Sometimes life will pull a dirty trick on you, deal you a card off the bottom of the pack. That happened to David Rocastle, one of the greatest football players I ever saw. He was just breaking into the first team when I started watching Arsenal back in 1986, and along with Michael Thomas, Paul Merson and Tony Adams became an integral part of the team that won league titles in 1989 and 1991.
Rocky in full flight
The kid was something special. I remember travelling up to Coventry City, not the most inviting of venues at the best of times, but on a freezing cold Sunday in December to watch a dire 0-0 draw it was an ordeal. An ordeal made worthwhile by Rocky skinning the entire Coventry defence, including poking the ball between the last defender’s leg before whipping in a cross that was all-too-predictably walloped into the stands by Martin Hayes.
And that’s why I went. Rocky might turn it on, and when he did, it was magic. I’ll never forget to this day standing on a packed, heaving terrace at White Hart Lane in the dying minutes of a Cup replay, when Rocastle surged through a crowded penalty area, ball glued to his boot to whack home the winner from six yards out. We went mental. Absolutely ape-shit mental, hugging complete strangers, going through the entire repertoire of songs. Such was the crush, my feet didn’t actually touch the ground for at least five minutes. Rocastle did that, and more.
That Cup semi-final marked something else. At half-time of the second match of this three-game epic, and with Spurs cruising at 2-0, the PA announcer at White Hart Lane read out how Spurs fans could get their tickets for the final. The Arsenal fans heard it, and so did the players in the away dressing room. Something clicked. After a decade of losing, they stormed back to 2-2, won the replay, the Cup Final and four titles in the next fifteen years. It was the start of what Ray Parlour called the team’s “unbelievable belief”, the knowledge that, even if the chips are down, they are going to give everything they’ve got and more.
And then it was over. Cruelly overlooked by the England team, told by the boss that he “no longer figured in his plans”, he was sold to Leeds in 1992. Leeds. Bloody Leeds. When somebody broke the news to me in an Italian hotel bar, I assumed they were joking. Some joke. Two million quid for our best player, and what did we get in return? We got John Jensen and David Hillier, two players, and I’ll be perfectly honest, not fit even to lick the mud off Rocky’s boots.
He was never the same player. From Leeds he went to Chelsea, Manchester City, Norwich, Hull and then off to Malaysia, but recurring injuries finally killed off the career which had never recovered from being sold by the club he loved.
He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a virulent form of cancer, in 2000, and despite a confident prognosis, he died in March the following year, aged just thirty-three. He left a wife and three children.
The story would have ended here, yet the fans of Arsenal would not let the memory of a favourite son slip away. “Oh Rocky Rocky! Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle!” is still chanted home and away, and his son was the club mascot in the 2001 FA Cup Final. There is a petition for a testimonial match in his memory, and around 250 fans have united in a more practical sense.
The David Rocastle Remembered group donates spare CPU time on their PCs to carry out calculations for cancer research, and has, so far donated 61 years of computer time to the cause. It’s free to join, and all you need to do is to download a small programme that runs in the background of your computer that reports back to grid.org every now and then. It’s that simple, and it’s making a difference right now. To read more on this project, take a gander at this article on Arsenal World.
NHL killed Rocky, and his death shocked the thousands that had literally grown up with his talent. I'm proud to support a team that still plays with the flair and excitement that exploded onto the Highbury pitch back in the late 1980's, and I'll forever treasure the fact that I was there when it all started. Recently, a very dear friend of mine recently survived Non-Hodgkin's and is recovering towards a normal life, and I’m eternally thankful for that. It was her bravery and determination that got me thinking about Rocky again, determined to do something to help those still alive, while remembering those past. With a bit of that famous “unbelievable belief”, perhaps this thing can be beaten. Rocky, rest in peace fella, I’ll always remember you.
Cue Brian Moore: “It’s Rocastle! Arsenal are through to Wembley!”