David Rocastle: Remembering the Brockley Boy Who Could Have Been Brazilian

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. Get a goal and defend it with your life. Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould were the granite-solid foundations. 

‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ was sung across the country. 

However, joining the club in 1982 was a footballer that played the game at a different frequency. 

David Rocastle possessed a combination of skill, technique and athleticism not seen on the Highbury terraces ever before. 

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, who left an indelible mark on the football club.

An ​Arsenal man through and through, Rocastle was part of the academy class of 1982 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,” Vice Chairman David Dean excitedly told his wife in 1983. 

Rocastle became a starter very quickly and broke into the team in the 1984/85 seasons, playing 26 times. Talent had no age as then-manager Don Howe thrust the youth prospect into the team. He was 18 at the time.

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. Arséne Wenger said that Rocastle was “a modern player because the revolution of the game has gone on to more technique, and more skill.”

By 1988, David Rocastle was getting England attention and at 21, Rocky became a full England international, coming on against Denmark.

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. 

Steve Bould,Kevin Richardson,Alan Smith,Paul Merson

Rocastle won the Barclays Young Eagle award for the second consecutive season and looked set to be a star for years to come. 

Arsenal went onto win the league again in 1991 at a canter but unfortunately, Rocky was beset by knee injuries. It was that season that Arsenal physios detected a chronic injury that would only continue to get worse. 

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.

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.


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