The problem for David Rocastle, as the Independent aptly put it, was the unmoveable presence of “Peter Pan” in front of him at Leeds United.
Signed from Arsenal for a record-breaking fee this month in 1992, the late Rocastle came to be seen as one of United’s most puzzling transfers. He was in and out of Elland Road in the space of 18 months, with only 19 starts to show for his effort. A £2million fee did not represent money well spent.
Leeds’ manager, Howard Wilkinson, invested in Rocastle for all the right reasons. He appreciated the midfielder’s talent and he saw him as a successor to Gordon Strachan, the inspirational Scot who by 1992 was well into his 30s.
Unfortunately for Rocastle, Strachan proved to be the boy who never got old. His form refused to diminish and be bothered by the odd injury, United’s new signing could not dislodge Strachan from Wilkinson’s line-up. A mystified crowd looked on, asking what the point of the signing was.
Rocastle must have asked himself the same question having left Arsenal with great reluctance. ‘Rocky’, as he was affectionately known, had grown up at Highbury and contributed to Arsenal’s success under George Graham, including two league titles. He was one of three black players – Paul Davis and Michael Thomas the others – who provided what one reporter called a “new, positive trend at Highbury”.
Some felt that Rocastle never came to terms with his departure from Arsenal. It was not his choice to leave. Davis recalled later: “He cried. We spoke about it quite often. He couldn’t understand why they ever wanted him to go. The club’s line was that he was injured, he was struggling with his weight, he’d had a knee operation. I don’t think he ever recovered from the fact of leaving Arsenal in his own mind.” The Gunners, in contrast, did not dither when United’s £2m offer came in.
Doubts about Rocastle’s fitness were allayed once the midfielder – an outside right in the traditional sense – flew to Ireland to join Leeds on tour and passed a medical to Wilkinson’s satisfaction.
From then on, Rocastle and United’s supporters waited for him to blossom and for his pace and power to make itself felt. His chances were occasional and not always effective, and a start against Stuttgart in the European Cup in September 1992 saw him substituted at half-time. Leeds lost 3-0.
It took a wobble in Strachan’s fitness for Wilkinson to finally give Rocastle a run in the team. Reporting on a 4-1 win over Chelsea in November 1993, a match in which Rocastle scored, the Independent’s match report remarked: “Peter Pan’s injury has finally given Mr Impatience his chance and he could hardly have done more to take it. A model of diligence and enterprise on the right, he also scored the goal of the game.”
Moments like that were few, however, and Rocastle was sold on to Manchester City for £1.25m a month later in a deal which brought David White the other way. Wilkinson was always adamant that Rocastle’s situation had not been personal.
“It (his exclusion from the team) happened because of a player who is not bad called Strachan,” Wilkinson said. “But David Rocastle is a magnificent human being.” That opinion was widely echoed when Rocastle died in 2001 at the tragically young age of 33. He had been suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
A minute’s silence held before a north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham passed off without a sound.
Name: David Rocastle.
Born: Lewisham, London, May 2, 1967.
Signed by Leeds United: from Arsenal, August 1992.
Fee paid: £2million.
Previous clubs: Arsenal.
Club appearances: 34.
Club goals: 2.
Left Leeds United: for Manchester City, December 1993.