Legends - David Rocastle remembered (part 2)
NICK MARSDEN, 30/03/2006
The 1991/92 season was to be Rocastle’s last in an Arsenal shirt. He played 48 matches, and his performances belied the serious problem with his knee that had been diagnosed as degenerative. One of his finest moments came at Old Trafford, on a wet Saturday in October 1991. His team a goal down, Rocastle went on a mazy run which started in his own half and took him through three challenges, before, surrounded by four opponents, he clipped a 25-yard shot over the goalkeeper. A midfield containing the likes of England skipper Bryan Robson simply could not live with him that day. Four months later, David’s final goal for Arsenal came at Highbury in February 1992 – another 1-1 draw against Manchester United, played out before a packed 41,000 crowd. The season ended with a fiery match at home to Southampton, where Rocastle reigned supreme. Southampton’s side declared their intent as an early challenge left Limpar unconscious with a fractured cheekbone, and what followed wasn’t for the fainthearted. “Rocky” stood his ground, fearing no challenge, while his incisive passing carved out chance after chance for Wright and Campbell. Rocastle’s vision, combined with the pace of the Arsenal strikers, tore the Saints defence to shreds, and he left the pitch with the applause of the fans ringing in his ears.
Just two months later, in July 1992, the squad returned for pre-season training. Manager George Graham called to “Rocky” across the London Colney car park, and the two men sat in Graham’s car. The manager explained that he had already purchased one international midfielder that summer in John Jensen, and that another, Geoff Thomas, would be signed later that day from Crystal Palace. Leeds United had made an offer that the Board had reluctantly decided to accept. They believed that his knee condition was worsening and would increasingly restrict his mobility and pace, and Graham observed that he had come back from the summer break still struggling with his weight, as he had been the previous season.
By now, David was in tears, telling Graham that he had no wish to leave Arsenal. Graham was sympathetic, but firmly insistent. The move to Leeds could be a big opportunity, Strachan was near the end of his career, Leeds had just won the championship, there would be more opportunity for him there than at Arsenal. He persuaded Rocastle to travel to Leeds and meet Howard Wilkinson, promising that if he still felt that he did not want to leave Arsenal, he could turn down their offer. Graham has always regarded this as one of the saddest moments of his managerial career. Even when later that day, the anticipated purchase of Thomas did not transpire, Graham recognised the decision to send Rocastle to speak to Leeds could not be undone, and the deal was completed. When he subsequently compiled a video of his greatest-ever Arsenal XI, Rocastle was one of Graham’s team, recognition by the tough Scot, who is steeped in Arsenal history, that “Rocky” prior to his knee injury was one of Arsenal’s giants.
By the time David arrived in Yorkshire, he had recovered from the initial shock, and virtually accepted that his playing future could not be at a club that wanted to sell him. One of the first people to greet him was his former team mate John Lukic, who reassured him that there was life beyond Arsenal, and that he could have a long and happy future at Leeds. Graham had in fairness warned his friend Wilkinson about Rocastle’s knee problem and privately doubted whether he would pass the medical. Leeds manager Wilkinson was convinced by the results of medical tests that “Rocky” could cope, and so he signed him. By his own high standards, Rocastle’s sixteen months at Leeds were disappointing. In part, his low number of appearances was due to the longevity of Gordon Strachan, but former Arsenal team mate and childhood friend Paul Davis believes that “Rocky” struggled to come to terms with his shock and sadness at his departure from Arsenal.
Despite being a popular figure with the Leeds crowd, he was sold to Manchester City in December 1993. The City supporters still recall his part in their goal of the season when, surrounded by three Ipswich players, he rolled the ball under his foot, and in one movement swivelled clear of them all as though he had glued it to his boot. Moving into clear space, he struck a pinpoint cross which was finished gleefully by Carl Griffiths. His mobility, or rather, the lack of it, was however becoming an increasing noticeable problem, as was the way his contribution faded during the game, as his knee began to swell. By the time “Rocky” arrived at Chelsea from Man City just eight months later in August 1994, his knee problem was common knowledge in the game, but Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle took the view that 60 minutes of Rocastle was worth 90 minutes of many other players – hence he started regularly, but was substituted in 2/3rds of the 36 games he played that first season.
His experience proved invaluable throughout a European Cup Winners Cup run which ended at the semi-final stage. His performance in midfield on a memorable night when a 1-0 deficit against FC Bruges was overturned to send Chelsea through to the final four was probably his finest hour for them (he was inevitably substituted with 30 minutes to go). Sadly, the toll of the injury grew worse and despite spending a further three seasons on the club's payroll until his contract expired in the summer of 1998, he played just one more game for Chelsea in October 1995. Rocastle was loaned out to Norwich City and in 1997-98 he had a brief spell on loan to Hull City, but nothing came of either loan, or a summer trial at Aberdeen. On each occasion David ended up back in the Stamford Bridge reserve team.
On completing his contract with Chelsea in 1998, Rocastle joined Premier One side Sabah in Malaysia. Living on the island of Borneo with his young family, David was the ideal foreign signing – a true ambassador, down-to-earth, a team player, but nevertheless, as far as the Sabah fans were concerned, a world-famous player from the Premiership. Joining mid-season in 1998, Rocastle helped Sabah reach the 1998 Malaysian FA Cup Final, losing to Johor by a single dubious goal, and also the semi-finals of the Malaysian League Cup. The 1999 season saw Sabah finish a satisfying fourth in Premier One, reaching the semi-finals of the Malaysian FA Cup and the Final of the 1999 President Cup, which proved to be David’s last competitive match. He returned to the UK at the end of the 1999 Malaysian playing season, and announced his retirement.
Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.
Back in England, David took the opportunity to enjoy time with family and friends, but less than a year after their return, tragedy struck the Rocastle household. “Rocky” was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer which attacks the immune system. In the latter months of 2000, he was put on an intensive and aggressive course of chemotherapy, which he faced with his typical bravery and positive outlook. After Christmas 2000, when the effects of the chemotherapy were hitting David hard, Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein paid him a visit, and told him: "It's time to come home, once you're over this illness there's a coaching post waiting at Highbury.” It was a defining moment. Both men knew that the outlook was bleak. The offer was genuine, Dein would have promised (and delivered) anything in his power that would have helped “Rocky” overcome his battle, while David had just heard the words that he had dreamt of since returning from Malaysia. Tragically, the promise could never be fulfilled. Rocastle would have been a natural youth coach – his enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism would have served Arsenal as well as a coach as it did in his playing days. He had always said to the younger players, who he went out of his way to chat with and encourage, Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent
By mid-February 2001, it was clear that David’s treatment was not going as well as was needed, and as news spread in football circles about the gravity of the situation, his agent Jerome Anderson released a short statement to the media acknowledging that Rocastle had the disease, and was in a life-or-death struggle to overcome it. In the early hours of Saturday, 31 March 2001, at the age of just 33, David lost his final battle. His former team mates were devastated. Wright, Thomas and Davis were all inconsolable when contacted for quotes. Portsmouth manager Graham Rix spent the morning shut in his office, in floods of tears.
That afternoon, Arsenal played Tottenham, and the respective Directors discussed with some trepidation whether to observe a minute’s silence. Before the game, David Pleat, the manager of Tottenham, suggested to the referee, Paul Durkin, that he should blow his whistle as soon as there was any interruption to the silence, remarking that football crowds in such circumstances as local derbies could seldom be relied upon to show restraint for more than half a minute. The players moved towards the middle of the pitch. The crowd rose to their feet. Rocastle’s former comrades, Adams, Parlour, Dixon, Seaman and Keown stood solemnly on the white line of the centre-circle. Off of the pitch, Rice, Davis, Smith and Wright were joined by many other Arsenal staff past and present who had known “Rocky”, and had ensured that they were pitch-side to mark the moment. Durkin blew his whistle, and the ground fell instantly and completely silent. Adams stood, eyes squeezed tight shut, as memories of his friend passed before his mind’s eye. Dixon glanced up as Rocastle’s image appeared on the stadium screens, and struggled vainly to stem the flow of tears.
The seconds ticked by, and not as much as a bird cry was heard. Tottenham fans must have reflected that more than most, Rocastle had caused their fortunes to suffer over the years. “Rocky” had played for their two fiercest rivals, and his skill and endeavour had often been the difference that had resulted in Tottenham’s downfall. They must also have recognised however that a truly great man had been lost to his young family in the prime of his life. Durkin signalled that the minute was up, and the relief was palpable that the silence had been observed without the faintest hint of an interruption. It wasn't much of a game in such circumstances, but the players of Arsenal’s post-Rocastle era helped their grieving comrades through it. Pires, wearing Rocastle’s “7” shirt, scored Arsenal’s second goal, and dedicated it to David’s memory. If “Rocky” was there in spirit, the team’s 2-0 win would have cheered him, because for all his travels, he was undeniably always an Arsenal man through and through.
The following Friday, Rocastle’s funeral at Windsor Parish Church of St John the Baptist was attended by a veritable who’s who of football, including almost everyone who had known and worked with him in his short life. In the presence of his grieving wife Janet, son Ryan and daughters Melissa and Monique, he was buried after the service. His pallbearers were Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Paul Davis, Michael Thomas, Alan Smith and his brother, Stephen Rocastle. Along with all of the then-current Arsenal and Chelsea squads, mourners included Arsene Wenger and Pat Rice, George Graham, David O'Leary and Andy Cole – who brought on behalf of Manchester United a red and white floral tribute in the shape of the North Bank gates at Highbury. There were also flowers from a number of other clubs, including Liverpool, Leeds United, Norwich City, Hull City, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Two days later, on Sunday 8 April 2001, Arsenal again faced their rivals Tottenham, in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup. As the Arsenal fans’ chants for Rocastle went around the ground, the team swept to victory. Six weeks later, young Ryan Rocastle was made Arsenal's mascot in their FA Cup Final against Liverpool, which they were unlucky to lose 2-1. The club also invited David’s wife and daughters to Cardiff as their guests. Rocastle’s family lent their name to the Marc Fisher Trust, a charity which helped David during his battle with cancer. Arsenal players were quick to add their support. Ashley Cole donated his £20,000 sports car to their charity auction, while others such as Henry, Vieira and Seaman donated memorabilia.
In August 2005, Arsenal announced that the David Rocastle Trust would be their chosen charity for their final season at Highbury before their move to the new Ashburton Grove stadium in the summer of 2006 – a fitting tribute to an Arsenal player so readily linked with the famous old ground. Arsenal pledged to carry out a number of initiatives for the Trust, including the Arsenal v Aston Villa match day on 1 April 2006, dedicated to David, and various fund-raising activities during the season, supported by the club's current players.