24 years ago to the day, Arsenal made a signing that changed the course of English football. Although Arsene Wenger is frequently credited with the creation of the modern Arsenal, there is a strong case to be made that Dennis Bergkamp’s arrival was every bit as crucial. In fact, the history of Arsenal can probably be divided into ‘B.B. and ‘A.D.’ – ‘Before Bergkamp’ and ‘After Dennis’.
It was not Wenger who signed the Dutchman, but Bruce Rioch. However, one suspects that David Dein’s persuasive talents were probably a bigger factor than the dubious pull of the former Bolton coach.
Fortunately, North London was an area already close to the player’s heart. He had grown up admiring the likes of Glenn Hoddle and Steve Archibald at Tottenham, and yet he became the player that was uniformly idolised by young Gunners fans everywhere. Bergkamp arrived at Highbury as a Tottenham fan, but left as an Arsenal legend.
⚽️ 87 goals
️ 94 assists
The man who made the Gunners beautiful pic.twitter.com/d1Jo4skpRS
— Unibet (@unibet) June 20, 2019
The signing of Bergkamp changed everything. He brought true star quality to the division, and stylish football to an Arsenal team who had previously been characterised as ‘boring’. He made England the preferred destination for Europe’s top players, and rejigged the Premier League pecking order in the process.
On the pitch, Bergkamp made memories in every match. It could be an immaculate first touch, a deft chip, or a piercing pass, but something would inevitably stick in the mind. If he was playing in the modern era, with footage constantly being turned into clips and gifs, he would be the darling of the internet. Bergkamp was a walking Youtube highlight reel before Youtube was part of everyday parlance.
Wenger once called Robert Pires ‘the oil in Arsenal’s engine’. Bergkamp, then, was the brain in Arsenal’s body—a symphony of crackling neurons making the complex appear effortless. Without Bergkamp, ‘Wengerball’ might have remained an ideal rather than a reality. Without Bergkamp, there may not have been any Invincibles.
He was a player of considerable contradictions. Although it was Bergkamp’s technical quality that enabled him to stand out, his tenacity should not be overlooked. He demonstrated that it was possible to be both an artist and a winner. Unlike the current incumbent of the number 10 shirt, Bergkamp was capable of combining his sorcery with steel. Here was a warrior wizard, well-versed in the dark arts, but capable of lighting up any arena.
And while Bergkamp was capable of moments of startling individual brilliance, he was also a team player. Bergkamp made his strike partners look good. He rejuvenated Ian Wright; he made Nicolas Anelka look older than his tender years. He played a crucial role in helping transform Thierry Henry into the world’s more fearsome forward. Those three players are among Arsenal’s most celebrated strikers, and Bergkamp is the common denominator between them all. He forced players to try and meet his immaculate standards, and when they fell short, he helped them bridge the gap.
Many of Arsenal’s best players in the modern era have sought to leave the club — not Bergkamp. He remained loyal, even as his body faded and first-team opportunities diminished. In the end, he was with the club for more than a decade. His testimonial was the first match played at the Emirates Stadium, symbolising his role in taking Arsenal into a new era.
Henry has a statue outside the new ground, and it’s perhaps inevitable that Wright will join him. Both men partly owe their legendary status to Bergkamp. It is fitting that the Dutchman’s own effigy captures him floating off the ground to collect a high pass. Bergkamp did not like to fly, but when he was on the pitch he soared above all others. Arsenal were blessed to have him, this man who was so many things: a creator and a goalscorer, a genius and a thug. Bergkamp could not be easily defined—he was far, far too good for that.