Before Arséne Wenger’s arrival as manager in 1996, Arsenal were not known for playing attractive, attacking football.
Previous incumbent George Graham had instead built a legacy founded on scoring a goal before defending it with every fibre of Arsenal’s being. Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould the granite-solid foundations who made it possible.
‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ was sung across the country, but that didn’t apply to a player, signed in 1982, who operated at a completely different frequency.
David Rocastle possessed a combination of skill, technique and athleticism that had never before been seen on the Highbury terraces.
Rocky wasn’t just a player with exemplary footballing ability but he was a beloved teammate, a fighter on the pitch and a gentle soul off it – one who left an indelible mark on north London.
An Arsenal man through and through, Rocastle was part of the academy class of ’82 that included Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Michael Thomas. One of, if not the greatest set of footballers that the club has produced in one group.
It didn’t take long for Rocastle to make an impression.
“We’ve got a boy who could be Brazilian… and he comes from Lewisham,” David Dein, the club’s vice chairman, excitedly told his wife in 1983.
Rocastle quickly became a starter and broke into the team during the 1984/85 season, playing 26 times as a fearless 18-year-old. Arsenal’s run to the League Cup final thrust Rocastle further into the limelight, as he netted a last-minute winner away at Tottenham in the semi-final second leg to send the Gunners through.
Dein remarked that the jubilation from the fans was so exaggerated, not just because the club had beaten their rivals, but “because one of their own boys that had scored it.”
Rocastle played with a freedom not associated with 1980s English football. Technical skill and dribbling was always his first thought, with Wenger – who arrived as manager after he’d left the club – saying that Rocastle was “a modern player because the revolution of the game has gone on to more technique, and more skill.”
By 1988, he was on England’s radar, and Rocky became a full international after coming on as a substitute against Denmark.
During the iconic season of 1988/89, a youthful Arsenal side went to Anfield on the last day of the season needing to win by two clear goals. This was a Liverpool that had dominated English football and it was presumed that the Reds would once again triumph to become champions.
In the 57th minute, a high foot from Ronnie Whelan on Rocastle led to a free-kick in the Liverpool half. Rocastle, incensed by the action, shouted aggressively and shook his fist in the direction of the Liverpool captain.
Arsenal would then score their first goal of the game, a header from Alan Smith, and Rocastle’s fiery reaction became a seminal moment as fans across England saw Rocky’s passion burst out.
With time running down, the Gunners still needed a goal and with Arsenal’s last attack, Lee Dixon pummelled the ball forward. Smith took the ball down superbly before playing a delightful chipped pass over the top for Michael Thomas to run on to.
A split second later, the ball was past Bruce Grobbelaar and nestled in the back of Liverpool’s net. 2-0, Anfield silenced and game over. Arsenal’s unfancied band of youngsters had upset the odds, won the title and Rocastle was at the very heart of it.
Rocastle picked up the Barclays Young Eagle award for the second consecutive season, and looked destined to become a star.
Arsenal would win the First Division title again during 1990/91, this time at a canter, but Rocky was beset by knee injuries. It was then that the club’s physios detected a chronic and long-lasting problem that would continue to get worse.
That year also bought Rocky’s childhood friend Ian Wright to the club, and the two fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing professional football together.
However, their hopes of a long and prosperous professional relationship were dashed when Leeds made Arsenal a lucrative offer they couldn’t turn down. With injuries an issue, the Gunners accepted – though Graham admitted that selling Rocastle “was the hardest decision” he’d ever had to make.
“I sat in my car and cried. Playing for The Arsenal was all I ever wanted to do,” Rocastle later admitted.
His career would continue at not only Leeds, but Manchester City and Chelsea further down the line. Knee problems were a continued thorn in his side though, and Rocastle would never fulfil the potential that he’d shown as a bristling young midfielder.
Tragically, in October 2000 – less than a year after retiring – Rocastle was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; a particularly aggressive form of cancer that claimed his life March 2001. He was 33.
Rocastle was so respected by the footballing community that tribalism took a back seat to honour his passing. A minute’s silence was impeccably observed ahead of the north London derby – which coincidentally took place on the same day as his death – and the respect shown by Spurs’ supporters showed his standing within the game.
Rocastle was a gentleman, fan and incredible footballer – and is somebody who will never, ever be forgotten.