The anniversary of David Rocastle’s death adds historical poignancy to the pause for reflection brought about by the recent suspension of sporting life.
Martin Keown is, by his own admission, not the type to bask in sepia-toned memories of yesteryear, but the 19th annual reminder that Rocastle was lost to cancer in 2001, aged just 33, crystallised his thoughts on the Arsenal team-mates with whom he turned professional.
“The current situation makes you think a little bit more back to those days when we started our footballing journeys together,” the former
centre-half told Standard Sport. “And I’ve been thinking recently in terms of what a group it was. It is not a group that ever really gets discussed. You could call it the ‘Class of ’82’.
“The likes of Paul Merson and Niall Quinn don’t appear in photographs of that period, but Quinny was the same age as me. Merson was a couple of years younger, yet came through at a similar time. But Martin Hayes, Gus Caeser, Tony Adams, Mickey Thomas, Dave Rocastle, we all went on to make our first-team debuts and most became internationals in the wider group.
“It is quite a challenge for Arsenal to match that today. I’m not putting myself in that group, but they played a major part in the club’s history.”
Rocastle signed for Arsenal in May 1982 and set about earning his place in the club’s folklore. After scoring the winning goal in a 1987 League Cup semi-final replay at Tottenham,
Arsenal went on to win the final and lift only their second trophy in 16 years before two League titles followed, including the 1989 success secured on the final day of the season with a stunning 2-0 win at Liverpool.
A gifted and versatile midfielder, Rocastle became an influential figure in a team which, while forever immortalised in the eyes of Gunners supporters, somehow does not always enjoy the same wider prominence as Manchester United’s fabled ‘Class of ’92’.
“I once listened to Arsene Wenger talking about the ’92 group [at United] and I thought ‘My goodness, look into the history of the club you are managing’,” said Keown.
“I don’t know why Arsenal haven’t produced a story looking into the journeys of how it all came together. The fans remember but some people have almost forgotten, maybe because the group broke up a little bit quicker than it should have done.”
Keown was the first to depart, so unhappy with the terms of a new deal that he joined Aston Villa in 1986.
"He could be a Brazilian player but he's from Lewisham!" 🇧🇷
From south of the river to a hero in North London.
On the 19th anniversary of David Rocastle's death, remember a great taken too soon.
Rocky & Wrighty: From Brockley To The Big Time
📺 BT Sport 2 HD
🕘 9pm pic.twitter.com/cBmXxdmK9X— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball)March 31, 2020
“I had to do it because the club weren’t really acknowledging what we’d all done in terms of contracts,” he said. “I’ve heard people say I was dumped out of the club. I wasn’t. I played 20 games on the bounce.
“Normally, a young player of 19 signs a new deal. But when I left, all those guys were looked after. Mickey Thomas said to me recently, ‘When you left they sorted us out with new deals’. I didn’t do it for that reason but by standing up for myself I think I was standing up for the group as well.
“The only regret I have is not being able to share the joy of winning the championship in 1989, because all my former youth team colleagues were there. For me, the energy came to reachieve that years later. I had to bite my lip until I got the chance to get back there and make it happen again.”
By the time Keown rejoined Arsenal in 1993, Rocastle had reluctantly left for Leeds before spells at Manchester City, Chelsea, Norwich, Hull and a period in Malaysia. Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein planned to offer Rocastle a coaching job under Wenger but illness struck. He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and died on March 31, 2001.
As documented in the BT Sport film airing this evening, there was plenty of joy amid the sadness as Rocastle eventually got the chance to play alongside another Brockley boy, Ian Wright, when the striker joined Arsenal from Crystal Palace in September 1991.
The pair forged a childhood bond in park matches at the Honor Oak Sports Ground, but while Rocastle rose through the ranks at Highbury, Wright had to take a circuitous route of rejection. He was almost 22 when he signed pro terms at Palace, starting a journey that would lead to 185 goals for Arsenal.
“In front of goal, he was magical,” said Keown. “It was almost like he got a book out of finishes. ‘Okay, I haven’t put it in the top left-hand corner for a while’ and bang, it would go there! He appreciated the journey he went on and when he got to Arsenal, he was living the dream.”
Rocky & Wrighty: From Brockley To The Big Time, part of the BT Sport Films series, tonight at 9pm on BT Sport 2