Check out the forward's programme notes from his testimonial:
My time at Arsenal has been the biggest and most important part of my life.
There has been 11 years of football, with a lot of success, and during that time too I have also started a family.
I came here with just my wife Henrita in 1995, and now we have four kids – Estelle, Mitchel, Yasmin and Saffron. The time has flown by. I remember the day I signed so clearly. I was at Highbury with my wife, having our photos taken and Steve Braddock, the groundsman, wouldn’t let us on the pitch! It feels like it was just a matter of months ago – not 11 years.
The transfer to Arsenal back in 1995 came a bit out of the blue for me, but I had always planned to play in England at some stage of my career. My plan was always to move from Holland to either Italy or Spain, then on to England before finishing again at Ajax ideally. I signed for Inter for four years, but I only had a couple of years there because I didn’t feel I was improving. So then I wanted to move to England and straight away the option of Arsenal came to me. At that time they were doing very well in Europe, and so I thought let’s try it. Being based in London was important too, and looking back now it was a great choice.
The team I came into at Arsenal was already solid, it had a great defence and some big players like Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Paul Merson and Stefan Schwarz, so it wasn’t completely into the unknown. It was an established team, experienced but still with some years to go to reach their potential. All of the players were great to me and helped me settle into the team.
It didn’t take a few weeks, a few months or a few years even to fall in love with the place, it happened straight away, it really did. My wife and I stayed in a hotel in London for a couple of days when I signed, and we said to each other that this feels right – the people, the atmosphere – everything, it felt like home straight away.
"It didn’t take a few weeks, a few months or a few years even to fall in love with the place, it happened straight away, it really did"
If you believe in fate, and need any confirmation that it was the right move for me, it came the day I signed for the Club. Completely by chance I bumped into Ian Wright at a petrol station off the M25 – it was the first time we had ever met and he was to be my partner up front for the next few years. It was incredible.
My family and I have always loved London, but to be honest experiencing the theatre, the parks and everything only came later in our lives. At the beginning the football was so important. You get a lot of spare time in England because you just train in the morning, and have the rest of the day free. That was exactly what I needed at that time because in Italy it was 9 to 5 every day so it came as a relief to me. I felt freer, so I never got bored with all the spare time, quite the opposite, I needed it after my time in Italy.
But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy training – I loved it. There are always elements of training that you don’t enjoy so much – when you are running without the ball etc. But at the back of your mind you know that in about 15 minutes you will get to play – you see the ball lying there and you can’t wait to get at it. So I never got bored of it. I’m really going to miss that. Football was never a job for me – it’s still a hobby and it always has been. I always want to be the best, whether in training or in a game.
We qualified for Europe in my first season at Highbury, which we were pleased with, but it was the third season that we first won trophies.
When I first joined I have to say that I was never obsessed by winning prizes, I think that was mainly because although I knew we had a good team, I also know there were stronger teams than us in the league. At the beginning of 1997/98 though, it felt right. I remember in the very first game of that season, it was Leeds away, I looked around me and thought ‘yes, we could do it, we could be champions this year.’ I mentioned it to Wrighty after the game and we kept that feeling all season.
It’s only now that I fully appreciate what I achieved that season. I was player of the year, writers’ player of the year, scored the goals, won the ‘double’ – now I realise just what we achieved. I would have been very disappointed had we not gone on to win trophies that year, because once you realise you have the team to do it, you have to fulfil that potential. As soon as we won those first trophies everything changed. My mind was completely different and I thought now we have to go for everything – for every singe prize, because we are good enough. That change went through the Club and the team as well, we really got going from then and even draws were a disappointment.
It was about that time that I became more of a second striker. ‘Shadow striker’ was always my best position – even back at Ajax – the only difference was that the main striker there would create more space for the other players, which is why I scored so many goals there. When I first came to Arsenal I scored goals here too, but I’ve never been an out-and-out goalscorer – a poacher. I always prefer to have a player around me who prefers to have the pressure of being the main scorer. From that time on playing with Wrighty, with Anelka, with Thierry, my role changed. Also in England’s it’s perfect because they play a back four, so you get a lot of space between the defence and midfield. They struggle to cope with a player who drops off a bit.
I’ve been lucky to have partnerships all over the pitch, not just with forwards – that’s so important in football. The best example might be how I played with Wim Jonk at Ajax. If you have a certain feeling with a player, when he controls the ball, and makes eye contact with you, you know exactly what to do then. In those cases the opposition can do nothing about it. Before Wim even received the ball, we would make eye contact. So I was two steps ahead, because even before he got the ball, I could make the run because I knew what he was going to do. You just can’t stop that.
I have had that relationships with a striker, a midfielder, a winger – you just need the connection. I won’t name names, but there have been players in my career too that I know haven’t got it. They receive the ball and keep their head down, control it, look up, then see the player move, then pass. That’s too late. That might be a reason that I stopped scoring at stages in my career, for the national team as well. If you don’t have that eye contact, you don’t get the service and it takes away part of my game.
With Thierry it’s a little bit different because sometimes you can play the ball blind to him and he still has the strength and pace to get on to it. But I am always looking for that in a partnership, and I think one of my strengths has been that I was able to adjust to other players. I see myself as fitting into a team, rather than a team playing around me. I can adjust. I mentioned Wim Jonk but I also had it with many players at Arsenal. Patrick Vieira had a great eye for it, Cesc too, and Freddie of course is a great example. During the 2002 ‘double’ season it was unstoppable. Freddie would make the run, I would make the pass, and it would be a goal. You needed both parts of it.
As well as partnerships on the pitch, I’ve also made many great friendships off it too with past team-mates. Ray Parlour and Ian Wright were great characters in the changing room, and always made me laugh. I’m looking forward to seeing Edu again too, because I haven’t seen him since he left Arsenal. There’s Patrick Vieira as well of course, and there are some Ajax players that I haven’t seen for ages. There are so many. People like David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown I was lucky enough to keep in touch with because they would often drop into the training ground. But I’m looking forward to everyone getting back together for this game and I’m sure we will pick up just where we left off with the banter in the changing room!
I have had a few days training with the squad this week. I hope that there will be an edge to the game, because the fans inside the stadium want to see a proper match. I just hope there will be good football, with a bit of space for the players to show what they are capable of.
When I was back at London Colney last week and saw some of the players getting ready for their pre-season runs, I have to say I didn’t envy them! But I’m sure I will miss it over the next few weeks. It will be a different life but I realise how lucky I’ve been to have a long career, which I have loved. Now I am just taking a year off, and will think about my future then.
I want to say how amazing the fans have been to me throughout my time at Arsenal, pretty much from day one. The fans here really appreciate you and that makes you want to achieve more, they have really driven me on.
More than anyone else in the world, English fans know when you give everything, and that is all they want from you. Of course if you play rubbish, they will say so, but if you give the effort, they know. That’s why so many players enjoy it in England because it is pure football here. The pitches, the stadium, the fans – for a footballer it is ideal. This is what you dream about and you have to experience it if you are a footballer, otherwise you are missing out.
And of course Arsenal has all of that – my whole time here has been great. It’s a professional club, of course, but also they have never forgot the tradition, the human side of it. The longer I have spent at the Club, the more people I have got to know of course, and myself and my family are very welcome here. My kids have all grown up in London and for us it’s just normal.
Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank my mother, and my wife Henrita for what they have done throughout my career. They have been tremendous.
Henrita is a fantastic mother to our children, and has always made sure everything is OK at home. For me that’s very, very important so I want to say a big thanks to her. Also she’s been busy as the chairperson for the testimonial committee so she’s had to do a lot of work over the last few weeks and months. She’s just a tremendous person.
The other thing, which is very emotional for me, is that my dad will do the kick-off for the game today. The story behind that is that in November he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and at the time he said he hoped he could make it to my game. It was his target and thankfully the treatment has gone very well for him and he is very optimistic now. From December onwards he has had a lot of treatment, six treatments, and it has been a horrible time for him, like hell. Everyone who has been touched by cancer will know about that, but since then he has been feeling better and so it looks good now. He will go back to have another look later this month, but back in November he would never have dreamt that he would be able to make it to my game, so it will be a very special moment for him and for me.