When the legend of Rocky was born
My inspiration to write came the other night while reading a piece last week by Gooner Girl describing her experience of Anfield 89. As I was fortunate enough to be there myself, not only could I identify with it, but I also found myself re-living the whole experience as I have often done since that glorious Friday night in May.
In the wake of the latest Hillsborough inquiry, where it’s taken a staggering 23 years for the stark facts and the truth to emerge, it appears that lately, there have been more and more editorials chastising the state of the beautiful game throughout England in the 80’s. It goes without saying that the tragedies of Hillsborough, Heysel & Valley Parade in that era should never have happened. However that aside, as a teenager growing up in the 80’s, following Arsenal was nothing short of magical.
My love affair with the club began as a 6 year old boy being taken to his first game at Highbury in 1977. I come from a family of Arsenal supporters, and once I’d walked through the turnstiles of The West Stand Upper, my life was to never be the same. As a youngster, I was fortunate with my father to be in attendance when Brady scored that majestic curler when we won 5-0 at White Hart Lane in 1978. I attended all 4 games of the epic FA Cup semi final v Liverpool in 1980, which included a trip to Hillsborough, 2 trips to Villa Park and the final one at Highfield Road, witnessing Brian Talbot’s header to send us back to Wembley for the 3rd season in a row. Standing with my father, uncle and cousin singing “Good Old Arsenal” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the top of my voice are memories that have and will stay with me throughout my life. The emotions I experienced at such a young age, the connection I felt for that ‘Cannon on the chest‘ are indescribable. Of course, as has always been the way with Arsenal, along with the good comes the bad. Crying myself to sleep after losing to Valencia on penalties in the Cup Winners Cup Final, being inconsolable walking out of Wembley Stadium after being beaten by Ipswich in 1978, these are the experiences that shape the life of a football fan.
Even our greatest let us down – Brady, after the Valencia shoot out miss. Scars we bear.
I can sense I’m beginning to ramble so let me get to the point and the purpose of this piece. The year is 1986, and it’s the first game of the season under our new manger George Graham. After 6 years of boring Arsenal and mid table mediocrity, there seemed to be a sense of renewed hope buzzing throughout the stadium where we were due to play Manchester United. Despite the fact we won 1-0 with a Charlie Nicholas goal, what was most significant for me was that it was the first time I was allowed to go to a game with my mates, whereas before, I had always been with my family sitting in the upper tiers. This was the first time I stood on The North Bank. There were well over 41,000 spectators jammed into Highbury that day. I remember paying my money at the turnstiles and walking up those steep steps where I turned right to find myself at the top of a swaying throng of people. Eventually, after enough pushing and shoving, my mates and I found a place to stand with a decent view to watch the game. As a kid watching the North Bank from my seats in The West Upper, seeing the swaying, learning quickly that all of our chants started in there, to finally be a part of that for the first time was exhilarating. I can’t remember much of the match apart from when Charlie scored and I was literally thrown from the top of the terrace to the bottom. I was hooked, as there was nothing in the world like this.
Throughout that season, I travelled the length and breadth of the country following the boys in red home and away. That year I visited numerous stadiums for the first time, sang my heart out and fell in love with players like Rocky Rocastle and Tony Adams, players that loved Arsenal and knew what it meant to represent a club with a long history of upholding tradition and winning trophies. For those of you maybe too young to have either been around or remember, this was a trophy starved time. Arsenal had not picked up any silverware since winning the FA Cup in 1979. Therefore, when we were drawn against Spurs for the Littlewoods (League) Cup Semi Final, the excitement of once again having the opportunity to return to Wembley by knocking out our greatest of rivals was at a fever pitch. Over the years, I have been to well over 30 North London derbies, including the two FA Cup Semis at Wembley in 91,93 and Old Trafford in 2001. Perhaps it was because we were so starved of success, perhaps it was because that year they had a far superior team than ours managed by a ‘curb crawler’, whose leading goal scorer was still not averse to shaking hands! Perhaps it was because this was the first time we had met our rivals in a Semi Final. What I do know is that that for me since then, not one North London Derby has come close to the sheer tension, exhilaration and atmosphere produced in those 3 epic games in March 1987.
The atmosphere of yesteryear makes the North London Derby of today seem almost sterile. There was nothing like standing in the North Bank seeing the Clock End jam packed full of our rival fans. Likewise, standing in the Park Lane, occupying the whole end behind the goal with thousands more sitting above us, there was something about that that created a feeling that in my opinion cannot be replicated in today’s modern corporate world of football. The 1st leg at Highbury ended in a 1-0 defeat with Clive Allen as the scorer. The second leg at White Hart Lane went from bad to worse when we went 1-0 down, 2 nil on aggregate. At that point, a comeback seemed unlikely. Then, out of nowhere, up popped Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn to take the game to extra time. It is hard to describe the sense of elation I felt on that Sunday afternoon, although nothing compared to what was to become.
The venue of the replay was decided on the toss of a coin. As Spurs won, they elected to play the game at White Hart Lane. The game, if memory serves me correctly, was scheduled for the Tuesday, literally 2 days after the 2nd leg. My cousin and I got to Highbury on Monday afternoon and queued for 3 hours to get tickets. Next evening, there we were, back at the venue of our incredible comeback 2 days earlier. For me, the game becomes a different spectacle under floodlights, which always seems to intensify the atmosphere. That night, at the Lane, standing shoulder to shoulder with 8000 Gooners desperate for success was the night Rocky became my hero. At half time, Spurs had the audacity to announce over the speaker system the date they would be selling cup final tickets. Unbelievable! Once again, for the 3rd time in a row, ‘two Bob Allen’ put Spurs ahead in the 61st minute. The game seemed like it was slipping away. All around us, Spurs fans sang wildly, chants of Wembley. It was sickening until the 82nd minute, when substitute Ian Allinson, only on the pitch as Nicholas had been carried off injured, squeezed the ball into the corner of the home team’s net.
Pandemonium ensued. The whole Park Lane end swayed backwards and forwards. Extra time was on the cards, or was it? Exactly in the 90th minute, with every fan crammed into the ground feeling crippling knots of anxiety in their stomachs, up pops ‘Rocky’ in the box to see his shot creep under the keeper body. We went from ‘one nil down to two one up.’ Final whistle, grown men crying, the whole Park Lane end roaring “One nil down, two one up, we knocked Tottenham, out of the cup la la la la” alongside “oh Rocky Rocky…..Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle”. The out pouring of emotion was like nothing I had ever witnessed. I was hugging complete strangers. We were back at Wembley and had done a number on our greatest of rivals to boot.
Throughout my 35 years of support, I have experienced incredible highs coupled with depressive lows. In fact, some have suggested that I am bi-polar where Arsenal are concerned! Despite having been fortunate enough to be in attendance at nearly all of our greatest achievements since I was born, as a 16 year old kid standing on the terraces at White Hart Lane with my best mates, on a floodlit starry night, seeing my beloved team reach a cup final – well it doe not get much better than that!