Zian Flemming already has nickname of the Bermondsey Bergkamp….and Millwall new boy was coached by Arsenal and Netherlands legend

It’s a sign of the expectation and excitement surrounding Zian Flemming’s record-breaking transfer to Millwall that he has already been dubbed the ‘Bermondsey Bergkamp’ by some of the club’s supporters.

The Lions’ new number 10 was actually coached by the Arsenal great when he was in the youth ranks at Ajax. And the 23-year-old, a £1.7million signing from Fortuna Sittard to kick off the South London club’s summer squad strengthening, admits some of the youngsters did not know they had a Netherlands superstar in their midst.

“He is a legend and he was my coach in the U12s – I think this comparison [to him] is a little bit too big,” Flemming exclusively told the South London Press. “At the time we were young, so we might not realise how big of a player he was. It was more like everyone’s fathers were saying: ‘Do you know who is going to be your coach?’ and showing videos.

“The first time I remembered Arsenal was Thierry Henry – and he [Bergkamp] had already left. I just missed his top years as a pro.

“We had to be taught by a previous generation about what a legend he was. Him playing at Arsenal was a little bit before I can remember. But once we saw the clips we were all excited and willing to learn anything from him.”

Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax assistant coach

Ajax’s academy is famed for the quality of its development. And when Flemming reels off the names he worked under it only underlines the importance they place on the next generation.

“Winston Bogarde, Michael Reiziger, Aron Winter, Brian Roy, who played at Forest, Ronald de Boer and Richard Witschge, who were both at Barcelona, and Kiki Musampa. I might have missed a few names.

“They were all ex-pros and had been in the first-team at Ajax. They can teach you a lot of things.”

Amsterdam-born Flemming signed for his home town club at the age of nine.

He played in the same Ajax teams as Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt – now at Manchester United and Juventus respectively – but never made a senior appearance.

Flemming won the Eerste Divisie with Jong Ajax, the club’s reserves in the 2017-18 season.

“I learned a lot in terms of football at Ajax. It also forms you a lot as a person – it was a huge privilege,” said Flemming.

“At that time I was not the main target for Ajax, who they wanted to make the step to the first team. I had to work a little bit harder than the other guys.

“The year I went through to the second team I was playing pretty good but the first team weren’t playing European football, which caused the substitutes of the first team to be playing in our team. This cost my spot. I was in great form – so you’re talking a little bit about luck.

“If they had reached Europe they wouldn’t have let guys play my position and I could have continued my form, then you never know what happens.

“When you are in there you don’t really notice [the quality of the academy system]. I’d always experienced it as just having fun. I always liked to train and the way they were working. You obviously learn a lot but it also feels normal, it’s like being raised that way – football-wise. It is not until you leave to other clubs in the Netherlands, for example, that you see things can be different than the Ajax way.”

There were no shortage of role models for Flemming.

Picture: Niels van Renen, Reflection Studio

“When I was a really young Ajax supporter it was the team with Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic,” said Flemming.

“When I was a little bit older, and already in the academy, then it was the group of players with Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld that I was looking up to.”

Flemming’s next step was to PEC Zwolle – and then a loan to NEC Nijmegen. He scored 13 goals in 25 appearances in the second tier, prompting Fortuna to sign him.

Double figures for goals in the past two seasons – including the crucial strike to keep Sittard in the Eredivisie – have drawn attention.

Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield had both previously been linked. Millwall tracked him for a significant amount of time.

Did Flemming have a burning desire to play in any particular country?

“I tried not to have a preference and just to see what comes,” he said. “Then to dig into the country and see if it might be a good fit.

“There was an Italian Serie A side who put a bid in, that was Empoli. But that was the only team outside of England. The main interest and bids were all from the Championship. It was a sign that it could be a good fit as well.

“The summer of 2021 is when I already knew they [Millwall] wanted to bring me in. The former sports director [Harvey Bussell] visited for one game in the Netherlands and we met – I had a chat with the coach. But at that time it didn’t work out.

“Last summer they put in an offer which was rejected by Fortuna.

“This summer they came again – early and very concrete. It gives you a really good feeling that there is a gaffer and a club that have really wanted you for a long time – it says something.

“After the first season I scored 12 goals and it was a nice season. Then I did it a second time.

Picture: Niels van Renen, Reflection Studio

“It’s possible that new clubs come because they see ‘oh, he can do it twice – he’s good enough for us’. But Millwall already had the confidence in me after the first year.”

Flemming sounded out compatriot Maikel Kieftenbeld before his switch to SE16.

“I didn’t know him, so I had to get his number,” said Flemming. “Luckily he found time on his holiday to speak with me for half an hour, to give me information about the club.

“It was good to get that information from a Dutchman who used to play there and also very recently, because he has just left.”

Flemming exited Sittard as their saviour. He scored seven goals in the last nine matches – his 12th of the season securing a 1-0 win at NEC Nijmegen on the final day.

“We had to win that game,” said Flemming. “I knew that I would be able to make the next step anyway, but I wanted to be able to leave via the front door.

“It gave me extra drive. If you are relegated it is not like being relegated from the Premier League, where you get a parachute payment. Clubs are f***** immediately and having huge financial problems – they have to let a lot of staff go.

“In the second half of the season I managed to score the winning goal four or five times. They were all game-changing moments. Every goal seemed to be giving us three points or a point.

“As a team we got into this mood of killing an opponent and I was the guy who made the last goals and finished the attacks, luckily. It was nice to leave the club in a good way because now I can look back at Fortuna and say I had a really good time. If we had been relegated it would’ve been such a bummer.”

PICTURE: NIELS VAN RENEN, REFLECTION STUDIO

 

 


 

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