11 years ago this week we lost a true footballing legend. This is my personal tribute to the great man, the man known simply known as Rocky.
It seems hard to believe that it is now 11 years since we lost David Rocastle. The words 'legend' and 'superstar' are branded about far too easily these days, especially at people who have not truly earned it, but someone who certainly did deserve those accolades was the man known as Rocky.
So what made him so special? Well he was quiet simply the best footballer I had ever seen. Back in the late 1980's people talked about Glenn Hoddle or Paul Gascoigne, and Arsenal fans would always mention Liam Brady, but for me Rocky topped the lot. He had everything; strength, pace, skill, vision. He could run, tackle, pass, shoot and score goals. Wonderful, wonderful goals. But above all else he was a down-to-earth guy who never forgot where he came from and how lucky he was to playing football for a living.
Rocky was born on a rough council estate in Lewisham, South-East London on May 2nd 1967 and he was brought up by his mother following the death of his father in 1972. After leaving school in 1983, Rocky joined Arsenal as an apprentice and I first heard about him through his exploits in the youth and reserve teams.
Rocky on his Arsenal debut v Newcastle in September 1985
It was therefore no surprise when he made his Arsenal debut against Newcastle at Highbury in September 1985. It was not a memorable match (it finished 0-0) and it was not a memorable season (we finished 7th) but Rocky shone like a beacon through the mediocrity that surrounded him at the time, and he became an instant hero of mine. Plus, he was only a year older than me.
The following season saw the then 19 year old Rocky really establish himself in the side under new manager George Graham. He was a regular in the No. 7 shirt on the right side of midfield as we won the Littlewoods Cup at Wembley, and he became a true Arsenal legend when he scored the injury time winner in the semi final replay at White Hart Lane.
Rocky with the 1987 Littlewoods Cup he helped to win
Over the next two and half years Rocky became one of the best young players in the country as Graham plotted the downfall of Liverpool. He was ever-present in the 1988-89 title winning season and gave us many more great memories; a wonder strike against Middlesbrough where the ball seemed permanently stuck to his right foot as he slalomed past challenge after challenge, a 30 yard chip at Villa Park and a great goal at Liverpool in the Littlewoods Cup. And lets not forget it was Rocky who won the free kick that led to our important first goal in the title decider at Anfield in May. He was voted Young Player of the Year and became a regular in the England squad.
It was a shame that injury and illness began to affect his performances just as he was coming towards his peak. I recall an article by Graham in a match programme in early 1990 saying that Rocky was out of the team as he had been suffering from breathing problems, perhaps the start of the ill health that would ultimately cost him his young life.
Rocky with Michael Thomas celebrating the dramatic 1989 title success
He suffered a difficult 18 months after that and only played 16 times in the 1990-91 title winning season. Many were writing him off as it appeared his best days were behind him, incredible when you think he was still only 24. However the signing of his best friend Ian Wright in September 1991 (the pair had grown up together on that same council estate in Lewisham) seemed to re-invigorate his career and he enjoyed a fine 1991-92 season, missing just four games. The highlight was a wonderful solo goal at Old Trafford where he chipped Schmeichal from 25 yards after out-muscling both Ince and Robson. Vintage Rocky.
But that proved to be his last season at the club. I will never forget when I heard the news he had been sold to champions Leeds for £2million. Rocky WAS Arsenal and it seemed unbelievable that he would no longer be playing for us. I heard he cried when Graham told him they had accepted Leeds' offer and that tells you all you need to know about the man. He loved Arsenal as much as us fans and he showed it every time he pulled on the shirt.
Unfortunately his career went rapidly downhill after that. Following two largely unsuccessful years at Elland Road he played half a season at Manchester City, where he helped them to avoid relegation, before returning to London with Chelsea in 1994. His time there was blighted by injury and the highlight was helping them reach the semi final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1995, which had they won would have seen him face Arsenal in the final. But he made less then 30 appearances in his four years at Stamford Bridge, where he also spent loan spells at both Norwich and Hull.
Rocky winning one of his 14 England caps
He ended his playing career with Malaysian side Sabah in 2000, where he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the immune system. I did not even know he had been ill when the news of his death broke on the morning of a North-London derby on March 31st 2001, and I can honestly say I shed tears that day. It was the most emotional match I have been to and, even though we beat Spurs 2-0, it meant nothing. We had lost a legend and I had lost my first and only true football idol. The chants of 'Oh Rocky, Rocky..' were sang through tear-stained eyes that day and many days since.
I was actually lucky enough to meet Rocky once in the early 1990's. He was out of the side with injury and I was at the ground picking up a ticket when he emerged from the main entrance with David Hillier. I have met and spoken to many footballers over the years but this was different, this was Rocky. Although I was around 23 at the time I felt like a little boy as he approached me and smiled. I really wanted to say something but I was, for the first and so far only time in my life, completely starstuck. In the end I managed to utter some nonsense about his injury but he was only too happy to stop and chat, said he was on the mend and should be fit in a week or two. He then shook my hand, signed my ticket stub and was off. Of course I now wish I had spoken to him in more depth and told him how much I idolised him, but I was just a quivering wreck who could only just about manage a smile and a thanks! Unfortunately that was in the days before camera-phones so I have no pictorial evidence of our meeting, but that is the moment I always look back to whenever I think of him.
Rocky doing what he did best
Of course, I am not a member of his family, I was not a personal friend of his and, apart from that one brief encounter, I never knew the man, yet I felt a part of me died that day eleven years ago. He had been a big part of my life for many years and contributed to so many of the greatest times I had ever experienced.
Football may have moved on and many players have come and gone since, but Rocky will never be forgotton. We have won many trophies and enjoyed many more great times but rarely does a day go by when I do not think about the great man in the No. 7 shirt. He was from a different time, a time when players played for a love of the club and not the pay cheque, and he would probably have played for Arsenal for nothing. He was one of us yet one of a kind. He was simply our Rocky. RIP to a real legend.