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REAL HEROES: David Rocastle

For me personally, football isn’t the sport it once was. I do still love going to games; not many things can match the high of your team winning. I will always follow my club avidly, despite the great expense involved. In fact, as I write this I’ve just got back from a 600 mile trip to Bradford which resulted in an ignominious exit from the league cup on penalties. The ill feeling from that result inspired me in part to write about another of my heroes. Watching a poor performance on a freezing northern night, I finally accepted that the way I once felt about my “idols” on the pitch would never be the same as it once was.

As I’ve grown older during the modern era of the game it has changed the way I look at football. I think back to the teams I went to Highbury to watch when I was a youngster and it frightens me how much things have altered. Sure, back in the late eighties, early nineties top footballers were still paid a lot more than the average Joe. Some of them had affairs, others broke the law and clearly players back then were no angels. In fact, in a lot of ways they were more badly behaved than the present day professionals. The main thing I really miss is the loyalty of players to their club. You do still see some of them playing for their shirt but transfers between rival clubs and the monies involved mean that any player can be bought. We’ve all been there; the player kisses the badge when he scores a goal, then next pre-season he is holding up his new club shirt for the press. Transfers have always been a part of football; it is the directions the players move that sometimes raises the eyebrow these days. As an Arsenal fan I’m painfully aware of this, loyalty in football is practically dead.

Growing up as a young fan I had the privilege to watch one man that embodies everything that I think lacks in the majority of modern day players. He had bags of skill, pure talent and the ability to produce the sublime magic moments that take your breath away as a fan. Yet underneath all this was courage, tenacity, fearless determination and along with it a true love for his club. Every time he went out on to the field he gave every last drop of sweat and blood for the team and the fans idolised him for it. His full name was David Carlyle Rocastle but to us he was known simply as “Rocky”.

Born in Lewisham, South London on the May the 2nd 1968, he came from humble beginnings. Despite the hardships, growing up David’s footballing talent was there for all to see and in 1983 he joined Arsenal’s youth academy, eventually turning pro in 1985. Originally he had problems with his eyesight and it affected his game. Once the simple matter of contact lenses was solved, if you’ll forgive the pun, he never looked back. It wasn’t long before he made the breakthrough to first team football. He made his debut against Newcastle United in the 1985-86 season and despite his young age he made 26 appearances in a struggling team. The clubs fortunes would change with the appointment of another former great, George Graham, as Arsenal manager.

In 1987 Arsenal played bitter rivals Spurs in the League cup semi-final. Rocky scored the winner to jubilant scenes from the fans. The gunners went on to lift the trophy, beating Liverpool in the final.

Along with his ability, Rocastle’s fighting spirit saw him win two league championship medals with the club along with 14 England caps. There were too many moments of class to list but his 25 yard chip over Schmeichel at Old Trafford stands out for me.

He was known as a warrior on the pitch and many testify to his friendliness and charm off it. He was always seen as an approachable, genuine guy.

Sadly injury curtailed his career and his time at Arsenal came to a premature end. Legend has it Rocastle broke down in tears when George Graham broke the news of his proposed £2million transfer to Leeds. Could you honestly see a player nowadays doing that?

In 2001 shock went through football as a whole when David Rocastle was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He began undergoing treatment and everyone hoped for a recovery. Sadly it wasn’t to be. Just over a month later on March 31st, 2001 David Rocastle died, aged just 33. Our Rocky, who gave so much for our enjoyment, was gone. It was strangely fitting that our next fixture was against Tottenham. Many feared the hatred between the two sets of fans meant that the minute silence would be interrupted. To their eternal credit the Spurs fans remained as silent as the Arsenal supporters. Rivalries aside, it was clear to everyone that football had lost one of football’s genuine good guys. To this day we still sing Rocky’s name at games as a mark of respect and love for both the player and the man.

Some time ago, Rocastle was talking to a group of younger players. The advice he gave them has now been etched into folklore. The words not only resonate profoundly in football terms, but also on life in general.

“Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent”.

I’ve always maintained that those words should be written in bold on the wall of every football dressing room in the country.

Players these days could learn a lot from a man like Rocky.

Written in memory of David “Rocky” Rocastle