Stillness and Speed: My Story, by Dennis Bergkamp, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 272 pages
Dutch footballer Dennis Bergkamp’s memoir is a bit out of the ordinary. One chapter is called, “Future of the Future”; another “The Meaning of Meaning”. Savage! The Robbie Savage Autobiography, this is not.
During his career with Ajax, Inter Milan, Arsenal and Holland, Bergkamp was a scorer of spectacular goals and a provider of artistic assists. Little surprise, then, that Stillness and Speed, produced with the excellent football writer David Winner, swaps the season-by-season slog of formulaic footballers’ books for more cerebral matters.
The book is shaped by a series of conversations in which Winner invites Bergkamp, his former managers and teammates to explain not only what he did on the pitch but also how, and why, he did it. A recent Winner interview with Wayne Rooney was remarkable for the way it revealed the England striker, often caricatured as a footballing crybaby, as an articulate talker about the game. Here, he goes deeper still.
How does Bergkamp know which is the best pass to make? “For some people it’s to get it over the defender and the striker can receive the ball. To me that’s not good enough. No, I have to beat the defender and make the goalkeeper think he can get it, so he comes out, leaving space. And I have to get the ball in front of my striker or on to his head so he can put it in the corner … It’s a different way of thinking.” All of this happens in split seconds.
Where, Winner asks, does motivation come? “Ambition, for money or whatever, is more calculating. It can be satisfied. But passion … you want to grab it. You do the hard thing, always go for the difficult thing, and then you have to go for the next thing.”
Bergkamp is portrayed by Winner as the embodiment of reason. “I prefer things to be smooth,” is how the footballer himself puts it. Yet a picture emerges of someone who utterly refuses to compromise his own vision.
In a riveting chapter about the player’s relatively unsuccessful spell in pragmatic Italian football, Bergkamp agrees to Winner canvassing former coaches and teammates about what went wrong. Thoughtfully, they suggest that maybe Bergkamp could have been just a little less purist in his attempts to adapt to a new and very different footballing culture. Thoughtfully, Bergkamp acknowledges their criticisms while making it clear they haven’t changed his mind one bit.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger offers an intriguing take on this single-mindedness, saying: “great players are guided by how football should be played and not by how football should serve them”.
As for “The Meaning of Meaning”; it refers to an outrageous Bergkamp goal against Newcastle that some doubt he intended. His reaction to the scepticism – about a sequence of events that lasted barely four seconds – is also revealing. “Which part do they think I didn’t mean?”