Continuing our Summer series of articles in search of Arsenal’s greatest ever team, this week we will end our quest for the greatest forwards to include in our team. Don’t forget to take the opportunity to choose your personal favourite striker, this weeks posts will bring us bang up to date and there will be a vote on Saturday.
17. Ian Wright: 1991-1998.
Ian appeared in 288 games over a 7 year period and scored 185 goals.
Ian was born in Woolwich, London. He came to professional football relatively late in life and despite having had trials at Southend United and Brighton during his teens, he was unable to attract sufficient interest to win a professional contract offer. Reverting to playing for amateur and non-league teams, he was left disillusioned about his chances of a career as a professional footballer.
A Crystal Palace talent scout, Peter Prentice, happened to see Wright playing for Dulwich Hamlet and invited him to have a trial at Selhurst Park. Having impressed then-manager Steve Coppell, he signed professional terms for Crystal Palace in August 1985, just three months short of his 22nd birthday. He quickly made his mark in his first season, scoring nine goals to finish as Palace’s second-highest scorer. When Mark Bright arrived on the Palace scene the following year the duo soon established a successful striking partnership and it was largely their goals which took the club to top flight via the playoffs in 1989. Ian was particularly instrumental that season, scoring 24 goals in the Second Division and a grand total of 33 in all competitions.
A twice-cracked shin bone reduced his initial impact in the First Division. However, after recovering from the injury he made a dramatic appearance as a ‘super-sub’, in the 1990 FA Cup Final against Manchester United. He equalised for Palace a few minutes after coming onto the field forcing extra time, then putting them ahead in extra time. The eventual score was 3–3, but Palace lost the replay 1–0. The next season he gained full international honours, and reached a hundred goals for Crystal Palace. Ian became renowned for his deadly striking ability, as shown when he scored a hat-trick in just eighteen minutes in Palace’s penultimate game of the 1990–91 season away to Wimbledon. He scored 117 goals in 253 starts and 24 substitute appearances over six seasons for The Eagles in all competitions.
Ian signed for Arsenal in September 1991 for £2.50m, which was at the time a club record fee. He scored on his debut against Leicester City in a League Cup tie, and then scored a hat-trick on his League debut against Southampton. He won the Golden Boot in his first season by scoring 29 league goals, five of which were for Palace, and 31 in all competitions. He scored a hat-trick in the final game of the season against Southampton; his third goal being the last ever scored in the old First Division. He went on to be Arsenal’s top scorer for six seasons in a row. He played a major part in the club’s success during the 1990s, winning an FA Cup and League Cup double in 1993; he scored in both the FA Cup Final and the replay against Sheffield Wednesday. Ian also helped Arsenal reach the 1994 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup Final, although he was suspended for the final in which Arsenal beat Parma 1–0.
The period that followed proved to be a difficult time for both Ian and Arsenal, manager George Graham was dismissed over illegal payments, and under caretaker Stewart Houston they could only manage a 12th place finish in the league. The arrival of Bruce Rioch heralded a bleaker time; the two did not get on and eventually Wright handed in a transfer request, which he later retracted. The arrival of Dennis Bergkamp heralded a brief but fruitful striking partnership, and in their first season playing together they helped Arsenal finish fifth in the league and qualify for the UEFA Cup. They also reached the Coca-Cola Cup semi-finals, where they went out on away goals to eventual winners Aston Villa.
By the time Arsène Wenger had arrived at Arsenal in September 1996, Ian was nearly 33. Despite his age, he continued to score regularly (being the second highest Premier League scorer in 1996–97 with 23 goals), and on 13 September 1997 he broke Cliff Bastin’s Arsenal goal scoring record with a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers. A couple of months later he suffered a bad hamstring injury which ruled him out of the club’s run-in to a League and Cup Double; he was named as a substitute in the cup final against Newcastle United but did not play. His final goal at Highbury came on 4 October 1997 against Barnsley and was his 300th career goal for both Crystal Palace and Arsenal. He scored his final goal for Arsenal on 6 January 1998 in a League Cup quarter-final victory against West Ham United.
On 15 July 2008, he finished 4th in 50 Greatest Gunners listed on the Arsenal website.
In July 1998, he moved to West Ham United for £500,000. He spent fifteen months as a West Ham player, scoring the winner on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. During his spell there he made the headlines for all the wrong reasons when he vandalised the referee’s dressing room at Upton Park after being sent off during a match against Leeds United. He had subsequent short spells at Nottingham Forest, Celtic, and Burnley before retiring in 2000. He finished his club career with 313 goals in all competitions.
He made his for England under manager Graham Taylor in February 1991. He started in the 2–0 victory against Cameroon at Wembley and helped England reach the finals of Euro 1992 in Sweden. Despite the fact that his international career spanned eight years, 87 matches and three different full-time managers, he only started 17 times and was a used substitute in 16 matches.
While he was still a professional footballer at Arsenal, he published his autobiography, Mr Wright. In 1993, he wrote and released a single called “Do The Right Thing”. The song was co-written and produced by Chris Lowe (of Pet Shop Boys) and reached #43 the UK Singles Chart.
Shortly after his retirement from playing in 2000, Ian was awarded the MBE for his services to football.
18. Denis Bergkamp: 1995-2006.
Denis appeared in 423 games over an 11 year period and scored 120 goals.
Born in Amsterdam, Denis was the fourth of four sons. He was brought up in a working-class suburb; his father who was an electrician played amateur footballer in the lower leagues. He was named in honour of Scottish striker Denis Law but in order to comply with Dutch given name customs, an extra “n” was inserted into his first name, by his father, after it was not accepted by the registrar.
He was spotted by Ajax and was brought up through their famous youth system, joining the club at age 11 and making his professional debut on 14 December 1986. He scored his first senior goal for the club against HFC Haarlem on 22 February 1987 in a match Ajax won 6–0. He went on to make 23 appearances in the 1986–87 season, including a European debut against Malmö FF in the 1986–87 European Cup Winners’ Cup, Ajax won the competition, beating Lokomotive Leipzig 1–0. In later seasons he established himself as a first-team player for Ajax. This culminated in a period of success for the club, which won the Eredivisie title in the 1989–90 season for the first time in five years. Denis scored 29 goals in 36 games the following season and became the joint top goal scorer in the league. Ajax won the 1992 UEFA Cup Final, beating Torino through the away goals ruling. He was the top scorer in the Eredivisie from 1991 to 1993, and was voted Dutch Footballer of the Year in 1992 and 1993. In total, he scored 122 goals in 239 games for his hometown club.
Denis attracted the attention of several European clubs as a result of his performances for Ajax. He was insistent on playing in Italy. as he considered Serie A “the biggest league at the time” and preferred a move to either Juventus or Internazionale, on 16 February 1993, he agreed a £7.1 million move to Internazionale and made his debut against Reggiana on 29 August 1993. In his first two seasons at Internazionale, the club changed managers twice and Denis had a difficult time, troubled with stress injuries and fatigue from the 1994 World Cup, he only scored five goals in 26 appearances. Off the field, his relationship with the Italian press and fans became uncomfortable. His shy persona and his propensity to go home after matches was interpreted as apathy. Because of his poor performance on the pitch, one Italian publication renamed their award given to the worst performance of the week, L’asino della settimana (Donkey of the Week) to Bergkamp della settimana.
Denis left Internazionale and signed with Arsenal in June 1995 for a transfer fee estimated at £7.5 million. He became manager Bruce Rioch’s first signing at Arsenal and broke the club’s transfer fee record of £2.5 million. On the opening day of the 1995–96 league season, he made his full debut against Middlesbrough. He struggled to adapt to the English game and failed to score in the club’s next six league matches, prompting ridicule by the national press, he ended his first season with 33 appearances and a goal tally of 11.
The appointment of Arsène Wenger as Arsenal manager in September 1996 marked a turning point in his career. Wenger, who had moderate success coaching in France and Japan, recognised his talent and wanted to use him as a fulcrum of the team’s forward play. Both were advocates of a continental style of attacking football, and Denis was happy with Arsene’s decision to impose a strict fitness and health regime. Despite making fewer appearances in the 1996–97 season, he was more influential in the first team, creating 13 assists. The following season he was instrumental in helping Arsenal complete a domestic league and cup double. He became the club’s top scorer with 22 goals and recorded a strike rate of 0.57. In 1997/8 he was the recipient of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, becoming only the second foreign player to be recognised by his fellow professionals as the outstanding performer in English football.
After 3 seasons of finishing second more success finally came in the 2001–02 season. Arsenal regained the league, beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season to complete the club’s second double under Wenger; Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2–0 to win the FA Cup four days prior. Denis played in 33 league matches, setting up 15 goals. After a 3 game red card suspension he made his return against Newcastle United on 3 March 2002. Early in the match, Arsenal midfielder Robert Pirès played a low pass from the left flank to Denis in the edge of the opponent area with his back to goal. Under pressure from his marker Nikos Dabizas, he controlled the ball with one flick and went around the other side before placing the ball precisely into the bottom right-hand corner to score. Arsene described the goal as “unbelievable”, adding “It was not only a magnificent goal but a very important one – I enjoyed it a lot”
Denis reached a personal landmark during the 2002–03 season, scoring his 100th goal for Arsenal against Oxford United in a FA Cup third-round tie. On 20 July 2003, he signed a one-year extension at the club. The 2003–04 season ended on a high point as Arsenal reclaimed the league title, becoming the first English team in more than a century to go through the entire domestic league season unbeaten Champions League over two legs. He committed himself to Arsenal at the end of the season, signing a further extension to his contract.
The team finished fourth in the league in his final season at Arsenal. After much campaigning from Arsenal supporters, the club designated one of its Highbury match day themes, organised to commemorate the stadium’s final season as home of Arsenal, to Dennis Bergkamp. “Bergkamp Day” took place on 15 April 2006 It celebrated his contribution to Arsenal; fans were given commemorative orange ‘DB10′ T-shirts – the colour of his national team, his initials and his squad number. Denis came on as a second-half substitute and set up the winning Pirès goal moments after Nigel Quashie had levelled the score. Fittingly, his 89th-minute goal proved to be his last for Arsenal in competitive football.
He was the focus of the first match at Arsenal’s new ground, the Emirates Stadium. On 22 July 2006, a testimonial was played in his honour at the new stadium as Arsenal played his old club Ajax.
Denis made his international debut for the Netherlands national team against Italy on 26 September 1990. He was selected for Euro 1992, where his national team were the defending champions. Although he impressed, scoring three goals in the tournament, the team lost on penalties to eventual champions Denmark. In the qualification for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, hep scored five goals and was selected for the finals, staged in the United States. He featured in every game for the national team, getting goals against Morocco in the group stages and the Republic of Ireland in the round of 16.
Against Wales in the 1998 FIFA World Cup qualification on 9 November 1996, he scored his first hat-trick for the national team. The Netherlands finished first in their group and qualified for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, held in France. Denis scored three times in the competition, including a memorable winning goal in the final minute of the quarterfinal against Argentina. He took one touch to control a long 60-yard aerial pass from Frank de Boer, brought the ball down through Argentine defender Roberto Ayala’s legs, and finally finished by firing a volley with the outside of his right foot, past the keeper at a tight angle from the right, he described the goal as his personal favourite in his career. His international career ended with 37 goals in 77 appearances.
In April of 2007, he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame by viewers of BBC’s Football Focus. A year later, he was voted second by Arsenal fans behind Thierry Henry in a list of the 50 Gunners Greatest Players.
This is a summary of his achievements in chronological order:
Dutch Football Talent of the Year (1): 1990
Dutch Footballer of the Year (2): 1991, 1992
Eredivisie Top Scorer (3): 1990–91, 1991–92, 1992–93
UEFA European Football Championship Top Scorer (1): 1992
UEFA European Football Championship Team of the Tournament (1): 1992
World’s Top Goal Scorer of the Year (1): 1992
UEFA Cup Top Scorer (1): 1994
Premier League Player of the Month (4): August 1997, September 1997, March 2002, February 2004
PFA Team of the Year (1): 1997–98
FWA Footballer of the Year (1): 1997–98
PFA Players’ Player of the Year (1): 1997–98
Premier League Goal of the Season (2): 1997–98, 2001–02
FIFA World Cup All-Star Team (1): 1998
English Football Hall of Fame
His statue now stands outside Emirates Stadium honouring him as one of Arsenal’s legends.