Bergkamp brilliance influential 20 years on

Portrait of Dennis Bergkamp of Arsenal
© Getty Images

At the age of 26, the pressure was on Dennis Bergkamp. He had departed Inter Milan in the summer of 1995 under something of a cloud after a difficult spell at the *Nerazzuri *and had been given a chance of redemption by Bruce Rioch as Arsenal’s record signing. Stepping out onto the Highbury turf for his debut against Middlesbrough on 20 August 1995, he could not have anticipated the legacy he would leave behind when, 11 years, three English Premier League titles, four FA Cups and innumerable breathtaking goals later, he bowed out of the game in 2006.

That summer marked something of a turning point for the English game. A day earlier than Bergkamp, Dutch legend Ruud Gullit had made his English top flight bow for Chelsea. Total football had reached the Premier League, and the country’s top flight would never be the same again.

Following Bergkamp and Gullit’s foray into English football came Marc Overmars, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Jaap Stam as the late 1990s saw foreign influence on the Premier League grow. Bergkamp, Overmars and Stam all won the league title within three years of arriving.

“People sometimes get confused between arrogance and confidence so they misunderstand Dutch players,” Thierry Henry told David Winner in Stillness and Speed. “Dutch players are very, very confident. One of the things I loved right away about Dennis was that he was super-confident and not arrogant at all. Dennis was the best I played with.”

High praise indeed coming from someone who has shared the pitch with Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi. But what was it, aside from this confidence and raw ability, that made Bergkamp and the Dutch players that followed him to England, adapt so well to the English game? Ronny Goodlass started his career at Everton and is well placed to discuss the nuances of the English top flight in relation to its Dutch counterpart, having spent the golden years of Dutch football playing in the Eredivisie.

“When Bergkamp came over, his skill, his technique, how he conducted himself on and off the pitch, in training. He raised the bar, he came and just blew everyone away,” Goodlass said in an exclusive chat with “It gave the other players confidence to try other things as well. Tony Adams’ goal against Everton, that sealed the title (in the 1997/98 season) – he wouldn’t have done that under George Graham (before Bergkamp’s arrival). There was a freedom there.”

The Liverpool native moved to NAC Breda in 1977 for a two-year spell, returning to England with Fulham in 1980 after a year with ADO Den Haag. Goodlass has fond memories of his time in the Netherlands, scoring match-winning goals past legendary Dutch goalkeepers Piet Schrijvers (against Ajax) and Jan Jongbloed (against Roda JC).

“The influence of Johan Cruyff, winning three consecutive European Cups with Ajax and reaching the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals, he was one of the lures of me going over,” Goodlass said. “It was total football, everybody was comfortable on the ball. They used to change positions, it was a natural thing. It gets you into a different mindset. You’ve got to be skilful.”

“In the 1970s, Ajax were such a good side,” he remembers. “I used to stay up late at night, watching the Dutch teams. Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, Cruyff, Robbie Rensenbrink, what a team they were. They were so unlucky not to win the World Cup. That was one of the reasons I went, I thought ‘this is fantastic to watch, what would it be like to play in?’”

It doesn’t help you if you’ve got tunnel-vision, and don’t incorporate other cultures from the rest of the world.

While the early 2000s saw further Dutch talent make their move to the Premier League, including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Edwin van der Sar, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, a reciprocation since has not been forthcoming, with very few Englishmen plying their trade in the Netherlands. As the 2015/16 season kicked off, just four English players were registered with Dutch clubs (Lewis Baker, Todd Kane, Isaiah Brown and Dominic Solanke), all on loan from Chelsea. Goodlass is unsure why the English are unwilling to expand their horizons, as their Dutch counterparts have been doing steadily since Bergkamp and Gullit’s arrival.

“I’d recommend it to anybody,” he said. “Chelsea are a massive club, and they’re doing it. I would say for six months, or a year, loan them to a Dutch club. The training methods are great. You’re playing on good pitches, good crowds and a proper atmosphere. It doesn’t help you if you’ve got tunnel-vision, and don’t incorporate other cultures from the rest of the world.”

*Dutch influence growing *The current Premier League is a particularly cosmopolitan place. Some of the Dutch heroes of their successful 2014 FIFA World Cup™ bronze medal campaign; Tim Krul, Daryl Janmaat, Memphis Depay, Daley Blind and even coach Louis van Gaal, all currently ply their trade in England’s top flight. Van Gaal, Dick Advocaat and Ronald Koeman make up a talented trio of Dutch managers, while Steve McClaren won the Dutch title at FC Twente.

Van Gaal recently provided some insight into the footballing relationship his countrymen share with their English counterparts.

“The way football is lived here in the minds of the people is unbelievable, and it is what I expected,” Van Gaal said after his first year in England with Manchester United. “I think it’s fantastic to be here in England. They live football, football is living, and living is football.”

The statue of Van Gaal’s compatriot Bergkamp that stands tall outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is testament to the legacy that the ‘non-flying Dutchman’ has left behind in his adopted second country.

“He’s left a mark on the game,” Goodlass concluded. “20 years on people are still talking about him.”

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