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“When you don’t reach your goals in football, it’s your whole life that crashes down”: Nicklas Bendtner on clashing with Arsenal’s Invincibles, World Cup heartbreak and learning off-the-pitch lessons the hard way
Nicklas Bendtner spoke to BTSport.com about his autobiography Both Sides - the story of an extraordinary football career told with unflinching honesty.
There’s the light. The perfect header. 60,000 spectators screaming in joy. Nothing can touch you… And then there’s the dark…
This passage in Nicklas Bendtner’s Both Sides is a microcosm for the autobiography - a story of extreme, but all-too-brief, highs followed by devastating lows all told with a disarming honesty.
The casual football fan views Bendtner as a talented striker who never realised his true potential or, with less sympathy, as a figure of fun whose confidence far exceeded his ability.
Instead Both Sides gives a voice to a teenager growing up in an unfamiliar environment hostile to his personality, struggling in vain to avoid just about every one of the pitfalls that present themselves to a young Premier League footballer in England.
It’s a rollercoaster ride and Bendtner himself spoke to BTSport.com about his journey, alongside Danish journalist and biographer Rune Skyum-Nielsen.
Growing up in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, the young Bendtner was a prodigy in his homeland. The striker starred for FC Copenhagen’s youth sides and quickly made an impression on the international stage with the Under-16s and Under-17s.
With every goal, Bendtner’s confidence grew and when Arsenal came calling in 2004, the self-assured 16-year-old headed to the Premier League giants with the belief that nothing could touch him.
“When you come from a small country like Denmark you are used to winning everything and having everyone saying you are one of the best young talents in Denmark, you think you are something special,” Bendtner recalls.
“Then you go and play in Arsenal and then you find out that you are only one guy, one of many and where only one or two of you will have a shot at making it.”
Going from being the big fish in a small pond to joining a team who’d just gone an entire league season undefeated, with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp up front, was a considerable shock to the system.
“It was difficult and saying goodbye to my parents was tough but I was very determined,” he adds. “I moved into digs in Winchmore Hill with Ann and Clem who were very good people.
“They helped me a lot and took good care of me, but in the first four or five months it was difficult fitting into the group and living abroad in a new country.”
As for on the pitch, Bendtner says: “The academy staff saw a player at Denmark Under-16s and they expected the same player to come to Arsenal. But he only showed up in certain moments and he didn’t have the 100 percent focus that was required.
“They were expecting an upcurve but after a few months I was standing still.”
That’s when Liam Brady, Arsenal legend and then head of the academy, stepped in.
“He told me ‘I don’t think you are quite ready to be here’… I remember crying and being really upset. But I went back to my parents, rebooted and came back a lot stronger.
“It’s important for everyone, not just for footballers [to have that moment]. Everyone needs a nudge on the back to push us in the right direction.
“I was lucky, I was determined and had a guy who was not afraid to tell me if I didn’t do better I wouldn’t be there. That’s what helped me.”
Bendtner’s resolve restored, he returned to the Gunners with his sights set on becoming the main man and began proving himself at every opportunity.
Not overawed by the Invincibles, it culminated in a clash with Henry over the rules of two-touch during a training ground match as a 16-year-old.
Henry tells me to shut up with a lot of swear words… I tell him he’s the one who should shut up… He yells in my face, says all kind of things….
- Bendtner in Both Sides
A successful loan to Birmingham City in the Championship followed, before a return to Arsenal for the 2007/08 season. His first league goal was in the North London derby against Tottenham - 1.8 seconds after coming on for Emmanuel Eboue, the quickest goal ever scored by a Premier League substitute.
Bendtner would win Danish Player of the Year in 2009 and give a now-infamous interview in which he claimed he’d become “one of the best strikers in the world”.
But competition for a starting spot at Arsenal was fierce with Robin van Persie Arsene Wenger’s preferred option, and Emmanuel Adebayor standing between Bendtner and a regular starting spot.
In the case of Adebayor, the competition got particularly fierce as the pair physically clashed on the pitch during a 2008 League Cup semi-final defeat against Tottenham.
It feels like a headbutt right on the bridge of my nose. The blood gushes out and my nose swells up. As if that’s not big enough already.
- Bendtner in Both Sides
“Adebayor was the only one who I couldn’t work together with,” Bendtner smiles. “I don’t want to say anything bad about the guy other than we were not on the same wavelength.
“Later on in 2010 [when Van Persie was injured] I felt really comfortable. I scored quite a few goals and was taking steps to being a regular starter.
“But then Van Persie got fit again and I had to take being second again. That was quite difficult.”
But his biggest battles came off the football pitch.
In one of the more personal passages in Both Sides, Bendtner discusses feeling like a trophy to girls looking to sleep with Premier League footballers, about meeting an “aggressive gold digger” in a London nightclub and waking up the next morning in his bathtub in Bushey after being spiked.
He speaks about gambling from 6pm until 4am three nights a week, every week, winning £220,000 in one night then losing £400,000 in ninety minutes a different evening.
He even admits to visiting lap-dancing clubs five nights a week while on loan at Birmingham. Most dangerous of all, Bendtner recalls the 2009 car crash on the way to training which wrote off his £120,000 Aston Martin.
Bendtner’s brushes with the law include an arrest for allegedly kicking the door of his own apartment block down and a 50-day prison sentence spent under house arrest for assaulting a cab driver in Denmark.
“I have definitely learned the hard way,” Bendtner says when asked about some of the mistakes he’s made during his career. “When you are a young boy moving into the world where you don’t know what’s going to unfold, you experience things and you fall for things that are difficult to say no to.
“I’ve had some tough times with those incidents but it builds you up in a certain way. You try to navigate round it but that only comes with experience… now people have to convince me a little bit more to earn my trust.”
Was there a support system in place at Arsenal? “Back in the day raising young footballer isn’t as debated as it is now. We didn’t have a mental coach or anything like that.”
And what about the striker's relationship with Wenger and his Arsenal team-mates?
“Wenger and I had several conversations about many different things. He was a coach who wanted to help. His main focus was on the pitch but our conversations developed as I moved into the first team."
The striker continues: “I always admired Sol Campbell, he was a guy I admired as a player and one who helped me a lot as a young kid in training and who tried to guide me through…
“I learned about the dedication to football from the Invincibles but on a personal level we never really made friends or hung out.”
To the English media, Bendtner was an easy target. The Dane was the cocky, Premier League star who frequented nightclubs and wore pink boots to matches. In the unforgiving world of the tabloid press, sports stars with personalities can be torn apart.
“I never had a problem with the media when it was football-related,” Bendtner says. “If I had a bad game I’d probably be giving myself a hard time too.
“But as you move off the pitch you want to have a bit of privacy. I wasn’t a person who looked for the media, it always came to me.
"It was tough but most of the time it’s like that for players who have a lifestyle outside of football where you can get spotted.
“So the lows can be really tough because it’s your whole life that crashes when you don’t reach the things you set your mind to and all the hard work and tears you put into it.”
While the now 32-year-old speaks candidly about the dark moments, he lights up when asked when he was happiest wearing the Arsenal shirt.
Despite the acrimonious ending to his time with the FA Cup holders, his love for the club which gave him his big chance remains as strong as ever.
“Scoring my first Premier League goal in the North London derby!” Bendtner smiles. “It was a very special moment for me.
“To score that goal was magical and it was a defining moment in arriving into the first team… and against Tottenham too, it couldn’t have been better.
“You get told about these derbies but you have no idea what it means until you are a part of it. I remember standing on the sideline and Wenger telling me: ‘Go on and try to make a difference’.
“I don’t think I ever jumped that high and I don’t think I ever will again.”
The international bestseller Both Sides by Nicklas Bendtner and Rune Skyum-Nielsen is out now in English.