I’m going back to the 1980’s for this weeks Highbury Hero. When David Dein first clapped eyes on this player he said l’ve seen a young player who plays like a Brazilian. Next May will be a quarter of a Century since he last kicked a ball for The Arsenal. Yet the Arsenal fans still sing his name such is their love for David “Rocky” Rocastle.
Rocky was a sensational footballer. He played wide right, or towards the end of his time at Arsenal switched to centre midfield. Rocky had pace, power, strength and plenty of tricks in his locker. David Dein was right about Rocky. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in a yellow Brazilian shirt. The North Bank and Clock End would roar Rocky on as he drove at the opposition, bringing out his full repertoire of step overs, flicks and drag backs.
He was an excellent passer and crosser of the ball as well. Rocky had a great shot on him too. He couldn’t be intimidated. He relished the physical battle with the likes of Stuart Pearce, giving as good as he got. Unlike some skilful flair players Rocky had a great work ethic. He made sure he tucked in when we were under the cosh. Getting back to help out his full back and he loved a tackle.
His team mates thought the World of him as a player and a person. I struggle to think of any Arsenal player who loved the club more.
He came from the same housing estate as Ian Wright in Brockley, South East London and they knew each other as kids. But Wrighty took a different path to the top in football, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, compared to Rocky’s meteoric rise to stardom.
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David signed for The Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1982, before later signing as an apprentice. It wasn’t long before Don Howe gave Rocky his debut, on the 28th September 1985, aged just 18, against Newcastle United, at Highbury in a drab 0-0 draw. I was at the game and Rocky stood out like a beacon. Just as you knew Liam Brady was going to become a special player, it was the same with David Rocastle. He played that day like a player far older than he was, such was his confidence and maturity. Including substitute appearances he went on to play 24 games that season, scoring his first goal for the club in the FA Cup at Kenilworth Road, against Luton and his first league goal against Aston Villa, up at Villa Park.
It was all change at Arsenal in 1986-87 when George Graham took over at Highbury. He wasted no time in dispensing with some of the older stars like Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner. Graham put his faith in youth and Rocky became a first team regular. He instilled in the young home grown players all the old Arsenal values and traditions. Telling them to be proud to play for such a prestigious and historic club. He insisted on the players wearing club blazers and ties.
The young players all bought into what George was telling them. None more so than Rocky who lived his life by the maxim “Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.”
Graham galvanised the team and the day after Boxing Day we played Southampton at Highbury and went top of the table with a 1-0 win. At half time as part of the clubs centenary celebrations, all the old legends stepped onto the pitch and walked to the centre circle, the Highbury crowd clapped them all on one by one. The biggest cheer of the day was for 1930’s legends George Male and Ted Drake, as they strolled on waving to the Highbury crowd. There was a feel good factor going around Highbury that day. We were on the march, success was just around the corner and the crowd knew it.
We didn’t win the Title that season, finishing fourth. But we did win our first trophy for eight years, the Littlewoods Cup and to do that we had to overcome our bitter rivals Tottenham in a three game Semi-Final epic. I went to all three games. The stakes were extra high for a North London Derby, with a Wembley Final the prize.
We lost the first leg at Highbury 1-0 to a Clive Allen goal. The second leg at White Hart Lane saw Clive Allen score again, to see them go in at half time 2-0 up on aggregate. Spurs then did something so typically stupid of them. Spurs announced over their public address system how their fans should apply for tickets for the final! What’s more the message boomed loud and clear into the Arsenal dressing room. Then to make matters worse they played their old FA Cup Final song “Spurs are on their way to Wembley”
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This was like a red rag to a bull to the Arsenal players, which incidentally included seven home grown players, including Rocky, who knew from joining the club as kids, just how much it meant to the Arsenal supporters to beat Spurs.
Skipper Kenny Sansom says in his book “Going Great Guns” “This is difficult to describe because it is a feeling that rarely happens to you. You get a goosepimply feeling and you know that you are not going to lose the game. The young faces in the team suddenly wanted to get out for the second half and it was obvious to me as we trotted out that Arsenal were not going out of the competition.”
Arsenal went at Tottenham right from the off, pinning them in their own half. The atmosphere was electric and us Arsenal fans were as up for it just as much the team were! A long throw by Rocky found its way to Viv Anderson, who scrambled the ball over the line and into the net and the atmosphere went up another notch. Rocky then drove in a low cross and Niall Quinn was there to fire home the second goal at the far post and as Arsenal went in for the kill, the match moved into extra time and Spurs were hanging on. The final whistle saved them.
George Graham lost the toss to David Pleat for the replay venue but it didn’t matter to the Arsenal players that they were going back to White Hart Lane. Sansom said he could tell by the Tottenham players faces they were worried.
The third game was played on a Wednesday night under the floodlights at White Hart Lane and once again the atmosphere was electric. Unfortunately Clive Allen scored yet again! The Spurs fans were in full voice but in the 82nd minute substitute Ian Allinson popped up with the equaliser. Spurs were gone and as the game looked like it was heading for extra time again, a free kick from David O’Leary was knocked down by Niall Quinn, Ian Allinson tried a shot, which took a deflection and went straight to Rocky, who was there to win the game for Arsenal, with a left footed shot and send us to Wembley. The Arsenal end erupted and when the final whistle blew the Arsenal players and fans were as one celebrating a famous victory over the old enemy and it was so fitting that an Arsenal man through and through in Rocky Rocastle got the winning goal.Wembley here we come
When we eventually walked out of White Hart Lane that night we were euphoric. The Arsenal fans were walking on air singing “One nil down 2-1 up we knocked Tottenham out the cup na na na na na na na na na” There was no Spurs reception committee waiting for us that night. They were long gone with their tails between their legs.
Rocky was part of the side that went on to win the trophy at Wembley, when once again we came from behind to beat Liverpool and destroy the record that when Ian Rush scores the first goal Liverpool always win the game, Charlie Nicholas scored two goals to win us the Littlewoods Cup and Rocky won his first trophy for The Arsenal.
We were back at Wembley again a year later, after beating Everton on a great night at Highbury, where Rocky scored one of the goals in a 3-1 win, winning the tie 4-1 on aggregate. Arsenal faced Luton Town in the Final hoping to retain the trophy. Unfortunately Nigel Winterburn, who played at right back that day, missed a penalty to put us 3-1 up and Gus Caesar had a nightmare as Luton came from behind to beat us 3-2.Arsenal put Everton to the sword in the League Cup
Rocky won the first of his 14 caps for England in 1988 and never played in a losing England side. It was a bit of a mystery how he was never selected for any of the major tournaments that England took part in. Even in 1990 after he’d played in every qualifying game, he still wasn’t picked for the tournament. Bobby Robson went for Trevor Steven instead, who although he was a fine player, wasn’t in Rocky’s class. A player with David’s ability should have had far more England caps.
1988-89 was of course a glorious season for Arsenal and Rocky was outstanding and played a massive part in winning the Title that season. I remember a brilliant goal he scored at Anfield in the League Cup and a fantastic solo goal against Middlesbrough at Highbury as well.Rocky’s great solo goal against Middlesbrough at Highbury
Rocastle was one of the key players in our Title winning side and was part of the Arsenal side for that never to be forgotten finale at Anfield, in the last game when Michael Thomas scored that iconic late goal to clinch the Title.
I wasn’t at Anfield on that magical night. But I had a pretty good consolation. I was outside Islington Town Hall to watch the players parade the League Championship Trophy, on the Sunday, with my brother-in-law. He had done some work at the town hall for BT and one of the staff that worked there spotted him and came over to say hello. The next thing we knew he’d managed to get us into the town hall to meet George Graham and all the players, who included Rocky of course. It was great to be able to shake their hands and thank them personally on what they’d achieved for the club and the Arsenal fans.
1989-90 was an uneventful season and we finished fourth in defence of our Title. We came back strongly in 1990-91 winning the Title again, losing only one game in the league to Chelsea away. But it wasn’t a good season for Rocky, as he managed only 13 league starts because of injury, though he still won a second Title winners medal.
Rocky came back strongly in a new role in centre midfield in 1991-92, making 48 appearances in all competitions. I remember being at Old Trafford when Rocky scored a cracking goal, chipping in off the crossbar, in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United. Rocky scored his last ever goal for Arsenal in the return league fixture against Manchester United, at Highbury in another 1-1 draw. That season Arsenal also signed Rocky’s old mate from the all those years ago Ian Wright.Rocky scores a cracker up at Old Trafford
I went to see Ian Wright in the City a few weeks ago, at an event hosted by Amy Lawrence and he spoke very fondly of David and what a perfect day it was when Wrighty got a hat-trick on his league debut at Southampton and his boyhood friend Rocky got the other goal in a 4-0 win.
On the 2nd of May 1992. Ian Wright scored a hat-trick in a 5-1 win against Southampton, piping Gary Lineker to the Golden Boot. Sadly it was the last ever game for the North Bank Terrace and poignantly the last competitive game for Rocky in an Arsenal shirt. The day the North Bank terrace came down, the heart was ripped out of Highbury. The day David was told a few months later, he was to be sold was the day Rocky’s heart was broken.
Arsenal believed that Rocky had a degenerative knee problem and George Graham being his usual pragmatic self decided to accept a £2,000,000 offer from Howard Wilkinson of Leeds United to buy Rocastle. I think George did this with a heavy heart as he really rated Rocky as a player and a person. But thought it was the best thing for Arsenal Football Club to sell Rocky.
What I didn’t agree with was the way it was handled. George called to Rocky across the car park after training to come and have a word with him in Graham’s car. He then broke it to Rocky that he was selling him. Rocky broke down in tears such was his love for Arsenal and said he didn’t want to leave Arsenal. However George said it could be a fantastic opportunity to join the Champions as Gordon Strachan was nearing the end of his career and Rocky ended up joining Leeds United.
After Rocky left Arsenal I don’t think he could reconcile playing for anybody else but Arsenal. When Wrighty was talking about Rocky at the Amy Lawrence event he said the day he signed for Arsenal, he went to Rocastle’s house and stayed up till 4am talking with Rocky about Arsenal. Rocky cared that passionately about the club. If you cut Rocky in half you could imagine he’d have Arsenal Football Club running through him like a stick of rock.
He played for Leeds United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Rocky also played briefly on loan for Norwich City and Hull City. His knee did worsen, often swelling up and eventually it affected his mobility, but there were still the occasional flashes of brilliance from Rocky. Unfortunately he never recaptured the scintillating form of his Highbury days. I think as well as his knee injury Rocky still struggled to come to terms with no longer being an Arsenal player. I felt the spark went out of his game the day he left Arsenal.Rocky surrounded by the opposition shows fantastic skill to escape them
Rocky finished his career after a short spell with Maylasian outfit Sabah. He returned to England and retired from the game. But less than a year into his retirement Rocky was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymploma. An aggressive cancer which attacks the immune system.
On the 31st of March 2001 came the dreadful and shocking news that David had passed away, aged just 33. The same day Arsenal were playing Spurs at Highbury. There was a minutes silence for Rocky before the game and you could have heard a pin drop. That showed the respect for David Rocastle both as a player and a man that even the Tottenham fans observed the minutes silence. Robert Pires wearing Rocky’s old number 7 shirt scored Arsenal’s second goal in a 2-0 win that day and dedicated it to Rocky.
Arsenal have named an indoor training facility after David Rocastle and the young Arsenal hopefuls who train there couldn’t have a finer example to follow than Rocky, on how to conduct themselves as a young Arsenal player. I was privileged to have seen him play and I’ll always remember David “Rocky” Rocastle as one of the brightest stars to shine at Highbury. Sadly missed but never ever forgotten.A lovely tribute to Rocky
Once again as always thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it and they’ll be another Highbury Hero coming along next week.
Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?
Thank you so much Gary for this wonderful synopsis of Rocky`s time at Arsenal. It is a great privilege for me to be old enough to have seen the games you refer to and to re – live the pleasure I had from watching Arsenal and Rocky in particular.
In this day and age of millionaire footballers who play for the club which pays the most money, it is refreshing to read about a man ( a gentleman ) who played for the love of the club. I share your curiosity as to why he did not play more often for England. How the current team could do with him now!
He left behind fond memories and genuine love from the Arsenal supporters. Most of all he left a beautiful wife and family who I know share and appreciate the regard in which he was held.