David Rocastle: Rocky Remembered
It comes around fast each year, and it does not seem a year since most Gunners of a certain age begin to think about Rocky. The 31st March is the 12th anniversary of the tragic passing of David Rocastle, as a result of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the ludicrously young age of 33. The club paid a huge tribute in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of his death, but in reality, this year and every year, it is down to the fans to pay our respects in our own way.
I interviewed David’s son Ryan in December 2011 for Gunnersphere. I have always been grateful to Ryan and his generosity, and I updated this chat for my own site last March to mark the anniversary of his dad’s passing. Ryan is only a young man, and was a young boy in 2001, so most of what he knows about Rocky as a player, he has learned from videos and from us, the fans who watched one of their own take the league by storm in the late 1980′s.
He knows what Rocky meant, because he was reminded of it when we still sing his name 21 years after George Graham told a crying David that he was being sold to Leeds. However, for younger fans who perhaps don’t truly understand, I wanted to write this short piece to try and explain.
This little story which I have told friends recently now makes me giggle, but at the time I was a little stunned. I was in the Tollington with Ryan before the Bayern game a few weeks back. We were discussing the team and our thoughts about the game when out of nowhere, a scruffy bearded middle aged chap, with an army surplus jacket, over a 70’s retro Arsenal shirt saw Ryan, pushed through the crowd, jumped in front of him and sang (shouted) “Oh Rocky Rocky, Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle”. He followed this by saying “Your dad was a legend and I loved him,” before just turning away and returning without another word and rejoining his pals. I asked Ryan if this happened often, and he said, “Yes and that guy has done it several times in here.”
You see, to my generation, Rocky was a hero like Brady had been before him. Graham Rix has sort of carried the fans’ favourite tag after Brady left in 1980, but had not truly inherited the ‘King of Highbury’ crown. Charlie Nicholas arrived and we crowned him a Prince, after Bonnie Prince Charlie, and in 1985/86, when Rocky burst into the first team, Charlie was our hero. When George Graham arrived in the summer of ’86, something was about to happen, and it was he that brought the revolution combining experienced defence with an exciting bunch of home-grown youthful talent. Typically, however, as Rix told us later, when he fell out of favour with Graham and was sold to Caen in France, it was Rocky who wrote to him and thanked him for all the departing hero had done to help his development. Rix has never forgotten the gesture, but you will never find anyone in football who does not recall Rocky in the same way.
Rocky was only a year or so apart from me in age and came from Lewisham, just a few miles from me in South East London. So I instantly felt an attraction, as did David Dein, it appeared.
‘I ran home immediately to my wife in excitement and said, ‘I’ve seen the nearest thing to a Brazilian footballer you’ll ever see in our Academy…..and he’s from Lewisham!’ – David Dein on Rocky Rocastle.
His exploits in 1986/87 secured him legend status. To score a winning goal in a Cup semi-final is special. To score it to take your team to Wembley for the first time in 7 years, for a shot at their first trophy in 8 years, is very special. To do so in the last minute of the match at White Hart Lane, to knock the old enemy out in a replay is how legends are born. For younger readers, there is a superb guest blog describing the incredible 2 games, by Darren Jacobs.
This was our time again, and Rocky was the catalyst. The 1 nil down 2 one up semi v Spurs (twice), and the repeat performance in the final, my first with my team, stuck with me.
In 1988/89, the season culminating in the 2-0, mission impossible win at Anfield, Rocky was instrumental. They didn’t keep records of assists in those days, but I will tell you, as I was at most home games; he provided plenty and chipped in with six goals, including this epic solo effort at home to Middlesbrough. You have to wait 2 minutes for Rocky’s phenomenal solo goal, but trust me it’s worth it.
He played every league game of that historical season and was rewarded, as we were, with our first title in 18 years.
I did not want this to turn into a biographical piece but I did want younger readers and fans that have grown up with Bergkamp, Henry, Pires and Vieira to truly get a feel for the talent of this guy. I have been wondering how best to explain just how special he was and where he sits in Arsenal’s pantheon of true greats. He did not play for Arsenal for as long as he should have done, as George Graham decided his degenerative knee condition meant he could not play consistently at the top level. This was despite him only missing 4 games in 1991/92. Anyway, I will try and convey the message as I can from a personal perspective in a few statements:
- If I were selecting my greatest ever Arsenal side from all the players I have watched since 1976, David Rocastle is my right midfielder, with no hesitation whatsoever. Freddie Ljungberg is not in same class.
- There are 3 ex players whose names have been sung with regularity in recent times. Perry Groves, because he was a hard working gooner, Dennis Bergkamp, because he was a true footballing artist. David Rocastle, because he was BOTH.
- For fans who watched the great early Wenger sides, just imagine combining the best attributes of Ray Parlour with the best attributes of Robert Pires, and gentlemen, I present to you, David Rocastle.
- Very few players, even great players, have the worth ethic, tough tackling tenacity, combined with the almost effortless grace, balance, skill and dribbling. For those who did not see the Romford Pele at his peak, try combining Freddie Ljungberg and Bobby Pires in your mind from the Invincibles team and there you have Rocky again.
As his knee worsened in 1992, Graham had increasingly used Rocky in the centre of midfield, instead of on the right. Perhaps, this again was down to his decreasing mobility, but he played there as if he had done so all his career. Fittingly perhaps, then, that from the centre of the field, Rocky did this against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the October of 1991. A goal since voted the 16th best in Arsenal history.
His final goal for Arsenal also came against Manchester United in February, but until the end of the campaign, which sadly saw us relinquish our title, Rocastle pulled the strings. There are times as a fan when you know it is a player’s last game for the club and you can pay tribute. I remember singing ‘Don’t go Charlie’ to Charlie Nicholas, continuously against Norwich at the end of 1987. I recall Lukic throwing his gloves into the crowd at the last home game on 1990, also v Norwich. But we did not say farewell to Rocky as he sprayed balls left, right and centre, dominating a game in which we thrashed Southampton on the final day of 1991/92. No one knew at Highbury that day in May, least of all the man himself. Subsequently, we have done so ever since his passing and we will, I hope, keep paying tribute for as long as our generation go to the games and I hope, beyond. However, March is always the month, and the closet game to the 31st this season is the home fixture v Reading on the 30th.
This year is as important as ever, as we seem at times a Gooner nation divided. Our opinions differ over the manager, the board, transfer policy, tactics, formations, etc. As many have said, now is the time, certainly in the stadium, to unite behind the team, and at the time of #RockyRemebered, we should all remember his words, “Remember who you are, what you are and what you represent.” As fans, we are not excluded from this and we do indeed represent our club. I have a feeling that the atmosphere inside the Emirates on the 30th will not be an issue, as in unison, we pay tribute to one of our favourite sons.
For further reading, please click here, for in my view the best piece I have read on Rocky, written by one of the best Arsenal writers I know, Tim Stillman.
As last year, I suggest you change your avatar to a Rocky one in March, or certainly closer to the end of the month, follow #RockyRemembered on Twitter and Laura Howard, @LGoonerHoward, who will be organising this year’s march before the match on the 30th. Here she is from last time, the blond on the left.
Please share your memories of Rocky in the comments.