Before Arséne Wenger came to the club in 1996, Arsenal were not known for attractive football.
George Graham built a legacy founded on the defence.
After a steady season in the first team, Arsenal’s run to the League Cup final pushed Rocastle further into the spotlight, after he netted a last-minute winner in the semi-final second leg against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane to send the Gunners through.
David Dein said 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 freedom not associated with 1980s English football. Technical skill and dribbling was always his first thought.
David Rocastle would have been 52 today. What an astonishing player. Used to glide across the turf.
Gone, but never forgotten. RIP.pic.twitter.com/4akR87gBhz
— Proper Football (@sid_lambert) May 2, 2019
In 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 be Champions.
In the 57th minute, a high foot from Ronnie Whelan on David Rocastle led to a free-kick in the Liverpool half. Rocastle, incensed by the action, shouts aggressively and shakes his fist in the direction of the Liverpool captain.
Arsenal would score their first in the game, a header from Alan Smith, and Rocastle’s fiery reaction became a seminal moment as fans across England saw Rocky’s passion.
With time running down, the Gunners still needing a goal and with Arsenal’s last attack, Dixon pummels the ball forward. Alan Smith takes the ball down with a brilliant control and plays a delightful ball over the top. Michael Thomas, charging from the midfield, finds himself one on one with the keeper. 2-0.
This ragtag team of unfancied players and youngsters had done it. They’d gone to Anfield and become champions.
Rocastle won the
However, 1991 also brought Rocky’s childhood friend Ian Wright to the club and the two fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing professional football together. It was the stuff of dreams as these two kids, both children of Caribbean immigrants, who had grown up on the London estates together were now playing at the highest level of English football.
However, football doesn’t care about childhood dreams so when Leeds came in with a lucrative offer and considering Rocky’s injury concerns, the club decided to move the club legend on. George Graham said that it ‘was the hardest decision’ he ever had to make in football.
Rocky was crushed by Arsenal’s decision as he had such an affinity with the club.
“I sat in my car and cried. Playing for The Arsenal was all I ever wanted to do,” he later said.
His career would continue as he went on to play for Leeds United, Manchester City and Chelsea but knee injuries were consistently an issue. Rocastle’s career finished with two league medals, as well as a League Cup and seven England international caps.
It was a fine career that many would dream of achieving. However, Gunners fans were left to wonder what might have happened had he not been beset by injury.
⚽️ 34 goals
2 First Division titles
1 League Cup
David Rocastle: an Arsenal legend forever in our hearts ❤️ pic.twitter.com/SPPZyq3dTu
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) March 31, 2018
Tragically, in October 2000 – less than a year after retiring – Rocastle was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins 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 football tribalism took a back seat to honour his passing of a footballer whose ability and story transcended rivalry.
The news of his death occurred the same week of the North London derby and the immaculate minute’s silence followed by Spurs’ fans shows that Rocky was so much more than just another player. Rocastle was a gentleman first, a fan second and an incredible footballer third.