“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
This was the ethos that David “Rocky” Rocastle lived by and drummed into younger players, and if he wasn’t cruelly taken from us at 33, there is no doubt in my mind that he’d still be at the club today, drumming it into the youngsters.
Speak to Arsenal fans who remember the dark days of George Graham’s “boring” Arsenal and one player will stand out. Thirty-four goals in 277 games over eight years might not seem like much, but Rocky was a shining light in that team. Type his name into YouTube and there are plenty of videos in tribute; the common theme is a skilfull player with an eye for a goal who got stuck in, and a love and respect from all that knew him if even for a short time.
As a kid growing up, there was one player I always pretended to be in the playground — David Rocastle. It’s hard to describe Rocky as a player; he was a one-off, a player with the skill, pace and trickery of Robert Pires and Thierry Henry, the grit and determination of Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams. Michael Thomas described him as the complete player — he could defend, attack and score goals. David Dein first saw him in a youth team game and said he thought he’d seen a player with the skill and strength of a Brazilian. Rocky was a great player, person man and a prince.
It’s rare for a player to have his name sung out over 20 years after he left the club. Rocky was one of us; he was an Arsenal man through and through. He never gave less than 110 per cent for the team. Whether he was on the front foot, skinning fullbacks and using all his tricks, or getting stuck in and mixing it up against the hard men of the day like Stuart Pearce, there was no intimidiating Rocky. He lived for the club.
One of my enduring memories is being seven years old and being allowed to stay up late on a Friday for a game against Liverpool at Anfield 1989. On the attack, Rocky won a free kick. He picked himself up and, with gritted teeth and clenched fists, clearly said, “F***ing come on!”, egging on the team. The resulting free kick led to Alan Smith’s goal — and the rest is history. Another memory is the Battle of Old Trafford in 1991 and the 21-man brawl that saw Arsenal docked two points in a season where we lost once on the way to the title. Had Manchester United goalie Big Jim Leighton not used all his strength to restrain Rocky, at least one United player would have been knocked out. Rocky would have won the Victoria Cross if he’d gone to war, such was his courage and willingness to fight for his friends.
It’s hard to believe Rocky only scored 34 goals for Arsenal. When you see them on the highlights, there are so many crackers — from the pea roller at White Hart Lane to put Sp*rs out of the 1987 Littlewoods Cup after they’d announced tickets for the final would be on sale at full time, to the stunners against Southampton, Middlesborough and especially Manchester United, shrugging off Paul Ince like he was a schoolgirl and chipping Peter Schmeichel. Beating players, making them looking silly and sticking it in the back of the net came naturally to him. His assist record isn’t available, but it almost certainly got better when the club signed his old childhood friend Ian Wright.
Sadly, Rocky’s career was curtailed by injuries, limiting him to 14 caps and two goals for the English national team and forcing him to miss the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 1992 in Sweden. When reigning champions Leeds United offered a club-record £2 million for him in 1992, it was too much for Arsenal to refuse. The news was broken to David in his car outside London Colney. He sat in his car and cried his eyes out — that’s how much Arsenal Football Club meant to him.
He was then sold to Manchester City, and then Chelsea, who then loaned him to Norwich City and Hull City. It didn’t matter what shirt he wore, though — he was always given a hero’s reception at Highbury, and it’s a testament to the man that, at a recent FA Cup match, Hull paid tribute to him. Even the Chelsea fans respect him. He finished his career at Sabah in Malaysia.
In February 2001, Rocky announced that he had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and, on March 31, 2001, he lost his battle and passed away. Later that day, Arsenal played Sp*rs at Highbury. A minute’s silence was observed in that ground and at White Hart Lane, where the match was broadcast; Tottenham supporters even chanted his name in unison with the Red Army. Pires — wearing Rocky’s No. 7 shirt — scored the opening goal and, since that day, it seems no matter who wears that shirt, Rocky is smiling down on it. Both Pires and Tomas Rosicky have good scoring records against that lot.
— Davide Poli