Year Zero: The making of Dennis Bergkamp (Ajax, 1986/87)
There is despair in his eyes, mixed with fear and hope. Hope that his manager can sense his silent cry for help. The half-time whistle is fast approaching, when Malmo defender Torbjorn Persson tries to lock eyes with his manager, Roy Hodgson. It’s March 18, 1987, and the Swede has – quite frankly – had enough.
His side had been blown away by Ajax in the previous 44 minutes, but even that doesn’t begin to describe what the 17-year-old Dennis Bergkamp had been doing to Persson during that first half. He can’t say it out loud, but the experienced Sweden international hopes his look will tell his manager all he needs to know. "Please get me out of here, now."
In 1987 there was one young star-to-be who stood out head and shoulders above any of his young colleagues
The Ajax side that lost last season’s Europa League final to Manchester United showed similarities with the side coached by Johan Cruyff in the late 1980s: young and unknown players, who surprised Europe with an attractive style of football. But where manager Peter Bosz fielded Ajax academy graduates such as Kasper Dolberg, Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert, in 1987 there was one young star-to-be who stood out head and shoulders above any of his young colleagues. Dennis Bergkamp.
Effectively, the story of Bergkamp’s breakthrough finds its origin in the summer of 1985, with the arrival of Cruyff. Ajax wanted to appoint the club legend – who passed away in 2016 – as their manager, but he lacked the required diplomas. And, for the record: he wasn't going to put any effort into obtaining those.
As a trick, the Amsterdam club provided him with three assistants who did take the necessary exams, and made Cruyff a technical director who helped out at the training ground. He actually was, in effect, nothing less than the manager. The Dutch FA knew there wasn't much they could do to stop it, so simply decided to give him his diploma in January 1986.
Cruyff’s initial results were average to say the least. His ultra-attacking style of football was at times described as ‘harakiri’; a form of suicide. Ajax did win the Dutch Cup in Cruyff’s first year at the helm, but had to leave the title to PSV.
Nevertheless, the attempt to attack and entertain was well received by the fans. Cruyff also impressed with his revolutionary way of thinking, letting defenders play as attackers – and vice versa – to give his players some insight into each other’s ways of thinking. He even hired opera singers to help them with breathing exercises.
Most importantly, he made it a habit to give chances to young talents, with a motto that “good enough is old enough”. Even though PSV clinched the title again a year later, the 1986/87 season turned out to be the beginning of an Ajax rebirth – not least because of a teenage schoolboy.
After winning the European Cup three times in a row in the early '70s, the well of success had started running dry in Amsterdam. There was a semi-final in the European Cup in 1980, but in the six years to follow, Ajax only managed to survive the first round of a European tournament twice.
In the final days of the year 1986, Cruyff handed the 17-year-old Bergkamp his competitive debut in the Eredivisie
With the same attacking, dominant style of total football - the way fans were historically used to seeing from Dutch teams - Ajax barged through round after round of the Cup Winners’ Cup. First Bursaspor were beaten 5-0 and 2-0, then in the second round Olympiakos were driven to insanity. The players were so frustrated at half-time during their 4-0 battering in Amsterdam that a fight broke out in the Greek dressing room.
Shortly after, in the final days of 1986, Cruyff handed the 17-year-old Bergkamp his competitive debut in the Eredivisie, against Roda JC. Then in March of 1987, the youngster claimed his place in the hearts of Dutch fans forever.