Saturday marked 17 years since David Rocastle passed.
Here, from our Arsenal Number 7s book, is an extract from Paul Williams chapter on this true legend. We’ve also created a graphic, designed by Anita Sambol, honouring the man himself, which can be viewed, downloaded and shared on the site on Thursday. You can also listen to this post as a podcast with extra features and soundbites from Rocky’s era here.
When I was a kid, the first Arsenal poster on my wall was an illustration, from either Shoot or Match magazine, of David Rocastle.
The bare statistics of David’s Arsenal career, 23 goals in 228 games 1984-1992, do not quite tell the story of why it is that Rocky is still so revered nearly 25 years after he left the club.
To put those figures into context, Robert Pires – another number 7- used to score around 20 goals a season every season. Nor can this reverence be explained purely by Rocky’s tragically premature death at the age of 33 in 2001.
The globalisation of football has been largely a good thing.
Certainly, without it, Arsenal’s last two decades would look very different. However, it does mean that the days of someone being able to proceed directly from the North Bank to the pitch are all but at an end.
Nor is it likely, these days, that a whole group of extremely talented youngsters will come through the ranks of a big club, kicking the door of the first team dressing room door down to steal pegs from their elders.
In the mid 80’s, there was such a group of players.
They may not have all come through at exactly the same time, but they did make massive contributions to Arsenal Football Club. Only Manchester United in the early 90’s have been able to produce a group to rival these guys in the thirty intervening years.
That sounds like I’m overstating it, doesn’t it? Look at the names, and think again: Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle.
During their time at the club, all of these men became club legends. They also got just what it meant to represent Arsenal. You only have to listen to Martin Keown and Tony Adams, perhaps even Paul Merson, talking about the club to see that.
Sadly, we have been denied the chance to hear what David might have thought about the club he once served with such distinction, but we do have this quote, “Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent”
Aside from the fact that these words should be engraved, embossed, or stencilled in large point letters in our home dressing room, these also are words which seem to hark back to a different era. To when footballers cared about their image, and the image of the clubs they represented.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, Rocastle breaking out “What d’ya think of Tottenham?”, as Jack Wilshere did after Arsenal’s Cup Final victories in 2014 and ’15.
No, whilst he loved Arsenal, Rocky didn’t need to show it in that way. Everyone who played with, or knew, him testifies to what a lovely guy he was.
He did show it, however, in a fateful meeting with George Graham in the summer of 1992. Greeted with the news that the Arsenal board had accepted an offer for him from Leeds United, Rocastle did what you, me or anyone who loves this football club would have done at being told he was no longer wanted: he broke down and cried.
Perhaps the finest moment of Rocky’s career, apart from his late goal to win the Littlewoods Cup semi final at Spurs in 1987, would come at Anfield in the last match of that 1989 season.
I don’t know if you have remember anything about this game, other than the immortal final two minutes, but I watched it a while back. Watching it twenty years on, I was struck by two things. One was the weird way that the tension grew as the denouement approached, even though I knew the ending. The second thing was the sheer ferocity of the encounter.
I can’t imagine that, had this game taken place today, it would have finished with 22 players still on the pitch. Players were smashing into tackles all over the place and a 22-year-old Rocky was no exception.
I don’t think we’ve had too many youngsters since then who would have relished the battle in the way that Rocky did.
Evidence? Check his expression just after he wins the free kick that leads to the first goal.
Not for nothing, I suppose, was he known as Rocky.
Speaking to me in April 2014, Ian Wright said that once Arsenal had come in for him, “Nothing could have turned my head from Arsenal, because David Rocastle was there.”
On his league debut for the club, Wrighty bagged himself a hat trick, with Rocky adding the other goal in a 4-1 win at Southampton. What did Wrighty think about this dreamlike debut “The greatest 90 minutes of my career.”
On the 1st April 2001, at a bus stop in Greengates, West Yorkshire, came the shattering news of his death. I was on the way home after my then-girlfriend’s birthday celebration and had picked up a paper to read about the Arsenal-Spurs game.
All thoughts of the game immediately became irrelevant, I can still remember the devastation I felt.
I suppose, in some way, it was fitting that his passing was observed, impeccably, by the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur as well as Arsenal that day. After all, it was against Tottenham that Rocky had first made his mark, with that semi final winner 14 years previously.
To add further resonance to the occasion, the wearer of the number 7 for Arsenal that day, Robert Pires scored the winning goal.
Nearly twenty five years after he left the club, “Oh Rocky, Rocky!” will still break out periodically at Arsenal matches. The player is forever immortalised as one of the 32 embracing the walls of Arsenal’s stadium.
He’s up there with Henry, Wright, Pires, Adams , Bergkamp, Vieira and the rest and that’s exactly as it should be.
Gone but never, ever, forgotten.
David Rocastle – Arsenal legend.
This piece was first published in Arsenal’s Greatest Number 7s which was released last year.