By Les Crang
I can’t believe it will be 30 years this September that I first saw Rocky making his debut against Newcastle at Highbury. I’d heard we had a young kid playing in the reserves who was exceptional whose name was David Rocastle. With some players you can tell instantly they are going to be outstanding. Players like Charlie George, Liam Brady, Paul Merson & of course Rocky Rocastle was one of them. He slotted in the side like he’d been playing at the top level for about 10 years. – Gary Lawrence in an email correspondence on Rocky.
As I sit here and write, I’m left wondering two things. How and why? How do I write about David Rocastle. How do I write about a player who is still regarded with such high esteem by a certain generation and then sadly passed away at the age of 33 leaving a wife and 3 kids in 2001? I have written previously on the demise of Paul Vaessen (1, 2, 3) and its not fun. Writing about the passing about people seems wrong. That is where the ‘why’ comes in.
Am I writing this for ‘hits’? I like to think not. I write these articles mainly because I’m a fan fond of history and so newer fans can see our glorious (and not so glorious) past. I also write about the players who have passed on as therapy, usually after a family member has passed. It gives me some introspection. I wanted to do something on Rocky and it is something I’ve thought long and hard on because of the above. This article will include discussions via email from fans who watched and meet David Rocastle and take a look at his career. Hopefully it will be well received by all and apologies if not.
Let’s go back 30 years ago to September 28th, 1985. Don Howe is manager of Arsenal and struggling in the job. Arsenal are at home to Newcastle and attendance stands at a paltry 24,104. In the team? Ian Allinson on one wing (a free transfer from Colchester United) and at the back, the accident prone Tommy Caton. On the bench? Chris Whyte (only one substitute being allowed back then). Hardly something to strike fear into a poor Newcastle side. Fortunately, a young 18 year old on the other wing was making his debut. His name? David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle.
Jon Spurling in his book All Guns Blazing : Arsenal in the 1980’s:-
September 28th witnessed the birth of a Highbury legend; David Rocastle. The first in a new wave of Highbury kids who could boot out the stars, his debut performance was awe inspiring. His jinking up the right wing induced panic into the Newcastle defence and with his powerful physique and determination, we had a player ideally suited to the demands of the 1st Division. Unfortunately, the game was one of astounding awfulness. A radio 2 reporter, when asked to report on the match simply said; ‘0-0, and back to the studio.’
This was hardly a surprise to one man at Arsenal. In Michael Calvin’s excellent book on scouting The Nowhere Men, he spoke to ex-Arsenal scout Terry Murphy. Murphy spoke eloquently of the 13 year old he saw on astroturf saying of Rocky, then and later:-
David was the difference between the sides. He was so comfortable on the ball. He had tricks; even as a youngster he would do his step-overs and drag-backs. He was a talent….
David was easy to talk to. Some youngsters won’t come close to you at all, they’re distant. But David was very friendly, talkative. We just got on well….David was special. Yes, very special.
The bond would be forever strong between Rocky and Murphy. Rocky would later give Murphy his England debut shirt with the words ‘the best scout’ written on it. Murphy would also see him two days before he passed away.
In his first season, Rocky would play 24 league and cup games, scoring two goals. By the season of 1986-7 Rocky would be what Dave Seager described as:-
A home grown talent with the flair of a Brazilian, a shoulder drop that seemed to fool every full back again and again, vision, an accurate pass and the ability to score spectacular goals.
He would also be utilised with full effect by the new manager in George Graham. Although the fans had seen the skill.
It was obvious that Rocky was one of life’s nice guys too. There is 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.” – Excerpt from Tim Stillman’s excellent article on Rocky
As George Graham took over the reigns from Don Howe in 1986, Arsenal would have a team based on youth and experience and no big names bought. Experience coming from John Lukic, Kenny Sansom, Viv Anderson, Paul Davis, Steve Williams and David O’leary, with the hunger of the youngsters, Rocky, Michael Thomas and Tony Adams coming through.
The season of 1986-7 would see that hunger transferred into passion on and off the pitch for Rocky. If anything would define the season any better it has to be the the 3 games in the League Cup semi-final against Spurs. I remember watching the games on television and for the 1st game at Highbury and the 1st half of the game at White Hart Lane, we were abysmal. How we were 1-0 in both was criminal on Spurs part. But these are the games of legends. For years we had put up with Spurs lording it over us, having won the UEFA Cup and two F.A Cups since we had last won a trophy.
At half time of the first game at White Hart Lane, an announcement was put out that tickets for Spurs fans for the final would be available for sale. Arsenal captain, Kenny Sansom said of the announcement:-
‘That just made the lads go berserk! You cheeky so-and-sos!’ Kenny exclaims. George is in the middle of his speech and suddenly the place is in chaos. Arsenal roar back onto the pitch, itching to get into Tottenham.
Arsenal came bursting back, scoring two goals in the second half, with Niall Quinn scoring the second. But who provides the low cross for Quinn at the back post? David Rocastle (see 5 minutes 8 seconds in).
Arsenal would have to replay the semi-final against Spurs at White Hart Lane. A game that would go down as a classic Arsenal game and lead to a fanzine and a blog owned by Dave Seager: One nil down, Two one up [we knocked Tottenham out the cup]. It would also put Rocky on the map as an Arsenal great.
With Clive Allen again putting Spurs in the lead for the third time in as many games (this would be a season Clive would score 49 league and cup goals in a season, get one of the quickest Cup final goals….and win nothing). Arsenal poured forward. Squad player, Ian Allinson then equalised in the last ten minutes. Then with the clock ticking down to extra time, Arsenal burst forward, with Spurs looking deflated. Rocky explains what happens next:-
It was a long punt up the field – not the typical Arsenal style. The ball goes to old wooden-head Ian Allinson on the edge of the area. I don’t know what he was doing trying to shoot from there, but anyway, the ball ricochets to me and I know I have to get a good touch before I swing my left foot because it’s non existent. I see it go under Ray Clemence body right in front of the Arsenal fans who are going absolutely berserk.
Arsenal were in their first final in seven years after beating Spurs in the Semi-final. A thing of beauty. After the match Rocky summed up the George Graham and Arsenal team, saying :-
Everybody fights for each other. We are friends as well as team-mates. The kind of togetherness breeds a tremendous team spirit.
Arsenal fan Mark King in an email correspondence wrote of the semi-final and aftermath the following the game wrote :-
My own personal memory of Rocky was in 87. It was the night we beat the scum in the LC semi replay. To celebrate, a few of us went to the Camden Palace which was our regular Wednesday night drinking spot. We heard a while after coming in, that some of the Arsenal players had also arrived and we made our way upstairs to the top bar. There was Adams, Rocastle, Thomas, all in club blazer with Champagne Charlie in his casual gear sitting slightly apart, sporting leather trousers!
We chatted with them, congratulating them on victory against the old enemy. I was pissed, so I told Rocky he’d made me the happiest man in North London and asked if I could buy him a drink. He modestly shrugged, saying thanks but he was ok for a drink. You wouldn’t get near players nowadays and I’d imagine even if you did you’d probably get a more frosty reception.
We left them to it and later heard some spurs fans had also ended up there and had given the players some verbals later that evening, to which Rocky took exception and suggested they sort it out there and then. Thankfully Thomas had dragged him away before it could escalate.
For me, the George Graham team will always hold more resonance. The no surrender attitude. The team spirit, The team ethos. Ok, not always pretty, but players like Rocky could give us style and elegance alongside Davis and Thomas.
Arsenal would then go on to beat Liverpool in the League Cup final in 1987, with Rocky, Williams and Davis controlling the midfield.
For our younger fans, Liverpool were perhaps the finest and most reviled team in the country in equal measure. Arsenal, with this league cup victory had lopped off one limb. Now was the time to dismantle the Scouse edifice. Bit by bit.
Rocky had spoken previously about Liverpool’s hegemony when going there to play:-
You’d climb off the team coach outside Anfield, and there would be the Liverpool scalles. “Y’alright there Rocky la?” they’d say in their broad scouse accent. They had a swagger and they’d smirk at you on the way in as if to say, “You’re in for it today.”
But the season of 1988-9 would see Arsenal and Rocky slowly dismantle the Liverpool edifice. First, was the game in the league cup which went to three games. Arsenal would draw the first two and lose at Villa Park in a second replay, but in the first game, Rocky scored the equaliser (a thing of beauty).
Although Arsenal lost the game they wouldn’t lose the battle on the 26th of May, 1989.
Rocastle had been instrumental in the league winning team and perhaps best underlined by his goal away to Aston Villa (see below).
Rocky’s relentless work for Arsenal (and England) should have meant he, not Paul Merson, got the Young Player of The Year award for me. Rocky was excellent that year.
The following year, there seemed a drop off in David Rocastle performance. In March 1990 we found out why when it was reported:-
On Monday, 19th March, he [Rocky] was admitted to a St.John’s Wood hospital for surgery to his right knee. It meant one of Arsenal’s most charismatic players would miss the England game against Brazil two day’s later as well as the next 3 weeks battle to keep the league title. It hurt the usually bubbly Rocastle that outsiders had criticized his performances in previous months without attempting to seek an explanation. Perhaps the standards he set was so high that any falling-off would attract attention…
It was after his brief hospital stay that Rocastle admitted ‘The knee had been bothering me all season. I tried to play on, although I knew I wasn’t 100% fit. We were all hoping it wouldn’t be necessary for me to go into hospital, but it reached the stage where I knew there was no alternative. I wasn’t doing myself justice. I wasn’t right. And if that was the case then the team was suffering.’
The knee and Rocky would never quite be the same again unfortunately. Although Rocky would be part of the 1990-91 team, he’d play a mere 15 games in the league. Although he would play most of the following season of 1991-92, Rocky was not able to command the wings like previously (but still good enough for the middle of the park). Rocky would have some stand out moments even in his final season, with fan Mark King and Gary Lawrence pointing out Rocky’s goal against Manchester United in particular:-
If there was one player I would have liked to have kept it was David. He epitomised the Arsenal team spirit, and would always accept defeat and victory with the same dignity. He was in tears when I revealed to him the board had accepted a bid from Leeds United. When he was at his peak and before knee problems started to take the edge off his game, David was as good as any midfield player in the land.
Mark King said of his departure:-
A few years later, whilst we all knew he was having problems with his knee, when the news came that we were selling him broke, I think I must have been as near to shedding tears as Rocky obviously did when George told him the news. I don’t think he ever actually recovered from the heartbreak.
I must say I felt the same. In Leeds, Manchester City or Norwich City team, the willing seemed always there, but not the body. It also looked like Rocky missed Arsenal too and cut a rather forlorn figure.
As Wenger came in 1997, Rocky seemed to move off the horizon, certainly in my mind, but then the sad news came through that on the 31st of March, 2001, at the age of 33, Rocky had passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A man who left behind a wife and 3 young children.
As a mark of respect, Arsenal asked for a minute’s silence in their first game after his passing, which would be against Spurs. Spurs fans kept an impeccable silence. Many an Arsenal fan appreciated that.
Ex players such as Steve Williams [a man of few emotions it always seemed] said of Rocky:-
‘David was a top man, who got on equally well with players from his own age group, like Quinny, and Mickey Thomas, or myself and David O’Leary. I’ll always remember a happy, streetwise kid, who was confident from the moment he came into the side. He made his debut in a bloody awful goalless draw with Newcastle at Highbury back in 1985 – we used to have a lot of those back then – and the game was famous because a radio reporter had absolutely nothing to say in his match report, because absolutely nothing had happened. But in my opinion, Rocky deserved a mention, because basically, you could see that the boy could play, right from the off. He was strong, determined, and very impressive going forward. What was strange was that at different times, Stewart Robson, Rocky, and Mickey Thomas were all labelled by the media as future England captains. All of them had left Arsenal by the time they were twenty-four, and had effectively burnt themselves out. That’s either a hell of a coincidence, or it’s down to the fact that George Graham expected all his midfielders to attack and defend like their lives depended on it.
The fans I interviewed spoke of Rocky as follows. Jokman [Dan Betts] wrote:-
His pace and dribbling were latched onto by adoring fans and the fact he played every minute of the now sacrosanct League winning campaign of 1989 only serves to grow his legendary status.
The fact that every season he is chanted by fans and the banner – signed by past and present Arsenal players – is displayed, just adds more lustre to what is possibly one of the most alluring jewels in Arsenal’s crown. His now famous quote sums up everything he stood for.
Mark King said:-
You never hear anyone in the game say a bad word about him. He was a superb player and by all accounts a lovely man with a great family. For them to lose him at the age of just 33 was a tragedy. I hope that his family all know that Rocky is still worshipped by the fans and that he will always have a place in our hearts.
Gary Lawrence wrote:-
Rocky Rocastle was one of my all time favourite players & I loved watching him play. Also very upset as were all the Arsenal fans when he tragically passed away so young at just 33 years of age.
Below are a couple interviews about Rocky and his place at Arsenal.
I conclude with this: I’ve sat on the sidelines while people argue over “defending” and “berating” our team for who we buy or don’t buy, over who should come in and who should go; I’ve even gotten embroiled in those same arguments and many more, the tenor of which seems to be a crescendo of anger and ugliness. I have even been told to “go support Chelsea” which is a step away from “go support Spurs.” Through all of that I think on a Rocky.
David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle was a man and a player who loved Arsenal. He put everything he could into his game, the team and club. I doubt we’ll see a player like Rocky again. So, Rocky, thanks. You’ll always be a legend in our eyes.
Perhaps on the 28th of September 2015, the 30th anniversary of his first game for Arsenal, we should take a moment and think on that?