by Rob Macdonald
Some years ago, in a club in Edinburgh, a friend of mine met a girl who told him over the din that she was from the Netherlands. Competing as he was with the background noise of the dancefloor and more than a few lagers, wines, Buckfasts, or whatever it was we were drinking back then, he had to think fast in order to keep her attention. Perhaps, like most of us, when desperately trying to recourse to something we know about the Dutch, he thought first of their footballers. Specifically, he thought of Dennis Bergkamp.
Even more specifically, he decided to re-enact Bergkamp’s sublime hat-trick against Leicester City from 1997. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ended in colossal failure – wherever the Dutch girl’s mind had wandered in the interval in which he had come up with this grand, catastrophic plan, the rest of her soon followed around the part where he was demonstrating the great man’s sublime first touch for his third goal.
That is one of the reasons I love Dennis Bergkamp. The others are all football related and are therefore so tempered by my blind boyhood loathing of Arsenal that they come through teeth more gritted than a Scandinavian road in December.
The basics of this particular hatred are easy enough to establish. As a boyhood Manchester United fan, it was pretty easy to dislike any new pretenders to the Premier League title and this was made even harder to swallow when a new manager just turned up and started winning things almost immediately. Like most spoilt young Manchester United fans in the late 1990s, a fairly simple equation ran thus: envy + jealousy + success = I hate Arsenal.
It wasn’t all as linear though. I’ve got to admit that my dislike for this team has equally irrational influences. Ray Parlour’s hair? Nigel Winterburn’s face? Ian Wright vs Peter Schmeichel? Hated it all. Martin Keown, who I’m sure I didn’t really hate until he bounced around Ruud van Nistelrooy like a rabid monkey in 2003, has even had his particular place in my negative affections backdated as a result – even if I find him a reasonably considered pundit nowadays. I should also add that whatever my adolescent proclamations on David Seaman’s ponytail or Tony Adam’s nose, they have since been recanted.
Anyway. Just as Bergkamp enjoyed transcendent moments across his career as a whole, he also enjoys elevation above this particular period of spats and bad blood. Every team has players that make supporters inch towards the edge of their seats in anticipation. Very few have players that routinely have opposition fans inching towards the edge of theirs in the hope they don’t do something. Watching Bergkamp was such a chore for an opposition fan because he could always see things no one else could. As a relative football newcomer, knowing that Bergkamp’s fellow professionals were regularly bamboozled, I quickly realised I had no chance of anticipating what was coming. And that was quite terrifying, as many who probably heard me shouting indiscrimate combinations of ‘NO’ and ‘HIT HIM’ whenever he had the ball against United will attest.
Whether curling it into the keeper’s top left hand corner or dinking another exquisite chip over yet more hapless custodians, Bergkamp oozed class. Generally, with such an important playmaker, you’d perhaps encourage your defenders to isolate him out wide, or to get right in his face and close him out of the game. The thing about Bergkamp was that you couldn’t strand him anywhere (unless the only way out was by plane), and if you tried to get ‘up him’ he’d either a) pass it straight past you or b) change direction and be six feet away before you’d even realised.
This hasn’t been a particularly niche choice, I know, and many others will share my admiration for Bergkamp as really great players always seem to rise above club rivalries, especially when they’ve starred for their national sides. But that little bit extra about Bergkamp is that his assists highlights reel is as spectacular, if not even better, than that of his goals. While I’m wary of using the term ‘complete footballer’ he had the tricks and skills of a natural winger, the ice in his veins of an instinctive finisher and unrivalled finesse as a playmaker. Moreover, I really, really did not like Arsenal, but I think even my narrow, United-saturated, 15-year old mind would probably admit that he really was brilliant.