being part of that team was really enjoyable.

Finally, how special is it for you to reflect on moments like that, 20 years later?

When you are playing your career, you are in the moment so you don’t realise those things, but once you stop playing you think of those moments.

This team really deserves a legacy. People will always remember it, it will always be in the books as something unbelievably special. You never know if it will be done again in the Premier League – nobody knows.

Looking back at all the footage of goals and games you realise it was a very, very special group of talented players. To have been part of that, and to be able to look back on it, because luckily the footage is there, is something really special. Every player in that group deserves it and will always look back on it as something really special in their career and in their life.

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