David 'Rocky' Rocastle: A Love Letter To A Gentleman & An Arsenal Legend

15 years ago today Rocky passed away. In this archive piece, Layth remembers the man who embodied everything great about Arsenal.
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15 years ago today Rocky passed away. In this archive piece, Layth remembers the man who embodied everything great about Arsenal.

"There is something really special about Arsenal Football Club… I was always told 'Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent: The Arsenal.' David Rocastle

On the 31st March 2013 it will be 12 years to the day since Arsenal legend David Rocastle, nicknamed Rocky, died. He was a true heir in the lineage of the Gunners revered no7 shirt, from Chippy Brady to Geordie Armstrong to 1930’s legend’s Alf Kirchen and Joe Hulme. At Ashburton Grove for our game against Reading this Saturday, all my friends and I, as well as every other person in the ground, will, I hope, sing his name at the commencement of the 7th minute in his honour of the shirt number he wore, the service he gave to our club, and the fact he was an absolute gentleman.

The reason I was born an Arsenal fan was because my dad, who came to this country in the early 70’s loved football. Like many making a new life in a strange city, one of his first acts was to go and watch a football match, so he attended games at various London clubs. Yet his mind was made up for him the first time he walked through the turnstiles at Highbury.

A brown face at a football match in London in the early 70’s often bore the brunt of casually racist comments by many and the threat of physical harm from some. But the one stadium in London he said he no-one said a word to him about the colour of his skin was at Arsenal. Of course it went on - it would be churlish and plain wrong to suggest otherwise - but to this day he swears he supported Arsenal because he came across no-one who was racist towards him. (It certainly couldn’t have been the football, with the 16th and 17th place finishes in the league in the mid 70’s the nearest we came to relegation since before World War One).

I was reminded of this fact when he and I talked about ‘Rocky’ Rocastle RIP the other day, and his line:  ‘Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent’. I dare say this mantra has been passed through many an Arsenal supporting household over the years. It has certainly been passed through mine.

For me the quote sums up the virtues of honesty, modesty, loyalty and respect. It speaks of being true to your roots and yourself. Yet it also evokes the inherent decency of human nature mixed with a humble self-discipline; a generosity of spirit imbued with an uncomplaining appetite for hard work. Everything in fact that David Carlyle Rocastle epitomised.

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My father always had an affinity with Rocastle, as he understood that Rocky’s dad was a hard-working immigrant to this country, just like him, having to raise his family in a council estate, just like him. He also knew later that Rocastle senior unfortunately died when Rocastle was five. We can only imagine what effect this tragedy had on young David. But did it also give him the drive, the desire the will to succeed that often accompanies young footballers who progress in the game, separating them from their peers who lack such vital ingredients?

David Dein certainly thought so and then some, excitedly informing his wife after watching Rocky in Arsenal’s South East Counties team for the first time, "I’ve seen a boy in our youths that can dribble like a Brazilian. And he`s from Lewisham!"

Rocastle was a talented member of our famed youth team in the years when the first team was riven by cliques and underachievers. He graduated into the senior squad along with contemporaries such as Tony Adams, Niall Quinn, Martin Hayes, Paul Merson and Michael Thomas. (In one South East Counties league game in the 83/84 they beat a Spurs team 10-1).

That was another reason we loved him and still do: he was an Arsenal man pure and simple. He knew about the ethos of the club, he had been schooled in our rich history. He knew which sepia tinted figures to revere, and he had uncomplainingly cleaned the mud from boots of older, lazier first team players who weren’t fit to lace his own. Quite simply he was one of us. It was as if you or I had been transported from a council estate and the North Bank or Clock End (for some reason after I moved on from the Junior Gunners I always stood on the Clock End) onto the rutted, muddy Highbury pitch, as it was every winter back then.

Of course, everyone has their own personal (and no doubt private) reasons for loving him. Mine was because his introduction into the Arsenal first team coincided with my early teens, my first Arsenal season ticket in 1986, and the freedom to follow my club around the country supporting them with my friends.

In the years from 85 – 92 home and away I averaged around 45 games a season. I, like so many from that era grew up watching Rocky play for The Arsenal.

I was part of an 18,000 Highbury crowd for his debut against the Geordies in September 85, a typically dour 0-0 of the time, enlivened only by his apparent flair and potential.

I was there for all three Littlewoods Cup Semi Finals in Feb/March 87, crushed and sweaty against the fencing at the front of the away end behind the goal for the second leg, and the replay at White Hart Lane. (Thinking that someone in authority knew what they were doing in terms of crowd control). When Rocky scored that glorious winner and celebrated in front of us with an old-school modesty that mirrored the shock the rest of us were feeling, I nearly passed out from being squashed and crumpled alongside 12,000 delirious fellow Gooners.

I was there for the never-to-be-forgotten Littlewoods Cup Final at Wembley under a perfect blue sky on 5th April 1987. Even now when I think of Wembley Finals, my mind’s eye has framed that day. The team had the invincibility of youth on their side. So had Rocky. Come to think of it, so had I back then.

I was in the Clock End in Feb ’88, for another League Cup Semi, the night a heaving, baying  crowd of 51,000 saw him dummy Neville Southall on the edge of his area, but slot the ball wide of an empty net. Of course, not a soul criticised his miss, they recognised he was giving his all for his team, his club and us. We also understood that he would do his utmost to make amends - as one of the many things we knew for certain about him was his strength of character. He did make amends of course.

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Chasing down a lost ball with the conviction that he would win it – something he did a lot – he crunched into Pat van den Hauwe. The ball squirted inside to Perry Groves. He in turn fed Michael Thomas who was powering through the middle, before slamming the ball into the hard ground and over a despairing Southall.  As pleased for his good friend as he was for the team, the club and us, Rocky immediately and gleefully joined in the celebrations, despite having just made a tiring 50 yard sprint. It was behaviour like that which made us love him even more.  (Needless to say he also scored a goal on that unforgettable night. Even his unconstrained celebration mirrored the joy of those on the terraces who idolised him).

I was also there at Anfield in the third round of the League Cup in Oct 88. It was the night he hit a late but perfectly timed 30 yard volley into the net to equalise in front of 6000 disbelieving travellers from London. (With typical modesty, he said after the game that the only reason he shot was because he was too tired to control the ball). I saw his powerful mazy run that beat 5 Middlesbrough players in Nov 88, and the way he destroyed Chelsea in Feb 88 and Sept 90.

In fact, like many, I witnessed first-hand most of his team and personal triumphs (for Rocky they equated to the same thing) in that glorious period. He was 22, had just won the league on another unforgettable night at Anfield, and was in the England squad in the months before Italia 90.

Yet just as he seemed to be on the cusp of being the world class player we at Arsenal always believed and willed he would be, a knee injury changed it all for him. It denied him speed and confidence, the two things he thrived on to beat players, a trademark strength of his. George Graham, an unsentimental Scot if ever there was one, sold him to Leeds in the summer of 1992.

A stunned Rocastle recalled later, ‘I sat in my car and cried. Playing for The Arsenal was all I ever wanted to do’. He also likened his shock at the news, and his despair of being forced out of the club he loved so dearly, to "a son leaving a father".

His friend and team mate Paul Davis said Rocky was "a bubbly character, lovely spirit, fantastic spirit. Really, he was an Arsenal person. I always remember when he left the club: it was one of the saddest moments for him."

I still choke reading these two quotes over 20 years on, not just for the feeling of utter pride in my club that it brings me, but more importantly, like many thousands, for the love and respect it inspires in me for David Rocastle RIP: Gentleman and Arsenal Footballing legend.

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It is not worth recounting here his peripatetic wanderings after Arsenal – suffice to say I defy you to find one supporter of Leeds, Man City, Norwich or Hull who would have a bad word to say about him.

It was typical of the man that even in his cruel untimely death at the age of 33 from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma – a vicious a cancer that attacks the immune system - on the morning of the North London derby in March 2001, he even managed to provoke in me, for the only time in my entire Arsenal supporting life, a strange feeling of admiration for our bitter rivals, whose name I can barely type without a flash of distaste.

Who else but Rocky could quieten 3000 away fans at Highbury minutes before a North London derby? I know the respect they showed to him that afternoon by their silence, moved (and surprised) many a true Arsenal fan, even if most of us would never admit it. It also showed that being a nice guy in football, a decent cheery person, who gave his time as freely as his smile, judging by all the stories I’ve heard from people who came across him inside and outside football, can earn the respect and esteem of everyone in football. Even those from N17.

He was affable, unpretentious and funny. He was a gentleman and had an even-tempered nature on and off the field. Alan Hansen said that once, when he played against him for Liverpool, he clattered into him on purpose. Rocastle simply smiled at him, offered his hand so as to be pulled up by Hansen and asked: "Getting old?"

One thing Arsenal Football Club does well, and has always done well, is honour it’s heroes and legends. If you’re at the game, as I will be on Saturday, sing his name as loudly and proudly as you ever have done on 7 minutes.

And even if you aren’t present, please take a minute to remember this honest, modest, loyal, fun-loving family man who was taken so cruelly from us, at an age in life which was no age at all.

I know my dad will.

Postscript: David Carlyle Rocastle. Born 2 May 1967 – Died 31 March 2001

He made 204 appearances for The Arsenal in the League, plus 14 as substitute, scoring 24 goals. In total he was to play for the club 278 times, scoring 33 goals.

He played 14 times for England and was never on the losing side.

On the day of his death, Saturday 31st March, 2001 the Gunners beat Spurs 2-0. Bobby Pires, scored both goals: On his back he wore David Rocastle’s treasured number 7.      

The piece is dedicated to the memory of Robert 'Ben' Ansell (1972-2005). At his the back of Ben's funeral order of service funeral it was kindly asked that all donations may be made in Ben's memory to the Leukaemia Research Fund as a tribute to David Rocastle, one of Ben's favourite Arsenal players.

You can follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29