Remembering Rocky: One Fan's Reflection
When an Arsenal fan thinks of significant dates in the club`s history, our minds would likely wistfully turn to 26th May, 1989, or 25th April, 2004. Perhaps those of a certain maturity would recall 8th May, 1971 with great relish. Today however, marks an altogether more sombre day etched onto the club`s calendar. It is ten years ago today that Arsenal Football Club lost one of its favourite sons. David Carlyle Rocastle was a product of Arsenal`s youth Academy. A Lewisham lad, he made his debut for the first team in 1985 at the age of 17. His mixture of energy, determination and flair established him as a firm fan favourite as a teenager. Before he reached his 34th birthday, he lost his battle with non Hodgkins lymphoma. Today marks ten years since his passing.
When somebody passes, human nature dictates that we mumble our apologies, bow our heads solemnly and say nice things about the deceased. Yet even though I and thousands of others that adored him from the stands did not have the pleasure of meeting the guy, his warmth radiated out to us in a way that was so genuine. We could see it in the way he played and the way he conducted himself. He played in a way that bought supporters to their feet; unusually for such a flair player of poise and skill, he was just as likely to raise the noise levels inside the ground with a firm tackle as a deft shimmy. He played with a smile, but also in a way that showed that he knew exactly what it was to represent Arsenal- the club he supported from childhood. (He broke down in fits of tears when George Graham informed him he had accepted an offer from Leeds in 1992). It`s impossible to imagine how a player could possibly tick any more boxes in cementing a positive relationship with supporters.
It was obvious that Rocky was one of life`s nice guys too. There`s a very famous picture of him, taken in around 1991 at Highbury. He`s decked out in his red Arsenal kit, glancing firmly towards the cameras with his thumb up. It`s a picture that tells a thousand words, it said; "I belong in this kit; in this stadium." Rocky`s infectiousness was loved by the supporters and his character was well loved by his contemporaries too. Ian Wright, who grew up on a neighbouring Lewisham estate and caught the bus to training with Rocastle referred to him as "my little brother." David Dein remarked, "There was so much more to Rocky than being a gifted footballer. He was a consummate gentleman, warm and modest. His genuine sincerity was remarked upon by so many, even those who only met him momentarily." Perhaps my favourite Rocky eulogy came from David O`Leary, who tearfully told reporters that, "If you were picking a team of nice people, Rocky would be captain."
Rocastle`s death was pertinent to me in a way that no other footballer`s death has been. I remember Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore, Brian Clough and Stanley Matthew`s deaths and recall observing the minute`s silence for all of them. I fully comprehend why their deaths were to be mourned and their lives celebrated. I followed the tributes and the film reels with absorption. On a personal level, Rocky was different for me. He started my first ever match at Highbury, against Leeds United in March 1992. At around the age of 6, when I was beginning to catch the family bug for the sport and beginning to become aware that I needed to choose an allegiance; Rocastle was in his prime.
As I have outlined many times before, in my family, I was only ever going to be a Spurs or an Arsenal fan. Though Crystal Palace were visible in my locality and were in the running around the time Salako, Wright and Bright were plying their trade in South East London. My first forays onto the school playground with the sponge ball saw me favour the position as a tricky winger. (Nowadays, my dotage for pies and Guinness means I`m left utilising my ball skills in defensive midfield, where I basically don`t have to do any running. The Jan Molby role if you will). At this time, Arsenal had Limpar, Rocastle and Merson raiding the flanks. Watching these three guys fox a succession of gormless full backs made me turn my allegiance to Arsenal. It is genuinely no exaggeration when I say David Rocastle is one of the principle reasons I support Arsenal. A hard working, tricky winger raised around 2 miles away from where I was. Such links forged in your football awakening at the age of 6, last forever. Rocastle was of my generation, he belonged to me in a way. I was 17 on 31st March, 2001 as I stood inside Highbury for the North London derby to observe the minute`s silence.
I think the fact that he died on a match day- a home game against Tottenham at that- grounded the shock in an ethereal way. That afternoon was very odd, I recall arriving to meet my friends on Blackstock Road, having still not heard the news. I was nervous and excited about the game; but as I met with them I realised that they didn`t share my apprehension. When they told me I instantly understood why. I stood and observed for about an hour as people travelled through the exact same passage of emotion. They would swing the doors open and greet their friends in the pub; only for their smiles to melt away after a few words from their cohorts. Though mobile phones were very much in use in 2001; internet phones were not and these sorts of things still relied heavily on word of mouth to travel around the ground on a match day.
There was something so much more real about the shock, observing the minute`s silence from the same spot I had watched Rocastle as a child. I still hadn`t reached adulthood yet. Rocastle hadn`t reached middle age. I didn`t feel old enough to have lost one my embryonic connections to the club. David`s family certainly weren`t old enough to have lost a son, father, brother and husband. To put the immediacy of the tragedy into context; David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Martin Keown all started that game on March 31st, 2001. Each had played in the same Arsenal side as Rocky. My season ticket seat at the time was housed within touching distance of the away support. As the public address system announced the minute`s silence, I suddenly became apprehensive, hoping against hope that the Spurs fans would not ruin the respectful silence. I needn`t have wasted my energy. The only audible sounds during that minute were of people sniffing away their tears.
In many ways, it`s a shame Rocastle missed the Wenger era. One can well imagine him slotting precisely into Wenger`s vision of attacking play. Had he been in his prime in the hyperbole of the Premiership era, Sky Sports and all, he would be feted as one of the great creative players. He would be what marketing men would tacitly refer to as a Box Office player. The memories of Arsenal fans and You Tube do preserve what an immensely exciting player he was. Take a look at a goal he scores against Middlesbrough in the 1987-88 season; he cuts in from the right, slaloms and sways between four defenders before lashing the ball in off the inside of the post. The famous chip at Old Trafford in 1991, which kissed the crossbar on its way in. There was also his memorable last minute winner in the 1987 League Cup semi final against Spurs which is etched into the marble of Arsenal folklore.
Rocky signed for Arsenal as a schoolboy in the summer of 1983, spending two years in the Youth Team before signing professional terms in the summer of 1985. Rocastle fast earned a reputation as an accomplished dribbler. David Dein excitedly informed his wife, "There`s a boy in our academy that can dribble like a Brazilian. And he`s from Lewisham!" Though he had to play with contact lenses as his eyesight was so poor- this gave him an idiosyncratic kind of squint when he moved with the ball. Though Rocastle was to form the nucleus of exciting young home-grown players that would lift the club out of the mid table doldrums of the early to mid 80s under George Graham, it was actually Don Howe that blooded Rocastle first- giving him his debut as a spindly 17 year old in a home game against Newcastle in 1985. He went on to make 26 appearances in the 1985-86 season and instantly became a terrace hero. He shone with flair in a team that often toiled unattractively, but it was his immense work ethic and ability to give the Division`s snarling full backs as good as he was getting that earned him a place in the supporters` hearts. Upon the arrival of George Graham, hardly one with a reputation for developing skilful footballers- George gave him a spot in the first team. Rocastle was living the dream.
That dream was to enter the realms of schoolboy fantasy when his last minute winner at White Hart Lane put Arsenal through to the 1987 Littlewoods Cup Final at Wembley- where he secured his first medal at the age of 20. Rocastle was en ever present in the 1987-88 season and the 1988-89 season to boot, in which he won his first Championship medal, playing the full 90 minutes at Anfield on May, 26th as Arsenal improbably beat Liverpool 2-0 to clinch the title in the last minute. He collected another league winners medal in 1990-91, though a knee injury restricted him to only 18 appearances in that campaign. By 1991-92, he had hit the zenith of his form, appearing in all 42 games as Arsenal finished 4th, playing an exciting brand of football that the likes of he and Limpar helped ferment, as the Gunners scored 92 league goals. At this point, Rocastle had been capped 14 times for England, but had been left out of the squads for both Italia 90 and Sweden 92, the workmanlike Trevor Steven preferred. This tells you everything about English football at that time; exciting match winners were mistrusted in favour of workhorses.
But something happened in the 91-92 season that altered Graham`s view of how his side should play. The European Cup exit to Benfica left him with the impression that he needed to dismantle the more creative elements of the side, in favour of a more dour approach. In the summer of 1992, Graham informed Rocastle that he had accepted a bid for his services from Champions Leeds United. Rocky`s heart was broken, so too were the supporters. John Jensen was signed to take his number 7 shirt. It was the beginning of Graham`s decline into an insipid sludge of a side. Not long after, Limpar was ushered out of the door too and replaced by Eddie McGoldrick. The supporters questioned the move to sell Rocastle, sentiment as much as sense informing their dismay.
Rocastle`s career rather ambled thereafter; he showed brief glimpses of his repertoire of skills in spells with Leeds, an unsuccessful time with Manchester City and an average spell with Chelsea. But Rocky`s heart had been broken, he wanted to play for Arsenal and we wanted him to play for us too. It was as mutual a grievance as you`re ever likely to see in football. Rocastle was a player who had been living his boyhood dreams and played with a zest and verve that representing his club gave him. With all due respect to Leeds, Manchester City and Chelsea, I think his heart yearned for the Gunners. Rocky was an honest player. I don`t mean "honest" in the way that Ryan Shawcross and Kevin Muscat are called honest, I mean he was genuine, his heart was laid bare in the way he played and his heart didn`t beat for those clubs as much as it did for us. Though no Chelsea, City or Leeds fan would accuse him of not putting a shift in, you just cannot cosmetically transplant that kind of intensity.
Rocastle spent the last year of his career in Malaysia before injury forced his retirement in 1999. I think we all rather hoped and expected he would return to the Marble Halls as a coach or in an ambassadorial role of some sort. But just 14 months after his retirement, in February 2001, his family announced that David was suffering an aggressive form of cancer which attacks the immune system called non Hodgkins lymphoma. Before we even had time to track down our medical dictionaries and see exactly what that meant, he died in the early hours of March 31st, 2001. He was survived by wife Janet, son Ryan and daughters Melissa and Monique, as well as his mother Linda. Rocky`s father had died in 1972.
Today his memory is preserved by the club in a myriad of different ways. The David Rocastle Indoor Centre in Walthamstow houses Arsenal`s Academy Youth Development programme, as we search for other young Rockys to rise from the ranks. His image is projected onto the side of our stadium as one of the 32 club legends whose images oversee our ground. His name is still sung by supporters at every single game and has been since his death. For ten years I cannot recall a match where this chant did not go up to some degree. That`s way past the statute of limitations for polite observation of a player`s death, that shows you exactly how keenly he was and is regarded by the fans. Rocastle`s family set up the David Rocastle Trust, a registered charity supported by the club that helps community projects and numbers Great Ormond Street Hospital amongst its beneficiaries. But most of all, for those of us that were fortunate enough to see his swashbuckling style on Arsenal`s right wing, he continues to live in the very heartbeat of the football club. Once seen, his warm smile, lung bursting endeavour and swaying hips are hard to forget. Personally, I owe Rocky my allegiance to the club and, consequently, a significant chunk of my life. It`s a debt to him I`ll never begin to be able to repay. So if all I can do is preserve his memory in some small way by asking us all to remember him today, it`s the least I can do.LD.
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