by James Reiff
Supreme football artistry and skill combined nonchalantly with elegance. That is surely what we all want in our ideal footballer, isn’t it? Of course, we all love a grafter who puts his body on the line, but they are not the reason why I watch football.
It is for that reason that the incomparable Dennis Bergkamp is my favourite player. Choosing the creative genius, the “flair” player or playmaker will often be the football fan’s vote because they are the most noticeable and, for many, obvious choice. However, for me Bergkamp is the best ‘second striker’ (better known as ‘the Bergkamp role’) of my lifetime.
Bergkamp was blessed with innate mental and technical skills that made him so imperious and perfect for the No.10 position. He was adept at finding the spaces between the midfield and the defence, so much so that I always presume he had watched a lot of American golf in his youth such was his proficiency at “getting in the hole”.
His elegant, upright posture and stallion-like movement, where one could observe him trotting around the pitch in search of space before cantering into a channel might have been deemed more suitable for leagues less rushed and physical than the English game. But he was a strong player able to withstand the physicality after a short period of adaptation.
Bergkamp’s game was the perfect economy of movement and touch, no frippery or showboating, no flair for flair’s sake. The ultimate beauty was that there was a deep practicality about his skill, it always was utilised for a purpose.
His intuition for the movement of team-mates – when to play first-time and when to hold – as well as the empathy of his passing to find them or the space they were soon to occupy was paralleled only by the very best passers of the ball; Hoddle, Molby, Scholes, Xavi, Fabregas.
But what was even more evident as his career developed was his complete understanding of all aspects of the physics of a football; the effect of striking or touching the ball with different parts of the foot, the friction of the ball against different surface in varying conditions and the deftness or firmness needed to ensure a flick or pass gave his team mate the best possible advantage when the ball arrived.
He had a near faultless technique, a first touch of rare delicacy and tenderness. But his skill wasn’t only the ability to kill the ball dead, but that even rarer ability in one motion to direct the touch to take him beyond or away from his opponent, rendering the defender flat footed.
He was composed and cool but only because he had such justifiable belief in his ability to control a football. My daydreams often consist of his imperiousness when it comes to the chip, or the curler or the many assists he provided to grateful team-mates, with such a wonderfully nonchalant elegance.