The big interview: Dennis Bergkamp – "I never expected to be at Arsenal for 11 years"

Could he have joined Barcelona? Did his fear of flying affect his football? And who'd win in a one-on-on: him or Henry? We grabbed the "non-flying" Dutchman in February 2011 to find out

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It's perfect weather for an encounter with 'The Iceman'. The land is covered in powdery snow, it's seven below zero and north Holland's canals are frozen thick. Beside the IJsselmeer, the effect of an icy Siberian wind whipping into your face is like being thumped in the face with hammers. The cold snap has forced Ajax to cancel today's youth team training, so the club's legendary under-12s coach has agreed to meet us at a cosy cafe in the village of Baricum about 30 kilometres outside Amsterdam.

As Dennis Bergkamp talks candidly about his ideals, his career and his greatest goals and passes, you realise the nickname doesn't fit at all. The Arsenal and Holland great is warm, intelligent, passionate, gracious and modest. And the feeling you get talking to him is remarkably like the one you had watching him play: you come away strangely enriched. Hopefully you'll feel the same way...

Who were your footballing heroes when you were growing up?
Amanda Nixon, via email
I admired Glenn Hoddle. He stood out because of his technique: two feet, a soft touch, very precise. At Ajax, Johan Cruyff was the first-team coach. One evening he came to our training ground and took a session – that was really intimidating. A big name like that coaching 12-year-olds! But he talked to me in a very relaxing way: "Just play your game, enjoy it." Later, he guided me into the first team. Others at the club said I wasn't strong or aggressive enough, but he said: "Just look at the talent."

What was your reaction when you found out Ajax wanted to pick you up at the age of 12?
Tommy McManaman, via email
They first asked when I was 11, but my parents, who are very down-to-earth people, thought Ajax was all fur coats and big mouths so they said: "It's not you; just enjoy the football." A year later, Ajax asked again. This time there was another boy from the area to go with. Once we got to Ajax we found it had all changed. The youth development was less systematic then: it was just enjoying football twice a week. It wasn't difficult to adapt. Of course you have to win every game, and it's a different mentality to what I was used to, but it wasn't so rigorous.

Lighting up the Eredivisie with Ajax

How were you so calm under pressure: was it years of training or just your demeanour? 
Karabo Mogudi, via Facebook
I am quite focused. And I don't show my emotions to everyone – only people I work with and family. I was never nervous. I always tried to stay at one level: the good things weren't that good, and the bad things weren't that bad. Now I tell the boys I'm training: "Play with a smile on your face." And they say: "You didn't!" When I played I was so concentrated it looked like I was ice cold. But inside I was really happy.

A hundred-odd goals, top scorer in the Dutch league for three seasons in a row... you went from being a great goalscorer at Ajax to a scorer of great goals for the rest of your career. What changed? 
Olly Parker, Birmingham
My role changed. At Ajax you knew you'd get five chances a game. At Inter you were lucky if you got one. And at Arsenal I was always more comfortable playing behind a striker, just outside the box. It wasn't my quality to go in the box at the right time and tap in. I was always amazed by players like Ian Wright. He was unbelievable at that.

How did it feel to finish joint top scorer in your first major tournament at Euro '92? Did you feel you'd finally 'arrived'?
Jackie Addison, London
The team had won in '88 and I joined just after the 1990 World Cup, which was a flop. I felt I wanted to fit in; give my best. For me, that tournament was just a case of 'doing my bit'. I scored against Germany and Scotland, and made some crucial goals. I thought: they can't complain. But if you compare it to success with Ajax, it's another step up.

I heard Johan Cruyff tried to persuade you not to join Inter. Why?
Alan Eaves, Middlesbrough
He never said it in so many words, but he wanted me to join him at Barcelona. He kept telling me all the teams not to go to, leaving Barcelona as the only one left! I always had the feeling I'd go to Italy, the biggest league at the time. I didn't want to go to Milan because Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard had gone there. It came down to Juventus or Inter. We had a better feeling from the people at Inter. They made a lot of promises – which I found out later was something they did a lot. They said: "We're going to play more offensive." They did, but only for the first month! It wasn't what I'd hoped for. But Italy was good for my development. I learned to be more professional, learned to play against two or three defenders, and to play with players who are there for themselves rather than for the team.

That boy Bergkamp... ignored Cruyff

What were the issues between you and your team-mates at Inter?
Jim Gervais, via email
Actually, I got on well with them. There were a few players who'd been there for 10 or 15 years – guys like Bergomi, Ferri and Battistini were Inter, and they were all really nice to me. I had a good relationship with Nicola Berti too. He's a good guy. I never had a problem with anyone. The only thing I was disappointed with was Ruben Sosa: we could have got more out of each other on the pitch, because we were the two strikers. Maybe he resented me a little but we never clicked on the pitch. Off the pitch we had no problems at all.

How did you feel when part of the Italian media renamed their 'Donkey of the Week' award 'Bergkamp of the Week'? Did you find the English press easier than the Italian media? 
Alex Feakes, Southampton
They expected me to talk to them every day in detail! I said: "If there's a game on Sunday, of course on Monday I'll talk to you about the game. But I'm not going to talk again about it on Tuesday and Wednesday. So I'll talk to the media twice a week, which is a lot compared to England, and even more compared to Holland." But they were angry. They wanted me to talk all the time, and I said no. I need my private life as well, and in England the press respect that. The English tabloids criticised me at first when I didn't score in my first seven or eight games. Fair enough. I never mind if people hammer me about football. But in Italy they made up ridiculous stories. One time I had a haircut and they said my hair was falling out because I couldn't cope!

I seem to remember that Massimo Moratti famously said to Bruce Rioch: "You'll be lucky if Bergkamp scores 10 goals for you!" How much did those words spur you on?
Ron Stockbridge, Northampton
I'm surprised to hear that, because I got on really well with him, he loves football and he was sorry to see me go. At the end of my second year at Inter, he said: "There will be changes – please stay." I decided I didn't want to wait. But there were no bad feelings.

"Don't mention it, Brucie"