Date: 31st March 2008 at 2:13pm
Written by:

I know Paul has created a thread already on this, but I had it in my mind to write something on Rocky Rocastle today. Like Paul, my attention was alerted to this last night, in my case when browsing Goonerholic. Today marks the seventh anniversary of his passing, and the number 7 he bore so iconographically became synonymous with him. Rocky was different to most players, particularly within the parameters of the modern game. He was identifiable, he was one of us. There`s a very famous image of Rocky taken during a game in 1991 where he has his thumbs up and is winking at the camera. To me, that is an image every bit as iconoclastic as Adams` arm spread in front of the North Bank, or Charlie George lying on the Wembley turf. To quote the old cliché, it was the picture that told a thousand words.

The reason I feel the need to pen an article of my own is because Rocky belonged to me. Arsenal is a club with a plethora of legends, many of which we have lost down the years. Recently the likes of Alan Ball and George Swindin have shed this mortal coil, Herbert Chapman`s death whilst still in his post as Arsenal manager in January 1934 marked the club indelibly and in November 2000, just five months before Rocastle`s untimely death, Geordie Armstrong, Arsenal double legend and Reserve Team Manager at the time collapsed at London Colney. These were all Arsenal legends whose passing was marked with befitting maudlin. But they were all before my time, anecdotes of Armstrong`s work rate, Ball`s majesty, Swindin`s handling had all been passed to me second hand by generations of my family that bequeathed me. They were pictures in a book to me, part of the fabric of the club but outside of my subjective, selfish conscience. Rocky was from my generation, hell, he was even from my catchment area. A Gooner from Lewisham, a stone`s throw from where I was brought up, I instantly identified with him. How could you not?

Rocky is one of the main reasons I support this football club, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that and I have remarked upon it here before. As I have also explained previously, my family is roughly a 50-50 split between Tottenham and Arsenal (with a Brummie contingent of Birmingham fans annexed on). I began kicking a football around the school playground at the end of my time at infant school in or around 1990. Left wing became my position of choice. Upon seeing an embryonic passion for the game develop, my family charged me with the task of choosing my team. I thought about it, I watched Tottenham, but save for the genius of Gascoigne, they left me uninspired. Mitchell Thomas, Pat van den Hauwe and Paul Stewart were fine players, but they were unspectacular. Had my football knowledge been more sophisticated I might have appreciated this. But I took a fondness for the flying winger, at this time, Arsenal had Paul Merson manning one flank, Anders Limpar had just signed from Cremonese and a young man called David Rocastle manned the right hand side. I instantly felt a rapport, Rocastle and Merson, all scintillating wing play and toothy grins, from the Arsenal academy, my mind was made up. Here`s a confession for you, had Tottenham held onto Chris Waddle for a couple of seasons longer, my choice may have been much more difficult.

Rocastle played with an all consuming joy for the game, he was an infectious character; one could see the joie de vivre permeate him when he received the ball. Here was a player who had a childlike enthusiasm for simply having a ball at his feet. I think of Rocky and instantly see that chip at Old Trafford, the goal at White Hart Lane in the League Cup, the 7-1 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday on Valentine`s Day of 1992. As a young boy with my mind a tabula rasa of footballing knowledge, these moments would inform my joy of the beautiful game for years to come. With Arsenal currently having a lack of quality wingers, who would have revelled in and encapsulated Wenger`s vision of total football better than Rocky? Rocastle enjoyed an insatiable rapport with the supporters, not just from Arsenal. Though we loved him for his guile and the joy that he played the game with, he was respected throughout football for his ultra professional approach. Contract wrangles, haranguing officials and selective work rate were not an issue with Rocky.

He loved Arsenal too, he grew up supporting the club and played with the passion, fight and joy of a supporter, I think that`s why so many of us took him so readily to our hearts. So it was almost with mourning that news of his transfer to Leeds United broke in the summer of 1992. Rocastle clearly did not want to leave, but following the European Cup mauling by Benfica, Graham started to do away with the creative elements of his team. Indeed, he infamously tried to replace Rocky with Geoff Thomas. (The tragic irony being that Thomas would also succumb to serious illness in the new Millennium). Eventually, John Faxe Jensen stepped into Rocky`s boots. But really, most of us never forgave Graham for selling our Rocky. Rocastle was desperate not to be sold and his career stagnated thereafter, it was almost an act of mimesis. One often sees in life, that elderly couples usually die within close proximity to one another. Once an elderly person loses their partner, they quite often submit to the crypt soon after, unable to go on. Rocky`s career post Arsenal was much like that. He had an injury ravaged eighteen months at Leeds, before bumbling between Manchester City and Chelsea. In the 94-95 season at Chelsea, he appeared to enjoy a renaissance, until injury handicapped him again. He had unremarkable loan spells at Hull and Norwich before jetting off to Malaysian club Sabah. Until he could not fight off the injuries any longer and retired in 1999. Life just was not fair to Rocastle.

I vividly remember 31st March, 2001. I arrived in the Bank of Friendship before kick off for the Spurs game to be informed of the news by friends. I was stung, visibly and emotionally. Arsenal players died, sure, but not from my era, usually their epitaphs were greeted with black and white film reels. But here was Rocky, in glorious Technicolor, the guy who inspired me to chip sponge balls over four feet tall goalkeepers in the playground. Rocastle played in my first ever visit to Highbury. Here I was ten years after that debut, left to contemplate the demise of one of the players on display that day. I was not yet seventeen years old. I was still at school. In many ways, I wish the ensuing minute`s silence that day had taken place a few days later; I still had not fully absorbed it all. Had I been afforded a few days contemplation, I might have thought of David`s son Ryan, his young daughters Sasha, Melissa and Monique or his wife Janet. Instead I thought of that chip at Old Trafford and the guy I use to watch grin his way through games as easily and warmly as he sashayed through opponents. My season ticket at the time was in Block 19 of the Clock End, right on the barrier that separates us from the away supporters. The Spurs fans observed the silence impeccably, a credit to themselves and an even more poignant tribute to just how highly this man was regarded.

It`s not really for me to relay the intricacies of his illness, save for the fact that this was an enormous tragedy. Not only had Rocky`s football career been compromised of its promise by injury and the heartbreak of being sold by his club, but his life had been cut short so prematurely. The tributes poured in throughout the footballing world, Adams, his ex team mate and fellow youth team graduate, cried during the minute`s silence. But there are two tributes that stick in my mind. Firstly, David O`Leary`s assertion that, “if you were picking a team of nice people, Rocky would have been the captain.” The biggest tribute though perhaps came from fate itself. On the day of his untimely death, the man wearing his legendary number 7 shirt, Robert Pires opened the scoring in that North London derby.

Fate`s marriage with Robert Pires that day is perhaps matched most succinctly by another French poet. Charles Baudelaire said that, “genius is simply childhood recaptured with an adult`s tools for expressing it.” It`s a sentiment that cements my own feelings of Rocastle`s genius, a man who performed acts of artistry with the joy of a child trying to chip goalkeepers with a sponge ball in an infant school playground. It is said that the star that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and though it is tempting to feel injustice when looking upon Rocastle`s career and premature death, his young family can be proud that he touched so many lives in his short time on this earth. He certainly touched mine.LD.