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A tribute to Leroy Rosenior: the man who did so much for Arsenal

by Andy Kelly

“Why on Earth are you writing about Leroy Rosenior on an Arsenal history site?” you are probably thinking.

Well, whilst putting together Woolwich Arsenal – The Club That Changed Football I put it to my co‑authors that if one of Woolwich Arsenal’s directors hadn’t died at the young age of 28 then the club’s history may have changed. I was told that the term for this is “counterfactual history”, i.e. re‑writing history in a “what would have happened if this had / hadn’t happened”. You could liken it to the films Sliding Doors or The Butterfly Effect.

So, Leroy. Where does he come into it? Well, during the 1988-89 season Leroy Rosenior was playing for West Ham and was an average forward. That season he scored 7 League goals, 2 in the FA Cup and 2 in the League Cup. One of those league goals turned out to be very important to Arsenal and 1 of the FA Cup goals, I believe, was equally as important. If he hadn’t scored those goals Arsenal’s history over the last 25 years may have been radically different.

I’m sure that you will all recall the 1988-89 season. This was when, after many years in the wilderness Arsenal looked like they could finally win the First Division title again. George Graham had put together a great team with just the right mixture of youth and experience, and they played as a unit. However, having looked like they would easily win the League, Liverpool put on a fantastic run in the second half of the season which resulted in Arsenal needing to win by two goals at Anfield to be crowned champions.

Now, in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, Arsenal were drawn away to West Ham. West Ham quickly took a 2-0 lead before a Paul Merson brace took the game to a replay at Highbury. At this time, Arsenal were top of the league (2 points ahead of Norwich!) but cup replays were not what they wanted. West Ham won the replay at Highbury with a goal by Leroy Rosenior. This is where the first “what if” comes into play. What if Rosenior hadn’t scored and Arsenal won the tie? Looking at West Ham’s next opponents in the FA Cup:

  • 4th Round – Swindon
  • 5th Round – Charlton
  • 6th Round – Norwich

It is highly likely that Arsenal would have made it to the semi-finals where they would have met Everton. A win would have resulted in an appearance in the final against Liverpool.

The problem here is that, with hindsight, we know that Arsenal hit something of a blip in the latter stages of the season. Between 18th February and 21st March they won only 1 league game out of 6. If they had had the distraction of an FA Cup run as well, this could have continued and Arsenal’s title aspirations could have fallen away long before that night at Anfield.

So, we have Leroy Rosenior to thank for scoring that goal that knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup and allowed them to concentrate on the League.

Leroy’s next goal that we need to cherish was scored on 23rd May. This was the day that Liverpool played their penultimate league game of the season against West Ham. Arsenal had played their’s the previous week when, thanks to a right-footed thunderbolt from Nigel Winterburn, they managed to scrape a draw at home to Wimbledon.

Liverpool’s season had been delayed due to the Hillsborough disaster, hence the lateness of the West Ham game. I will always remember watching this game – well, sort of. I was stood in my local pub with my brother watching the score update on the teletext on the television (remember those days?). Liverpool took the lead and our hearts sank, then Leroy equalised – we were back in it. Then it got worse and worse as Liverpool scored 2, 3, 4 and finally 5. I was distraught, we had to win by 3 goals at Anfield. But then my brother told me that we only had to win by 2 goals because of West Ham’s goal. Easy!

So, if Rosenior hadn’t scored that goal, Arsenal would have had to go to Anfield and win by 3 goals. 2 goals was a tall order but, again, with hindsight it was only just achievable. Do you think that Arsenal would have been able to win by 3 clear goals? I don’t.

Therefore, a place should be kept in our hearts for Leroy Rosenior who knocked Arsenal out of the cup and scored that goal at Anfield.

Let us now take things a stage further. Imagine if he hadn’t scored those goals and Liverpool had won the title and then won it again, as they did, the following season. George Graham would have been at Arsenal 4 years and no closer to winning the League. The board, impatient for success, may have deemed that one League Cup win in 4 seasons wasn’t enough, thanked George and sent him packing. Who would have replaced him? Having looked through the managers available during the summer of 1990 I could only find two that would have been considered suitable: Howard Wilkinson and Ray Harford. Not my choices, but at the time they were considered to be astute coaches.

Without Leroy’s goals, we could have been watching some of the most dour football around and not won anything. Would Arsene Wenger have come to such a club? Hell, it would have been like being a Tottenham fan for the last 20 years!

3 comments to A tribute to Leroy Rosenior: the man who did so much for Arsenal

  • Jamie

    If it wasn’t for the exploits of both Mark Robins and Lee Martin, we could have been ‘saddled’ with Alex Ferguson from 1990 onwards.

  • With all due respect Andy, you could also identify a million (literally) other things in the same season that would have affected the outcome equally. Suppose in the first game of the season someone kicked Michael Thomas in the knee and he was out for 12 months? He wouldn’t have been charging through the midfield on 26 May, that’s for sure. History is written one way, but every single action could have gone another way, the combinations and permutations are literally endless. More than there are atoms in the universe. So although it looks as though Leroy was pivotal, in reality EVERYTHING was pivotal.

  • Blimey Phil, you seem extra angry today.

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