This week I would like to take your minds way back to a bitterly cold night at Vale Park for an FA Cup third round replay between the mighty Port Vale and soon to be ‘double winners’ and North-London giants Arsenal. I still believe to this day that on that special evening on 14th January 1998 that I saw the most technically gifted footballer ever to grace Vale Park and judging by my current personal feelings and circumstances I doubt I will see this personal record broken. This particular individual has played for one of the best teams to have ever graced European competition, winning numerous honours and personal accolades and also enjoyed some superlative moments whilst playing for his national team. He made the ‘hole’ position his own and played at his prime alongside some of the world’s best strikers. Never a player who could physically dominate an opponent but what he lacked in power and pace was made up with supreme technical ability with an unrivalled ‘footballing brain’. This week, I present to you the ‘non flying Dutchman’, ‘the van man’, Dennis Nicolaas Bergkamp.
Born in Amsterdam, Dennis was signed to home town club and Dutch giants Ajax, a club renowned for producing some unbelievable footballing talent including the likes of Overmars, Blind, the de Boer twins, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids, Kanu, Litmanen, Rijkaard… Need I continue? Playing as a substitute, he won his first major European honour in his first full senior year as Ajax cruised to the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987, beating Lokomotive Leipzig. During his tenure playing for Ajax, Dennis rose to first team prominence and aided further domestic and European successes, accruing a remarkable 103 goals in 153 appearances. Dennis was relishing playing alongside some of the world’s best talent and carried his club form onto the international stage with his native Holland. His ‘sparkling’ performances at Euro ’92 cemented Bergkamp as one of the most promising players in the Ajax ranks and as a direct consequence it wouldn’t be long before another footballing giant poached his services. Promising that elusive European Cup, Dennis was lured to Italian club Internazionale where his career took a rather unexpected turn.
Any player who transferred to Serie A, dubbed the ‘best league in the world’ at that period would be taking a huge gamble with their footballing career. Successful imports like Gabriel Batistuta had adjusted to the Italian style with aplomb, firing in goals regularly and taking their careers to different levels. Dennis was primed and ready to achieve, possibly take the Serie A by storm. In a period that lasted just two years, Bergkamp had been reduced from a ‘world class’ talent to a nation-wide butt of abuse and mockery. What went wrong? I have a suggestion… At that particular time, the ‘nerazzuri’ were enduring one of the leanest spells in their modern history. Regardless of their European ‘tin pot trophy’ triumphs, Inter were playing some remarkably uninspiring football under Giampiero Marini and were totally reliant on Wim Jonk, Rubén Sosa and Dennis himself. I was a firm believer that many great players failed in Italy because in essence they were not good enough but in Dennis’s case, Inter were not good enough. Playing behind a workshy Sosa and feeding off scraps from Inter’s uninspiring midfield, Bergkamp notched a lacklustre 11 goals in his 50 appearances. The Italian media made Dennis the scapegoat for Inter’s poor domestic form with the national sports paper ‘Corriere Dello Sport’ renaming their ‘Donkey of the Week’ feature to ‘Bergkamp of the Week’, an award regularly handed out to other misfortunates, Dennis soon became unwanted in Milan. After he left for Arsenal, it was sadly ironic that Inter invested in the likes of Hernan Crespo, Christain Vieri and Ronaldo to bolster their front line. I am sure that Dennis would have set the world on fire playing alongside such talents.
I just wanted to get back to playing attacking football after my time in Italy. It was a little difficult at first but the atmosphere and the fans were just fantastic. Dennis Bergkamp
Bruce Rioch brought Dennis to these shores, rescuing him from his Italian nightmare but initially looked to have carried on his form as he struggled to settle into the English league’s speed and physicality. The arrival of Arsene Wenger and the subsequent switch from ‘boring’ Arsenal to the football ‘purists’ we are all too familiar with saw Bergkamp flourish. Playing alongside Ian Wright, he helped Arsenal to a League and Cup double in the 1997-98 season, pipping Manchester United to the title having been in a lowly sixth position during January. I would like to add that the achievement of Arsenal winning anything that year was not apparent in the FA Cup third round as they took two attempts, plus extra time and penalties to defeat a team battling against relegation to the third tier. I remember celebrating at the Highbury ‘library’ as a battling Port Vale side held Arsenal to a goal-less draw. I find that people think I exaggerate when I recall the ‘boos’, jeers and ‘Wenger out’ chants emanating from the North Bank, but I know what I heard that day. When they lifted both trophies after that particular season I hope the Arsenal fans have never forgot the grief directed towards Mr Wenger after that match. This article from the Independent, prior to the replay at Vale Park, sums up the situation perfectly and highlights the significance and sheer magnitude of Arsenal’s achievement that season.
Back to that monumental game in 1998 where I looked on from the Railway Stand (my usual stand was full) as a near capacity crowd witnessed a moment in football that will always be dismissed and overlooked. As Arsenal were only playing lowly Port Vale, I feel that the world has missed out on a piece of footballing genius. Theoretically I suppose we have all been in a situation whereby everything seems to be surprisingly under control and ultimately the task is far easier than you ever expected. Your confidence hits ‘sky high’ but the inevitable arrogance kicks in. Before you know it, that arrogance turns to complacency and within a blink of an eye it all comes crashing down in a matter of seconds resulting in an ‘egg on face’ style scenario. To put this in reality terms, Port Vale goalkeeper Paul Musselwhite looked on completely helpless as Dennis turned on a sixpence, 28 yards from goal. He has not had a sniff all night, looks jaded and did not seem to like the ‘attention’ being given to him by Vale’s defenders. Time seemed to stop; Mussy knew it, I knew it, every one of the supposed 14,000 fans knew it; we were in deep, deep trouble. Without having to look up, Dennis curled a shot* into the top corner and in total unison the Port Vale fans let out a rather distinct ‘sigh’ of appreciation and whilst still open jawed and shell-shocked, took to their feet in admiration offering rapturous applause that seemed to drown out the celebrations of the Arsenal faithful. The rest as you say is history. That particular night did eventually lead to heartbreak but Bergkamp’s stupendous offering to us overshadowed any gut wrenching emotions.
*due to lack of video evidence you will have to take my word for it.
I could go into detail about his achievements for the Gunners but I suspect any self-respecting football fan is more than aware of his talents and achievements whilst on these shores. For that wonder goal alone, Dennis would slot into my all-time ‘cult’ footballer list with subsequent ease. However, for someone who managed to resurrect a career on a downward spiral to become one of the greatest imports in the history of the English game, score a seemingly unlimited supply of wonder goals and still remain ‘grounded’ with a dedicated attitude towards club and country, Dennis definitely deserves a place in my top three. Truly a dying breed in the modern game, as technical ability seems to be overshadowed by the importance of physicality. Mr Bergkamp for the amount of times you made me urinate uncontrollably at your offerings, welcome to the elite in my all-time ‘cult’ list.
Here are some moments for you to drool over…
And who could forget ‘that’ goal against Argentina in World Cup ’98 and that legendary Dutch commentator effectively ‘gooning’ in a commentary box….
“Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!, Arrrrrgggghhhhhhh!” Jack van Gelder