‘Oh Rocky Rocky,’ a tribute to Arsenal icon David Rocastle
Even now, a decade after his death, pick nearly any Arsenal game, home or away, and you will hear his name chanted.
“It is particularly emotional for his son, Ryan, who is an absolutely mad Gooner and a season ticket holder,” Steve Rocastle, younger brother of David, tells Ham&High Sport.
“Ryan has his own heroes from this era. He just remembers David as his dad. But sometimes it must be so hard, so emotional for him hearing the crowd chant his dad’s name.”
The fact Arsenal fans still sing ‘Rocky’s’ song speaks volumes for the affection that remains for him.
It was 10 years ago today, David Rocastle – Rocky to friend and fan – an icon among regulars at Highbury during the late 1980s, lost his short battle with cancer. He was just 33.
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A magnificently skilful and powerful midfielder with an explosive element to his game, Rocastle’s career never reached the heights of his Arsenal days following the decision to sell him to Leeds United in 1992.
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One injury too many had curtailed his effectiveness.
But when he was at his extraordinary best, few players had lit up the old stadium like the south Londoner, who won two league titles and a Littlewoods Cup medal after coming through the Arsenal ranks.
“He never changed one bit, even when he got into the first team,” recalls Steve, “Dave just wasn’t that kind of bloke, not a big-time Charlie in any way, shape or form, and I will give you an example.
“Back in south London, where Charlton, Palace and Millwall are the big clubs, he would see players from those teams, like Paul Williams of Charlton, in the street and point at him excitedly. ‘Steve, look over there, it is so-and-so from Charlton’ he’d say, nudging me.
“I mean, he was playing for the biggest club in London, he was one of the best players in the country, and he’d be ‘star-spotting’ players from Charlton down the high street. I had to remind him that he was an Arsenal player. Sums up my big brother, it really does ...
“He’d play for Arsenal on the Saturday, but you could guarantee he’d be ‘round mum’s for Sunday dinner back in Brockley.”
From an early age, Rocastle never took his talents, nor his family, for granted. But then his maturity was accelerated at an early age when his father, Leslie, also died far too young, pneumonia claiming him at just 29.
The future Gunner was elevated to man of the house, helping his mum Linda to bring up his three siblings. “He was a brilliant big brother, the best,” says Steve, who was an apprentice at Norwich and still lives in Norfolk where he works for the Prison Service.
“A decent, humble lad who loved his family, was always there for us, and just tried to do his best in whatever he did, and with a fantastic footballing talent – that was Dave. He was a determined guy, as Arsenal fans saw every time he played for the club.”
Rocastle scored 34 times in 277 appearances after breaking into George Graham’s starting XI in 1986. He ended the season as the supporters’ player of the year.
“I love going on YouTube and seeing him in action again,” says Steve. “I was watching the other day and saw that (Littlewoods Cup) semi-final against Everton in ’88 when he was just sensational, tearing apart Pat van den Hauwe, one of the best full-backs in the country at the time and a hard, hard opponent.
“Dave was a tough lad and could mix it with them best of them, as well as having all that skill and poise.
“I look back and am just so proud that he was my brother. He is exactly why fans look back at that era so fondly, because Dave always, always, always had time for the fans.
“But then Dave was one of the fans. I mean, all that side were; Micky Thomas, Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Martin Hayes, Paul Davis ... they were just normal blokes like you and me who had immense talent. It was like watching 11 mates playing in their own team – they just happened to be playing in front of 35,000 at Highbury every week.”
After turning out for Leeds United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Norwich and Hull, Rocastle wound down his career in Malaysia in the late 1990s. By then, it is possible that non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was slowly killing him.
“When he came back from Malaysia, he knew he was ill. But I honestly don’t believe he was listening to the medical people because he was so confident he would beat whatever it was that was making him ill.
“I remember seeing him just a month before he died. He never once mentioned the C-word but by then he had Stage Three treatment – and there were only three stages, which meant there was nothing left.
“He kept it away from my mum as much he could but I still remember him being positive and asking the doctors what the next treatment would be. He knew, I’m sure, that there was no other treatment, but my big brother was such a fighter, so determined to win in everything he did, that maybe he thought he could still beat it. I just don’t know...”
His sister Karen, who remains close to the family home, recalls the last few days.
“I remember when he first told me he was ill that the doctors had caught it in time and there was nothing to worry about,” remembers Karen, a bank worker.
“But I remember he came back from Malaysia and visited loads of family and friends in one week. I wonder now if he actually knew the truth.
“Then, it clearly got a grip, and at the end he looked so different. Dave’s features changed, because that is what cancer does to a person, and he had obviously lost his hair by then.
“I am so pleased the fans never saw him like that. They remember him as a young, healthy Arsenal player. And that is how he should be remembered... ”
Rocky slipped away in the early hours of Saturday March 31, 2001. Fittingly, Arsenal beat Tottenham later that day. Robert Pires, wearing Rocastle’s No7 shirt, scored in the win.
This Saturday when Blackburn visit the Emirates, he will be remembered again by the club with a series of events. After the game, Arsenal fans’ group RedAction will also hold a special evening remembering his mercurial talents at The Rocket, Holloway Road.
“The irony, of course, is that if he was alive today and it was another player we were remembering, he would be the first person there,” says Steve.
“But then, if he was still alive today, he’d be in the garden with us right now playing footie with his nephews with the biggest smile on his face ...”
l David Rocastle Night at The Rocket, Holloway Road is on Saturday straight after the Blackburn game. Admission is �10 and there will be an auction, raffle, DJs and surprise guests. More details on www.eventelephant.com/rockyremembered - proceeds go to Great Ormond St Hospital.