Remembering Rocky: celebrating the life of David Rocastle

IT IS the final moments of the 1987 Littlewoods Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane. The score is Tottenham 1 Arsenal 1, and David Rocastle is about to seal a spot in Gunners folklore forever.

David O’Leary launches one last, hopeful free-kick into the Spurs penalty area. There is a goalmouth scramble. The ball falls to Rocastle six yards out – Arsenal are through to Wembley. They go on to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the final, and lift their first trophy since 1979.

Two years later, Rocastle is a key figure of the Arsenal side which dramatically clinches the 1989 Division One title with the last kick of the season at Anfield, and so completes his journey from a promising Lewisham schoolboy with a passion for sport to a fully-fledged red and white hero.

Today (Thursday) marks the 10th anniversary of Rocastle’s death, which came at the tragically young age of 33, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

To celebrate his life and Arsenal career there will be a night of entertainment at The Rocket in Islington after the Gunners’ home match with Blackburn on Saturday evening.

“It will be a night of laughter and tears,” according to Rocastle’s sister Karen. While fans remember ‘Rocky’ for his dazzling artistry on the pitch, Karen remembers him as the big brother whose love for football shone through from the youngest age.

“He loved playing for Arsenal, it was his passion. Every time he played he gave it his all, and talking to the fans even now, everyone has only nice things to say about him,” says Karen, who now lives in Crofton Park in south London, close to where she and David grew up. “Ten years on, I still hear the fans chant his name at games. It makes us all proud to think that the memories are still going. There’s even a road named after him!

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“Growing up, his passions were football and cricket. Any sport he played, the teachers always had him straight in the team, but I’d say football was always his big passion.

“I was in our flat when the local paper came round to take his picture after he had signed for Arsenal as a schoolboy, and I remember Arsenal players coming to my mum’s for dinner as well; Martin Hayes, Tony Adams, Paul Davis…it shows just how much they thought of him.

“He was a typical big brother really, what he said went! Being the second-oldest it was quite hard to follow in his footsteps. Whatever he did, he did well. He was perfect.”

Rocastle was snapped up by Arsenal as an apprentice in May 1983, and came through the youth ranks alongside the likes of Paul Merson and Adams. He made his debut against Newcastle United in September 1985, and went on to feature 16 times that season.

But it was the following season where Rocastle showed what he was about. A midfielder with pace to burn, he became an integral part of the side throughout the 1986/87 season, his form rewarded with the Arsenal Player of the Year award when he was still just 20 years of age.

By 23, his England cap count was into double figures.

Trophies were bound to follow. The 1987 League Cup came first. The 1989 Division One title famously followed. “He always talked so much about how unbelievable that match was,” says younger brother Sean, “that at half-time the manager George Graham told them: ‘Go out there, score two goals and you’ll win the game.’

“And they did. Sitting in the dressing room at half-time he didn’t believe it, but they did it.”

Rocastle announced himself to Manchester United in 1987 – under the new management of Alex Ferguson – in slightly less auspicious circumstances: “I think the only bad memory I have of David is when he got a bit upset with [Manchester United striker] Norman Whiteside,” adds Karen. “He got sent off for a punch and I thought ‘wow, was that you David? Did you really just do that?’ It was the only time in his career that he got sent off.

“But the funniest thing I remember is when the referee was mic’d up for the first time for a television programme to see how they get spoken to by players. It was Arsenal against Millwall, and the Millwall players obviously knew about it but George Graham forgot to tell the Arsenal players, so you could hear David, Tony Adams and the others all swearing at him when they didn’t get a decision.

“That was different, especially for our mum, she’d never heard him swear before…”

Another league title followed in 1991, as Arsenal went through the entire season suffering just one defeat.

It came as a major shock when Graham took the controversial decision to sell Rocastle to Leeds United in 1992. Rocky went on to play for Chelsea, Manchester City and Norwich, but his career never again scaled the heights that it did at Highbury.

His legacy, though, remains one of a man who in many ways played ahead of his time, one who would have felt at home in Arsene Wenger’s Premier League-winning sides, who played 228 times for Arsenal, scoring 23 goals.

“A lot of Arsenal fans make the comparison with Samir Nasri in the way that he plays, the ability to get on the ball and take on defenders, the fancy footwork,” says Karen.

“It’s just so touching the way he’s remembered by so many people. Saturday will be a day of laughter and tears I’d say. We think about him every day, we have the memories.

“I want to say thank you to everyone for keeping his memory alive and helping us to get through it – we’re just honoured.”