Boyd Hilton wonders what went wrong for a great Arsenal No 7

Once upon a time, in the era before Sky, before the Taylor Report, before Football Came Home, there was a great player for Arsenal who proudly and appropriately wore Liam Brady’s Number 7 shirt and earned the admiration of 50,000-strong Highbury crowds.

I used to be squashed uncomfortably against the railings on the North Bank, all five feet of me desperately trying to catch a sight of David Rocky Rocastle’s thrusting runs down the right wing. Rocky was a hero; an innately exciting player, a genuinely decent guy, neither stupid nor arrogant, often eloquent.

He played every game in the 1989 season which climaxed in our first championship for 18 years. As he dribbled around opponents, scored spectacular goals and sprayed passes effortlessly to his midfield colleagues Davis and Thomas, it seemed a certainty that Rocky would be an England regular in the years to come and could even become one of the greats.

He was capped under Bobby Robson, but failed to make the final cut for Italia 90. After injuries and comments from George Graham about a ‘weight’ problem, he played better than ever in a central midfield role in 1991-92 season, was on the verge of Graham Taylor’s European Championship squad, but again didn’t quite make it.

Now, nearly six years later, as the football world teeters on the brink of financial insanity, David Rocastle is taken on trial by Southampton and swiftly rejected. There is surely something tragic about the fall of such a player. Why did George Graham feel he could let his finest midfielder go to Leeds, only to replace him, calumny of calumnies, with John Jensen (a purchase, via the now notorious Rune Hauge, that was to bring about Graham’s downfall)?

Why did Howard Wilkinson then not capitalize on Graham’s generosity? What the hell happened with Man City, who sold him on to Chelsea with unseemly haste? And surely Ruud Gullit, of all people, should be able to recognize Rocky’s gifts? Apparently not. He languishes in the Chelsea reserves, waiting to be rescued.

Rocastle’s fate over the last few years is so mysterious that dark rumours circulate by way of explanation. I don’t believe there is any easy answer, though, beyond thinking that his employers have not looked after him as well as they might. Over the past few years plenty of footballers with personal problems, not least at Arsenal, have been given time to sort themselves out by clubs who recognize that they are still a huge asset.

If Rocastle has got himself into some sort of trouble, it seems odd that none of the five clubs he’s played for seem to have made a serious attempt to help him out. Instead he’s packed off to the Football Combination until such time as they can find someone to take him off their hands.

As George Graham takes Leeds on another tour of the mid-table positions, thousands of Arsenal regulars ponder on what might still have been achieved. If Rocastle had stayed we wouldn’t have spent the subsequent four years longing for even a hint of creativity in midfield.

But I’m only looking in from afar. What must it be like for the man himself? David Rocastle has turned thirty. He’s just started his sixth season in limbo with little sign of respite. There are plenty of older, mediocre players knocking around in the Premiership, so surely someone somewhere could get a few years service from him? Give Rocky one more chance.

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month

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