Arsenal’s class of 2002, so successful on the pitch, aren’t doing so badly off it some 11 years on.
The likes of Oleg Luzhny and Tony Adams have already cut their managerial teeth, while Dennis Bergkamp is embarking upon what looks set to be a successful coaching career at Ajax. Over the last two seasons, Dennis has come face to face with another old team-mate in the most highly charged Eredivisie fixture of all. Giovanni van Bronckhorst is an assistant to Feyenoord boss Ronald Koeman nowadays, and has high hopes of striking out as a successful manager in his own right.
We caught up with him to reflect on what was in some ways a bittersweet three years - one spent on loan at Barcelona - as an Arsenal player, and to look at what the future will hopefully hold for the left-footed maestro.
"Arsène Wenger was one of the best managers that I’ve trained and played under"
Gio, you must have been happy to see your old side secure another Champions League qualification in May… It’s very good for the team - playing every year in the best league in Europe. If you look back over the last couple of years, there have been many players coming in and out - and Arsène Wenger is building a new team with young players. Last season was not the season Arsenal expected, which is why they had to wait until the last game to qualify, and finally they did. I hope that, with new players coming in, they can build a team that can challenge to be the champions.
These days, you are part of Ronald Koeman’s backroom staff at Feyenoord. Now that you see the other side of things, do you appreciate the job that Arsène Wenger and other managers have done even more? Totally! As a player you come into training, you train and you go home. On a game day you travel to the stadium, you play and you go home and rest. But look at the work coaches have to do to make sure the team is in good condition and that they are prepared going into games. You have to analyse the opponents and make sure you evaluate your own team during games - things such as what you have to do better and what you need to work on. I totally see the work that has to be done as a coach. I have a lot of respect not only for Wenger, but for all the coaches I played under. It’s a new challenge to develop myself as a coach but I’m really looking forward to the new role I have. Hopefully in the future I can be a good coach as well. I’ve trained under so many fine coaches and managers, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Arsène Wenger was one of the best that I’ve trained and played under.
Do you still look out for Arsenal’s results? Of course. The teams that you play for are always special to you. If you look at the teams I’ve played for - Arsenal, Rangers, Barcelona, Feyenoord - they are all great clubs. It was a good couple of years for me. Although I had my injury, I always went to training with pleasure and was able to train and play with so many good players and good coaches. It was a good step for my career. After Arsenal, I moved on with Barcelona, where I think I had the best time of my career and won a lot of trophies. I think my time at Arsenal really helped me to develop myself as a player as well.
"I think my time at Arsenal really helped me to develop myself as a player"
What attracted you to Arsenal when you first joined? The Club was very stable. They had a stable team. Being able to play in England with a great team and players, I knew I was going to develop myself with the team. That’s why it was a dream move for me. In the first February I had a bad injury with my knee, but even training with those players makes you better. I look back at my time with Arsenal and my memories are really good.
Before your injury, you were a regular in the team and played in most games, either in central midfield or on the left side. Did you feel that you were coming to terms with Arsenal in that first season? Until the moment that I got injured, I played every game - feeling stronger and stronger. I was playing more games and was really doing well. An injury never comes at the right moment but, for me, that moment was not good. It’s very difficult to adjust going into a new team and a new club - and just as I found my rhythm and my fitness, I was out for eight months. When I came back from injury, the team was playing really well and it’s difficult to come back.
Is the injury still in your mind? It’s still in my mind, but I don’t feel the knee anymore. Since I was operated on, I’ve never had a problem. The doctor did really well and I still don’t have any difficulties. It’s always there of course, but it’s fine now.
Tell us a bit about that day. It was a home game against Fulham in February. Did you immediately realise something was wrong? Yes, I felt something was wrong because it was very painful. After that, I couldn’t feel the pain anymore but I knew something was wrong. The medical staff knew that it was a big problem but they couldn’t say anything until they had done the scans. When they told me the outcome, it was of course very disappointing, especially the day I heard it. I think that, the day after, I started my comeback and did it very well. It made me mentally stronger, too.
You had surgery in Denver and then came back here to work. How did you cope with being out? It was hard because you’re away from the team. I was working along in Holland with the physios and that is very hard. You miss being around the players at the Club but the moment I came back, it went very fast. After seven months out, I was playing in the reserves and after eight months I made my comeback against Sunderland in the League Cup. The first game is mentally very difficult, because you have to play and maybe you’re a bit scared of the knee, but I really felt strong and knew my knee was perfect. After that I could play every game, but of course when the team is playing well it’s very hard to come in. I had my games, but not as many as I wanted.
You passed to Robert Pires, who scored in your comeback game. He said it was a great moment and just like old times. He had sustained the same injury a month after you. Did you and he bond over that?Of course. I think Robert did his knee ligament a couple of weeks after me - we had the same injury. He was recovering in France, I was recovering in Holland. To be able to play for the team again after so many months is very good, also for your mental state. Giving the pass for him to score was a good moment, because that was the moment when we knew we were back.
"Giving the pass for Robert Pires to score was a good moment, because that was the moment when we knew we were back."
You ended that season injured, but you also ended it as a champion. Arsenal won the league and you got a medal. How good was that particular side? It was one of the best sides I played in. There were so many quality players, but we were also a great team on and off the pitch. To be champions of England is always an honour and it makes me proud to be part of the team’s history. If you look back at my career, I had so many good moments and they included the ones I experienced at Arsenal.
You came back to fitness, but Gilberto had been signed. The midfield was a crowded area - including Vieira, Edu and Parlour. You had to fight for your place, and to get fit. How hard was that? It wasn’t hard because that’s in my character. I always trained hard and was ready for the moment I had to play. It’s not easy when you’re not playing but the team was winning almost everything. Arsène was quite fond of letting everybody play, so I had games every two weeks or so. It’s mentally hard, but some players can cope with it better than others. I was used to playing different roles in the team - I started as a left winger, played centrally and at left back, where I think I had the most games. That was also the case for Holland and Barcelona. I think I played my best games as a left back.
Your last game for Arsenal was the first in that 49-game unbeaten run, at home to Southampton just before the FA Cup final. Did you feel that your time was coming to an end at that point, or were you still fighting for your place? I didn’t know at the time, but with a big tournament coming up [Euro 2004] I knew I needed a season where I would be playing in every game to make sure I was ready for it. Arsenal were very good, and Arsène as well. He said that if I wanted to go away on loan I could maybe play, get stronger and then come back. I didn’t know at that time that a big club like Barcelona was interested - for me, that was a dream move. That year I did very well, the team did very well and they wanted me permanently. That’s why I signed on with them.
And you came back to haunt Arsenal in Paris in 2006… Sometimes things can go very strangely. Being in the Champions League final against Arsenal, facing your old colleagues, was strange and different. It was one of the best moments in my career, winning a trophy like that against my former team. It was a bit sad for Arsenal because I knew what being in the Champions League meant to Arsène. But I was happy for myself that I got the medal and won the cup.
You won 106 caps for Holland and were captain of the country at the end. It was so nearly a fairytale ending too, playing in the 2010 World Cup final… Almost. We were very close but that’s football. You can be very close but then again very far. I think we had a good tournament. Playing against Spain in the final was very difficult, and in the end we didn’t win it. Although I look back with very good memories and playing your last game in the final is a fairytale, lifting the cup would have been even better. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way but I’m very honoured and blessed to have had all the moments I had in my career.
As we know, you’re now a coach. Do you want to go to the top of the game in this profession, or are you happy to be part of the backroom staff? Eventually I want to be a manager. In the last three years, I’ve had a good experience with Feyenoord. I have all my UEFA badges now so I’m a qualified coach. In the next years I want to get more experience and eventually make the step to becoming a manager when I feel ready for it.
Finally, do you still keep in contact with people you knew at Arsenal? Yes of course, with people like Dennis [Bergkamp] and Vieira. I just saw Pires a couple of weeks ago, together with Ljungberg. Every year I see some old colleagues and it’s always nice to look back at our time with Arsenal.
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