If you are an Arsenal fan born in the mid-1960s – as I was – you were probably a tad late to truly latch onto a favourite player in the 1971 Double winning side. Although for obvious reasons I have latched onto Geordie Armstrong. There is something about the combination of flair with a work ethic that will always draw a supporter to a player.
For me the Arsenal player I first truly admired – no, worshipped – was Liam Brady; which will surprise no one for to see his emergence as one of our own in the mid-70s was simply a joy. Then, as now, Arsenal were not regularly threatening to win the league, but we could all take solace in the knowledge that whilst we were nowhere near the best team, we did for a fleeting period have its best player. In 1979, his fellow professionals agreed and Brady was voted the best by his peers. And a year later he had gone.
In the early 80s The Gunners had a functional team. There were hard workers and there were players with flair, but, with the exception perhaps of Paul Davis, did we truly have one who combined the two consistently? As fans we pretended that ‘Rixy was better than Hoddle’ and we raised our glasses to Prince ‘Champagne’ Charlie, but the plain truth was that Arsenal were in the doldrums. They badly needed an injection of something, and as it happened that something was home-grown youth and talent.
It came in the form of Adams, Thomas, Hayes, Quinn, Merson and of course David Rocastle. All these players went on to help Arsenal return to the pinnacle of the domestic game in 1989 – 18 years after the boys of 1971 – and many of them are now part of Highbury folklore. What Adams did for the club may never be surpassed in playing terms. We will probably never see the likes of Michael Thomas’s ‘It’s up for grabs now’ Anfield moment again. But from 1986 to 1992 no one shone like David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle and no other player was taken to the hearts of the Highbury faithful like Rocky.
In Rocky, for the first time since Brady, we had a player who would walk into any team in the league and was feared and envied by the opposition. He had the tenacity and scrapping ability you would not associate with a wide player, with the sublime dribbling ability, pace and trickery you would. I am not sure how many players I have seen at Arsenal before or since that would regularly get you off your seat with a wondrous piece of skill or with a crunching tackle; probably none.
I have written about Rocky before and I am sure I will do again, but this time, to mark the 15th anniversary of his passing today in 2001, I wanted to do something a little different. I have invited 15 friends to send me their own personal memory or tribute to David Rocastle – A South East London lad like me, another reason he was close to my heart and one of our own. In a world where footballers are paid like film stars and live in Ivory towers we may not see his like again in the famous Red and White.
Oh Rocky Rocky…..
Those big gazing eyes of David Rocastle’s saw a lot on the pitch and in life. A young gentleman who danced through defences, pirouetted and jinked passed defenders. A passionate man off the pitch, and on it, David was a committed player who did things others just couldn’t.
He loved his mates, especially Wrighty and Alan Smith. He loved the fans and despite all of our overzealous attentions Gentleman Dave always had time to say hello, sign something or take a picture.
His love for his football club – and his passion for it – were revealed when his mate Nigel Winterburn was kicked at Old Trafford. The normally placid yet skilful David Rocastle went mad, lost it, and had to be restrained by team mates and Schmeichel during the infamous 20 man brawl.
A gifted player and London lad, who gave his all in an Arsenal shirt, prompting attacks, probing defences and seeking out Smudger and Wrighty. Of course he scored some amazing goals himself too: the most memorable being against Spurs – ending their Wembley dreams as the tannoy at the swamp announced where home fans should queue for tickets for the final!
We adored Rocky, he actually was one of our own, he gave all in the shirt, was rota fouled and hacked in days where fouls were proper fouls. He just got up, got the ball and made it his business to torment the bloke who fouled him for the rest of the game. For all we loved him, sadly our club didn’t treat David well in the end. He was sold to Leeds, told in George Graham’s car, David cried, Arsenal was his football life. The incident was so callous and badly handled that to this day many of his team mates still comment about it angrily.
David went on to other clubs, but Arsenal was always his home and his love. When he was taken at so tragically young an age to go to the Clock End in the sky, he left his loving wonderful family who sit amongst us as Gooners, where David’s name is sung and his memory revered for the wonderful attacking player he was.
When I think of Rocky Rocastle I remember him as a wonderful footballer who had it all; the pace, the power and the Brazilian like skill. He was brave as a lion too, a man who would positively relish a battle against an intimidating full back such as Stuart Pearce. Above all he absolutely loved playing for The Arsenal and lived his life by the famous maxim “Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent”.
Gary Lawrence @Garythegooner56
My favourite memory of Rocky – It has to be that crazy Littlewoods cup semi replay against Spurs at the Lane in 1987; when he scored by slipping the ball under Ray Clemence to win the game and send us to the Final. The maddest atmosphere, took the lid of the lane, and his celebrations after the whistle, Legend. I wasn’t at Anfield at 89 but I was at the Lane that night and it was as big and mad as 89, a never to be repeated atmosphere. I was fortunate enough to have met him on lots of occasions and he was a true Gent, a real class act, always so humble and very funny.
Mark East @AFCMark1
I could write about White Hart Lane in 87, his goal at Old Trafford, Anfield (check the back lift) Middlesbrough but I won’t as I’m sure that’s been covered many a time. Instead I take you to Loftus Road, January 1990 and an absolutely dreadful night. We got beat 2-0; I got soaked, was in the home end and witnessed Kenny Sansom scoring a belter for QPR. At the final whistle I was standing right by the player’s tunnel as the players walked off. I noticed Rocky was looking particularly upset and annoyed. For some reason, I caught his eye and I unzipped my coat showing him my yellow away shirt, “Chin up Rock” I said. He looked at me and said “Cheers Gooner, cheered me up no end.”
February 1997. Southend United v Norwich City, a Tuesday evening. My posh ex-wife and I had just moved in to our new home. There I was taking her to on a trip to Roots Hall on a freezing night. She asked me why we were going. I said David Rocastle plays for Norwich. She looked at me blankly. I went on to explain the history with him, the fact he was my hero, first ever name on the back of my shirt. She still looked at me blankly! No wonder I got divorced. He was a very special man and player.
Tim Hardwicke @arselona
It’s always sad when this time of year comes around and thoughts turn to David Rocastle but it’s a measure of him as a player and a man that 15 years later his name still gets sung at games and he still brings out such emotion in his and The Arsenal’s fans. As a teenager Rocky was one of my idols, his work-rate, his skill, some of his goals, he could even put a tackle in some of the modern days defensive midfielders could only dream of doing and he never hid once on the pitch.
The moment I will most remember him for was away to Liverpool in November 1988 in the League cup, my first out of London away day. We were 1 nil down in the 2nd half when Adams hoofed it to Smith who was just outside the penalty area. Smudge controlled it and passed back to Thomas who played it diagonally to Rocky who was on the right corner of the pen box. Rocky used one touch to control the other to shot and with zero back-lift and it’s in the net and thousands of us are going mental on the Anfield Road terracing. The game finished 1-1 but I believe it gave us the confidence when we went up there needing to win 2-0 to win the title at the end of that season. Legend can easily be an over-used word these days, but Rocky is a legend, a true Arsenal man who will always be remembered, sorely missed and one of our own. RIP Rocky.
I hope that’s ok mate…I could write more but getting a bit misty eyed here…
I remember 92, 1 nil down at home to Man united, a Brian McCLair goal. Rocky took a ball from Seaman and passed to Dixon, 10 seconds and 6 passes later he was on the end of a Wrighty pass to make it 1-1. Such elegance from Rocky!
Kristian Ward @bajankris
We can point to the goals, the endeavour, the skill, the artistry. They are all reasons which on their own are enough to explain why David Rocastle remains so fondly remembered. He wasn’t the perfect footballer, capable of indifferent spells but never lacking application or effort in any game I saw him play, none that I can remember anyway. The biggest compliment is that like Paul Davis and Anders Limpar, he would have been a successful player today, thriving in what the Premier League has become. But it wasn’t that which endeared him. Not for me. Rocky was of the last generation who had a connection with supporters. The wealth in today’s game makes players more distant, less human. They don’t care as much about the club; it’s just a job, the next wage packet could quite easily be with another employer. David Rocastle understood what Arsenal Football Club meant to supporters. He was proud to play for the club and it shone through in his performances on the pitch, as well as actions off it. One of us? He could have been, such was his passion for the club. That’s what I miss in today’s football. He cared about Arsenal and you can’t ask for anything more. Rest in Peace.
I loved Adams and later Merse but when David Rocastle came through the ranks you honestly thought, we’ve got a serious player here; someone who was equally at home on either wing or in the middle! So under-rated it seemed outside Highbury, 14 England caps is a joke for a player of his ability. How many teams in the Premier League now would want a winger with the trickery pace and aggression of the Legendary Rocky?
Gary Marshall @TheBFGGazza
Rocky – Gone but never forgotten. Born a star, died a legend who is forever in our hearts.
My very first ever piece of sports journalism work was interview with Rocky when I was 17. He was so friendly, open and supportive. I will always appreciate that and treasure the memory. A great guy off as well as on the pitch is why his legacy endures at Arsenal.
Tim Payton @timpayton
Remembering Rocky – Unfortunately, I only saw DR7 live on a few occasions, as back then my trips to Highbury were limited to 2 or 3 times a season. Therefore, my best memories of Rocky were on MOTD and for obvious reasons most come from the 88/89 season.
About 4.44pm, Saturday 19th November 1988, sums up Rocky for me. A Cool, calm and graceful Gooner!!
(Wait to the end of the video for the goal from Rocky – worth the wait.)
Steve Wellman @wellmington
I was lucky enough to start watching Arsenal’s reserve and youth teams regularly in the 1984-85 season. Amongst a crop of highly talented youngsters was a dynamic central midfielder, who could also play on the right wing, named David Rocastle. It was obvious from an early age that he was going to make it into the first team as he outplayed and outfought opponents who were far more experienced than he was. I’d been telling my mates on the Clock End for a year about how good he was, so it was great to watch Rocky not let me down on his first team debut. He was a breath of fresh air in a team that was stagnating and in need of some new blood. I can still hear that thud as his shot hit the post, coming so close to scoring.
My personal favourite Rocky moment was the 1986-87 League Cup semi-final replay when he scored the winner in the dying seconds of normal time. I’m not ashamed to say that the moment got to me and tears welled up as the build-up of emotion was finally let go. Committed, dependable and gifted he was the all-round footballer. Thank you Rocky; so sad to see you go so young.
Andy Kelly @Gooner_AK
RIP Rocky – You lived our dreams.
He was like one of your school mates who got the call from Arsenal. Does that make sense?
The only sportsman I will ever shed tears for.
Raj Patel @rajpatel1809
It’s hard to express what it was that made Rocky special. He just had that ‘something’, that ‘x’ factor; that unquantifiable quality that sets some men apart, like an ‘Elvis’ had, or a “Bowie”.
He transcended that barrier between the terraces and the players. No heirs and graces, no “I’m the man,” just “Rocky”.
Silky but also solid and hard, not qualities that often go together.
To hear Dave Hillier say how he recalls Rocky cry like a baby when he was told he was being released sums him up really.
Trying to think of one moment that encapsulates him, I can’t. I always just remember HIM, the whole package and the man – ROCKY.
John Woods @woodysirish
I said on Twitter in the past week or so that had David Rocastle been playing in this era he would have easily been a £70-80M player. Of that I have no doubt, he was simply that good.
Rocky pre-injury had it all. He could dribble, finish, cross, had pace, skill but most of all he had heart and a pair of cojones that meant he was no soft touch.
He could play opposing players off the park with his sublime skills and superb balance or if you were stupid enough to want a war he would never shy away from that either, ask Pat Van Den Hauwe, Stuart Pearce, Manchester United or the Argies of Independiente.
It’s easy to be overindulgent in praise when giving opinions on players that sadly are no longer with us but Rocky at his peak had it all, I’ve never heard anyone moan or say “but” about Rocky. When he left the pitch you knew he’d given his all.
George Graham was very lucky in taking over a club where true legends of the club were just finding their feet, none more so than David Rocastle, a true Arsenal legend in every sense of the word.
Andy Wood @yorkshiregunner
Thanks to everyone who contributed – 15 Tributes for 15 years that have passed since Rocky left us all. I will leave you with the incredible tribute video that had me in tears last week from @The_Arsenal
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.