Dennis Bergkamp: Rows with Arsène Wenger were childish, but they came from the heart
The Arsenal legend recalls the disputes with his former manager that marred his latter days at the club – and explains the fear of flying that made his away trips in Europe so difficult
In his new autobiography, the former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp recalls his last years at the club, when Arsène Wenger left him out of the side and tensions grew between the two.
"The club were searching to find the next step. They thought: 'We've had this great team but Dennis is coming to a certain age and Thierry [Henry] is becoming the main man because when everything goes through one player, you're vulnerable'. So they had a problem. And at that time a lot of the old English players had left and I wasn't young enough to guide the new players so they thought I'd have a big influence, of course, in the dressing room. But they were worried how I would react to playing less!"
Didn't they discuss it with you?
"That's funny in football. I mean, nobody does that! And of course I'm too proud to just say: 'Well, let me just play 20 games, I'll be happy with that.' I can't do that! So that was the clash. I wanted to play every game, of course. And if I didn't play I was angry with [Wenger] until I played and then it was OK. Sometimes we really fell out with each other. He used statistics on me and one time I said to him: 'Where in your statistics does it say that I changed the game with a killer pass?' And he'd say: 'You run less in the last 30 minutes and you're more at risk of getting injured, and your pace is dropping.' That was his thing. 'You're dropping pace.' Which I was. No problem. 'But then again I'm the one who can make a difference for you, so...' and sometimes we fell out about that and he [Wenger] would say: 'You think only of yourself.' So I was the bad one!"
Would voices be raised?
"Not many times but it did happen. But with respect: no swearing or name-calling. It would happen on the field when he told me I wasn't playing. Even late on, when I was 35 or 36, he would say: 'Do you still want to come to the game? Do you want to be on the bench?' And he'd leave the decision to me. I don't know what he was thinking. Was it like 'I'd rather not have you there' or 'I've got so much respect for you?' Of course I knew when I was 35 or 36 that I couldn't play every game. But within yourself you think you can."
And you didn't want to come on for just 20 minutes?
"The arguments we had were only about those sorts of football-related things. Me playing or not playing. It was very childish, but it came from the heart – from both of us."
What about the 2006 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona [in which Bergkamp was an unused substitute]?
"Arsène was disappointed as well; I think he had a different scenario in his head."
Like you're 3-0 up, with 10 minutes to go, and you come on for a last bit of glory?
"Something like that. Or even 2-0 down. You know, just to give me those minutes in the final. We had that sort of relationship in the end. It was somehow you're building up and up and getting all the trophies and getting personal success and in the end you get to the Champions League final at last. Jeez! If only I'd been five years younger! But that was probably the most we could have hoped for. The team wasn't what it had been two years earlier. We weren't the favourites. We could have won, though. I wish there was something more in it, but we were happy with that. And I was happy with that moment."
On joining Arsenal, Bergkamp made one stipulation: he would no longer travel on aeroplanes. His phobia dated back to the exhaustion he suffered after the 1994 World Cup finals when Internazionale, his club at the time, demanded he return to training within 10 days. Bergkamp hated the small planes they used for all away games.
"They were those nasty little planes that stay in the clouds and shake all the time. When you looked out all you could see was white or grey. And there was hardly any space. It was so cramped it made me claustrophobic. You had absolutely no room to move and you just sat there shaking the entire trip. It made me feel so awful and I began to develop such an aversion to it that it suddenly dawned on me: 'I don't want to do this any more.' It got so bad I would look up at the sky during away games to see what the weather was like. Were there any clouds coming? Sometimes I was preoccupied by the flight home while I was playing football. It was hell. The last straw was when we had an away game against Fiorentina. I saw that boneshaker with its propellers standing on the runway and I broke out in a cold sweat. And sure enough it was another disastrous flight.
"I know what flying is! I've flown countless times in large planes, small ones, tiny ones. At Ajax, I once flew in a minuscule plane over Mount Etna near Naples when we got into a terrible air pocket – in terms of flying, I've seen and done it all and I'm simply not flying again. Ever. In talks with Arsenal, if I said 'a million' they automatically deducted a hundred grand 'because you don't fly'. And I accepted that."
Adapted by Sam Wallace from 'Stillness and Speed' by Dennis Bergkamp, published by Simon & Schuster UK on 26 September at £20
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