On the 31st of March 2001 English football lost one of its most dynamic talents when David “Rocky” Rocastle finally succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma aged just 33 after a short and painful battle.
Rocastle was a shining light in the often dark days of English football in the 1980s and his loss would be felt throughout the football family and not just at Arsenal.
Born in Lewisham, south east London, Rocastle was a quick and skilful midfielder – one of three black players from that part of the capital who played a huge role in Arsenal’s success in the late 1980s and early 1990s – he also broke down social barriers both on and off the field of play.
Rocastle lost his father when he was just five years of age, which had a huge impact on his early childhood years. At times a lonely figure he would spend hours on the football pitches of south London before finally being accepted by Arsenal in 1982 following a successful trial. Just two years later he was running out at Highbury with many of the players he had watched as a child.
From such humble beginnings we would eventually become an iconic player in a glorious era for the club; impressing fans and fellow pros with his incredible pace, flair and agility.
Rocastle was a clever playmaker who gelled perfectly with the more aggressive and workmanlike Paul Davis and Michael Thomas in the middle of the park. Between them the trio represented a new era of optimism and hope at Highbury having been maligned for their style of play and defensive attitude for years previously.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s Arsenal were unrecognisable from the side they were about to become, enjoying a series of mid-table finishes with only an FA Cup win and a number of modest European campaigns to punctuate the boredom.
But the emergence of Rocastle brought with it something of a changing of the guard at Highbury and It wasn’t just Rocastle who was offering signs of optimism in the ranks of the Arsenal youth set-up.
The likes of Tony Adams and Niall Quinn had also made their first team bows around the same time, and with former double winner George Graham at the helm, there was now cause for real excitement within the famous old marble halls.
In Graham’s first full season in charge of Arsenal, Rocastle played a role in securing the club’s first major silverware that decade.
Scoring a last-minute winner in an epic Littlewoods Cup semi-final against great rivals Tottenham in 1987, he was then instrumental as Arsenal beat Liverpool in the final, and all this before he was even 20 years of age.
Rocastle was back at Wembley the following season as Arsenal defended their trophy against an impressive Luton Town outfit, but were narrowly beaten in a thrilling final.
But that was to be just the start of things. Greater glory was just around the corner for Arsenal and their increasingly influential midfielder in what remains the greatest title race in history the following season.
In the 1988/89 season as Graham’s side raced to the top of the league, with Rocastle being an ever present throughout, only to find themselves behind Liverpool with two games to go after they’d lost at home to Derby County and been held by Wimbledon – the title looked destined for Merseyside.
The Gunners faced a mountain to climb. If they were to clinch their first title since the famous double win of 1971, they needed to go to Anfield in the final game of the season and beat their direct rivals by two clear goals. Anything less would mean Liverpool would take the title.
Rocastle was instrumental once again in a cauldron-like atmosphere that Friday night at a packed Anfield in front of a TV audience of millions.
After winning a free-kick early in the second half, Alan Smith glanced home to give Arsenal a glimmer of hope and mean that, “one more goal will win it,” as commentator Brian Moore explained on the night.
Then, incredibly, deep into injury time, with the championship seemingly safely in Liverpool’s hands, Michael Thomas charged through the Liverpool defence after a neat interchange. Keeping his cool he flicked the ball past an onrushing Bruce Grobbelaar and into the the net.
Arsenal had won it and their players rushed to celebrate with the fans in the far corner as Rocastle embraced his manager in what was, without doubt, both men’s greatest moment.
Just a couple of seasons later Arsenal were league champions once again but a serious knee injury had limited Rocastle to just 13 games, along with a number of substitute appearances and scoring a couple of goals; it was a huge anti-climax following the key part he had played in the thrilling title success just a couple of years previously.
The following year Rocastle was able to play almost every game in the 1991/92 campaign but Arsenal were a shadow of their former selves and a fourth place finish would spell the end for many of the title winners still in the side as George Graham, never one for sentimentality, looked build once more.
In July 1992, a full ten years after he’d joined his boyhood club Arsenal, an offer from Leeds United was accepted for Rocastle and the affair was finally over.
Supporters were shocked and Rocky was devastated, as a man renowned for his tough tackling and mixing it with the hardest the game had to offer, broke down in front of his stunned teammates.
In the eyes of the club his injuries were becoming a liability, he was also struggling with his weight and was also recovering from a serious knee operation.
“He cried,” revealed former teammate Paul Davis. “He couldn’t understand why they ever wanted him to go. I don’t think he ever recovered from leaving Arsenal, in his own mind.”
Rocastle never quite established himself at Elland Road and from there he went on to play for Manchester City before signing for Chelsea in August 1994, where it became painfully obvious that the spark had gone, and for good.
In January 1997 he embarked on a loan move to Norwhich City before a short stint at Hull City before he finished his playing career in Malaysia in 1999.
For England Rocastle won 14 full caps for his country and never played in a losing side at full international level.
In February 2001 it was announced that he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – an aggressive form of blood cancer – which claimed his life just a matter of weeks later.
Tributes poured in after the news broke as those who knew Rocastle, not to mention the many who didn’t, mourned the sad and premature passing of this great talent.
Perhaps fittingly, Arsenal’s next match was the North London derby against bitter rivals Spurs and the match was preceded by a minute’s silence which was impeccably observed by both sets of fans.
He’s still looked upon as one of the most popular players in the club’s history by Gunners fans and his name is regularly sung at games. He is one of 32 club legends whose pictures are displayed on the outside of the Emirates stadium, along with the likes of Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and Liam Brady.
At the time of his passing Alan Hansen revealed that, when playing against him for Liverpool, he brought him down after he had shown him a clean pair of heels on the halfway line.
According to Hansen, Rocastle merely turned, smiled, and asked: “Getting old Alan?”