Stillness and Speed: My Story
By Dennis Bergkamp
Simon & Schuster, 2013
In his introduction to this excellent study of the Dutch master, David Winner suggests that ‘A footballer like no other ought to have a book no less distinctive’. And distinctive this book is, although you feel its winning format could very soon become the norm. Footballing autobiographies have long been a cause for mockery and/or scepticism. Much hinges on the unspecified role of the ghost writer; is this shadowy figure sticking faithfully to the player’s words, or taking all manner of artistic license? Stillness and Speed negates that question and the question of ghost writers altogether. ‘My Story’ may be the subtitle and ‘Dennis Bergkamp’ may grace the spine, but this is very much a collaborative project. Instead of ‘assisting’ with a standard autobiography, Winner builds a brilliant biography around in-depth interviews with The Non-flying Dutchman. Would he have come to life in the way he does in conversation, if he’d written his own story? It’s unlikely.
The levels of interaction are the greatest strength of the format. Winner is a terrific interrogator, fun, fierce and provocative, always ready to ask the difficult question and persist with it, chipping away at the cool reserve. When discussing penalties, for example, Bergkamp finds himself firmly on the back foot, fending off criticisms of his national team’s shoot-out performances.
DB: ‘You’re telling me he [Frank de Boer, Euro 2000] took the penalty wrong?’
DW: He did take the penalty wrong. It was terrible.
DB: ‘No, it was a miss.’
DW: It was a terrible penalty.
DB: ‘He missed the penalty, therefore it’s not good. You can’t have a good penalty that is saved. I’ve tried to explain that…’
The professional that he is, Bergkamp fully commits to Winner’s innovative style, even responding to what others have said about him earlier in the chapter. In ‘Intermezzo’, covering his unhappy spell at Inter Milan, he advises Winner on who to speak to, saying ‘We need an opinion, don’t we? … I don’t mind, as long as I get a chance to react.’ And after ‘Their Truth’ (three cautiously critical interviews with the manager and two teammates), we get ‘My Truth’, the carefully considered retort. It’s the football writing equivalent of Lars Von Trier directing an episode of Eastenders.
So what do we learn? Bergkamp’s dogged pursuit of footballing perfection extends to a keen interest in both physiology and geometry (‘you have to get all angles and the maths correct…It’s like solving the puzzle’). The Dutch legend is as eloquent as you’d expect on the subjects of touch, time, passing and space. Have YouTube at the ready, as we’re treated to in-depth studies of key assists and goals, including that one against Newcastle. And it turns out there’s warmth beneath the ice; while he was never too bothered about making friends in football, once he’d settled at Arsenal he became the team prankster, putting Martin Keown’s clothes up step-ladders and pulling Ray Parlour’s shorts down at training.
All very entertaining but then there’s the other, more intriguing side of Dennis that conforms to that age-old Dutch stereotype. Quiet and polite he may often be, but he’s also confident, driven and obstinate. He’s an ‘adventurer’ who has always made his own decisions, whether that be choosing Inter over the Dutch-haven of AC Milan, or refusing to travel by plane. He had no idols growing up and he’s never been a follower – for Bergkamp, football is all about being unique. Early on, he tells us, ‘My best trainers were the ones who let me do my own thing: Cruyff, Wenger and Guus Hiddink’. Those who tried to dictate his play, on the other hand (namely Louis Van Gaal and Ottavio Bianchi), quickly found themselves with an unhappy player on their hands.
As you’d expect from the writer of the classic Brilliant Orange, many of Winner’s most detailed and illuminating sections here concern matters Dutch. Stillness and Speed begins and ends at Ajax under the watchful eye of the footballing revolutionary Johan Cruyff, with Bergkamp first as a Cup Winners’ Cup-winning school kid and later as the coach of De Toekomst (‘The Future’). In between these bookends, twin chapters ‘Player Power’ and ‘Power Player’ deftly unravel the national team disappointments at Euro 96, World Cup 98 and Euro 2000. As Thierry Henry puts it, ‘That Dutch team with Dennis didn’t win anything – crazy! Too crazy for me.’
Where the book feels surprisingly hollow is in the 130-plus pages on Bergkamp’s 11 years at Arsenal. Abandoning strict chronology, Winner opts for a thematic approach, with chapters on fitness, cheating, leadership and penalties. Detail is substituted for overview. We’re told of ‘The Plan’ that Dennis signed up for but we’re not really told aboutits development, its ebb and flow. Instead of season-by-season analysis, these chapters are dominated by laudatory quote after laudatory quote from the likes of Ian Wright, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry. The surface is more stroked than scratched; Nicolas Anelka, Bergkamp’s strike partner for 2 key seasons (1997-9), is only mentioned once in passing, while Arsenal and Holland teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst is never mentioned. Instead, a chapter is given over to Bergkamp’s interest in golf. Perplexing, frustrating, but Winner did warn us; a distinctive book for a truly distinctive footballer.