Legends - David Rocastle remembered (part 1)
NICK MARSDEN, 28 03 2006
The man who Arsenal fans will forever remember by his training ground nickname of “Rocky” was born David Carlyle Rocastle in May 1967 in the south London Borough of Lewisham. By the time David had reached the final year of his education at the Roger Manwood Secondary in Brockley Rise, his future was mapped out – it was impossible to get a good view of him in the inter-schools matches without risk of being trampled by the pro club scouts patrolling the touchlines! In May 1993, just turned 16 and free of his school commitments, Rocastle first kicked a ball for Arsenal, in the Haarlem under-20s tournament. His dazzling performances against opponents three years older than himself ensured that he signed apprentice forms on his return to England.
David worked hard at learning his trade, first under the guidance of Tommy Coleman and then Pat Rice. While playing in the 1983/84 youth team, he soon earned the reputation as the most skilful youngster then playing in the South East Counties Football League. David signed his first professional contract on the last day of December 1984, and not long into the following season, made his first team bow in a goalless draw at home to Newcastle United, on 28 September 1985. Manager Don Howe was quick to play down the impressive debut and avert a media circus, but he realised the talent that had landed in his lap – “David passed when he should have shot, and shot when he should have passed, but he's a going to be a great player!”
Rocastle played 23 more times that season, scoring two goals. Indeed, he was set for an England under-21 call-up when a torn knee cartilage brought his season to a premature end at Nottingham Forest in April 1986. In the early stages of his first team career, David was the target of some rough treatment by experienced opponents, hoping to intimidate the youngster, but he would have none of it. His easy-going smile belied a hardened core, fired in the kiln of a childhood when he lost his father at a tender age, and he always gave back just as good as he got.The Arsenal faithful immediately took this talented but tough young man, affectionately known as “Rocky”, to their hearts. Away from the pitch, David was easily one of the most popular people at the club – personable, modest, bubbly and cheerful, he was a man who made time for everyone, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. In the age of the ‘lad footballer’, he was one of the gentlemen. When Graham Rix left Arsenal to play in France, typically, it was Rocastle who wrote wishing him well, and thanking him for all that he had done to help develop his career, a gesture which Rix has never forgotten.
The summer of 1986 saw the appointment of George Graham, who must have been scarcely able to believe the young talent he had inherited in his squad. “Rocky”, Adams, Keown, Thomas, Quinn, Hayes and Davis were all in his first team squad, and Merson was showing great promise in the reserves. Under Graham’s guidance, Rocastle’s career flourished. Over the next three seasons, he was a mainstay of the team. More than a conventional winger, it would also be insufficient to describe him as a midfielder – his technique was reminiscent of Arsenal outside-right Joe Hulme. “Rocky” was fast, agile and highly skilled, he had the deft touch and mesmerising close control more usually associated with those who have learnt the game on the beaches of Rio, allied with the steely grit of a tough-tackling defender. The midfield bond with his close friends Mickey Thomas and fellow South-Londoner Paul Davis became the beating heart of Arsenal’s fast-tempo direct game.
One of the early high points in David’s career came at White Hart Lane in 1987, in a League Cup semi-final replay. Coming back from a goal down, the two sides were tied at 1-1 in extra time, when a miss-hit shot from Ian Allinson fell to Rocastle’s feet ten yards out. Receiving the ball with his back to the Spurs goal, David spun off his marker, riding the challenge with ease, and stroked the ball under the advancing Ray Clemence, to send the Arsenal supporters into ecstasy, as his famous smile quickly disappeared under a pile of celebrating team mates. The goal sent Arsenal to their first appearance at Wembley under George Graham, and David soon had his first medal, as he helped the team to a 2-1 win over Liverpool.
Rocastle was one of the stars of Arsenal's 1988/89 League Championship campaign, playing in 38 of the 42 league games. He scored six goals, although this only told a part of the story, as his assists, his dazzling ball control and defensive tackling in front of Lee Dixon made it seem like Arsenal had an extra man on that side of the pitch. Rocastle’s efforts were recognised at international level as well, as he made his debut for Bobby Robson’s England side against Denmark in a European Championship qualifier – the first of the 14 international caps that David earned while at Arsenal.
As he had done all season, “Rocky” worked tirelessly in the extraordinary win at Anfield in May 1989, the final match of the season, and even then, in the tensest atmosphere, his character shone through. Alan Hansen recalls catching Rocastle painfully with a bad tackle, as he was left for dead by another lightening-quick turn executed by the Arsenal man. “Rocky” accepted the apologetic hand which was offered, and as he got to his feet, merely smiled and asked enquiringly of Hansen: “What’s up? Getting old?” When Michael Thomas celebrated his last-gasp goal racing towards the touchline, it was into the waiting arms of his close friend that he landed. Pictures of the two celebrating joyfully together at the final whistle flashed around the world.
The following season (1989/90) started brightly for Rocastle. Arsenal started their title defence at Old Trafford, and things looked bleak as Arsenal went a goal down and Tony Adams, who had been up all of the previous night with a stomach upset, signalled to the bench that he might have to come off. “Rocky”, determined not to stand meekly by and watch the season start in defeat, moved like greased lightening to lash home the equaliser from a corner. The game, which Arsenal went on to lose 4-1, typified what was to come. David’s personal performances were strong, but team inconsistency cost them their title.
To cap it all, the season ended in deep disappointment for “Rocky”, as he narrowly missed out on selection for England’s squad for the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. A 26-man squad (including Rocastle) was selected for the pre-tournament training camp, but along with Tony Adams and Alan Smith, David was one of four dropped from the official 22-man squad. Manager Bobby Robson consoled Rocastle with the words that he expected the player to be “a leading figure in the next World Cup”. Of course, England failed to qualify for the 1994 Finals in the USA. Few players of his ability and in such prime form can have been so unfortunate.
In the 1990/91 season, when Arsenal won the championship again, Rocastle played only 13 full games, with 3 substitute appearances, and scored 2 goals. Injuries played a part, including a broken toe that healed frustratingly slowly. A more long-term problem though was that his knee was becoming inflamed after games, and in late 1990, he underwent the first of a series of operations that limited him to one start and three substitute appearances over the next five months. Not all of Rocastle’s absence can be attributed to injury. The season included the infamous “Battle of Old Trafford”, when “Rocky” was typically among the Arsenal players who stood up to be counted. The squad was subsequently warned by Graham, in the sternest terms, that a repeat performance of indiscipline would not be tolerated by the club. Late in the first half of the following game at home to Sunderland, David ran twenty yards to berate an opponent for a heavy challenge on Anders Limpar, and Arsenal fans were dismayed but not surprised when he was substituted during the interval, and then sat out a number of games.
For the final home match of the season against Coventry, Rocastle and Thomas were two of several non-playing members of the squad to don their match kit ready for the post-match trophy presentation and lap of honour. While the team was putting the finishing touches to a 6-1 demolition of Coventry out on the pitch, Rocastle and Thomas stood watching by the tunnel entrance. “Rocky” accepted the good wishes of a passing match steward, who sought to encourage him that he would soon reclaim his place in the side. The words made David hesitate, and he simply shrugged and looked at his feet. His friend noticed and reassuringly patted him on the back. The title trophy presentation was a symbolic moment. It was a joyous occasion for the club and the fans, a second Championship in three years, and a fully-fit Rocastle was easily good enough to be a member of the team. David’s generous spirit and commitment to the club’s cause ensured that he wholeheartedly joined in with the celebrations, and he was the first to offer congratulations to team mates who had played a larger part in the season, but caught in the midst of recovery from yet another injury, he found himself rather on the outside looking in.