The Life and Legacy of Rocky Rocastle In The Words of His Son and Ian Wright
In March 2001, Arsenal legend and fan favourite David Rocastle died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at only 33 years of age. We spoke to his son Ryan and former teammate Ian Wright about his life and career.
"He was unbelievable." This is the first observation that Ian Wright makes about David Rocastle, reminiscing about the first time he saw his future Arsenal teammate take to the football pitch. "We grew up on the same estate – the first time I met him he would have been about eight or nine, and I'd have been about 12 or 13. I used to play in the Crematorium, a park called the 'Crem' up in Brockley. David would come past, we'd put him in goal and then what he would do, he would get the ball and literally go through the whole team. We're talking about an eight or nine-year-old here, walking through a whole team and beating everybody. Still, I didn't quite realise just how good he was until Arsenal scouted him when he was about 13 or 14, but when you saw him play he was so skilled – he was brilliant, amazing."
Despite coming from similar backgrounds and growing up so close to each other, Wright and the man the fans would nickname 'Rocky' took very different paths to Arsenal stardom. While the former came to the professional game relatively late and was forced to work his way up through the ranks of Sunday League football, the latter was snapped up by the Arsenal youth system in 1982, making his professional debut only two years later. In the 10 years he spent with the club, Rocastle would make 277 appearances and score two dozen league goals from the midfield, winning two First Division titles and a League Cup in the process. He was a crucial part of the side which won the league on that famous night at Anfield in 1989 – Arsenal's first title in almost two decades – and so it was little surprise that Rocky became an icon in North London and a cult hero among the fans.
By the time that Wright arrived at Highbury in September 1991, this after a prolific six years at Crystal Palace in which he helped the South London side to promotion and an FA Cup final, Rocastle was not perhaps at the absolute peak of his powers. Though Arsenal had won the league the previous season, Rocky had been limited to only 16 appearances owing to a knee injury and took some time to come back to form. Nonetheless, over the course of the 1991/92 season, he played 39 times as Arsenal recorded a respectable fourth-placed finish. As such, it came as an unhappy surprise to many when George Graham decided to sell Rocastle to Leeds United that summer, not least to the striker signed from Palace who had known him since he was a child.
When Wright first signed for Arsenal, he had naturally assumed that he would be playing alongside Rocastle. When asked how he felt when he was told Rocky would be leaving, Wright says: "I was absolutely gutted about it, to be honest. David used to support Crystal Palace, and once I broke through he used to come to all the Palace games he could, and there were certain Arsenal games I would go to. I was always just pleased to have that association in Brockley – people would always talk about us and the area and everything. Then, once I'd signed with Arsenal, I went to David's house and stayed there for the night, talking about the club and talking about football. I had a dream debut, scoring a hat-trick against Southampton while David scored the other one in a 4-0 win. I would say that was the greatest game I've ever played in, and that was a fantastic season for me."
Wright won the Golden Boot that campaign, scoring 29 goals in the league. He and Rocky struck up a fruitful relationship on the field, which must have made Graham's decision to dispense with his friend even harder to take. No doubt reflecting how many Arsenal fans felt to see the back of a man widely considered an integral part of the club, Wright says: "When George got rid of him, it was, like, devastating. I was absolutely distraught when he sold him, because for whatever reason I genuinely thought that he was just going to be there all the time I was there. It was one of those things, and when George Graham and Tony Adams talked to me about the situation, I just couldn't get my head around it. It was devastating news for me, devastating."
Pushed on whether he resented the fact that he only had one season with Rocastle, Wright adds: "I did a bit, and a big reason I signed for Arsenal was because I wanted to play with him. I played with him for a year and then, that was it, he was gone. At the time I thought to myself: 'It's not like I wouldn't have signed for Arsenal without him'. Still, I thought I was going to be there with my longtime friend. That was the main disappointment – that he didn't get to stay, and I didn't get to play with him for longer."
Though Wright was understandably upset by the decision, he wasn't half as distressed as Rocastle himself. While he had a reputation as a player who could mix it with the toughest opponents in the top flight, teammates later stated that – having heard the news – Rocky couldn't help but cry. Speaking to The Guardian about the decision in the days after Rocastle's death in 2001, fellow Arsenal stalwart Paul Davis summed it up best when he said: "He couldn't understand why they ever wanted him to go. The club's line was that he was injured, he was struggling with his weight, he'd had a knee operation. I don't think he ever recovered from the fact of leaving Arsenal, in his own mind... it was one of the saddest moments for him."
Having left Arsenal, Rocky never quite emulated his glory days at Highbury. That said, he gained a cult following at several other clubs, with fans appreciating the same silky skills which had earned him adoration in North London. He spent a season with Leeds, a season with Manchester City, and four years at Chelsea where, despite initially rediscovering some of his best form, he was once more hampered by injury. After a couple of loan spells with Hull and Norwich, he moved to Malaysia and spent a season with Sabah in 1999, at the end of which he officially retired.
Two years later, in February 2001, Rocastle announced he was seriously unwell. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an aggressive and relatively rare form of blood cancer. He underwent a course of chemotherapy in an attempt to treat and manage the disease, but ultimately it was not curable, and he died on 31 March. He was only 33 years of age, and left behind a wife and three children, as well as numerous friends from the world of football.
Unsurprisingly for a man who was not only loved by supporters but also deeply admired by his fellow professionals, the outpouring of mourning for Rocastle was overwhelming. The word which crops up most in association with Rocastle is 'gentleman', and it was in that same spirit that his death was publicly mourned. Arsenal played Tottenham at Highbury on the day he died and, perhaps contrary to expectation, a minute's silence was respectfully observed by both the home and away fans. For the 2001 FA Cup final, the club invited Ryan Rocastle, David's son, to lead the side out as their mascot. He was given the warmest of receptions, and credits this as the day he became an Arsenal fan himself.
Talking to Ryan, he admits that some of what was going on passed him by, given that he was so young at the time. His earliest memories of his dad on the pitch go back to his time at Sabah, though he speaks fondly about them having a kickabout together and doing shooting practice in the back garden. "In Malaysia, that was when I was at an age when I can remember going to the games, being in the stands and actually watching him play," Ryan says. "Still, because you're so young, you don't really realise what you're watching. You're there because you have to be, sort of thing. At that age, while you love playing the game, you're not always so bothered about watching it, so a lot of times watching dad from the stands is not something I remember too clearly."
Nonetheless, after Rocky retired, he and Ryan would sit through video tapes of his time at Highbury. "We would watch his goals on the old video player," Ryan says, "and his happiest memories of being a footballer – the things he always referred to – would be from his time at Arsenal. That wasn't because he didn't try hard at his other clubs, but just that his best memories and favourite times came while wearing the Arsenal shirt. Naturally, those are the moments as a footballer that we all remember him for."
While Ryan was never pressured to support Arsenal as a kid, he seems fairly sure his dad would have tacitly nudged him in that direction. "Had he lived a bit longer, I think he would have been pushing me that way," Ryan says. "As it was, at that age, I think he realised that it was more important that I took an interest in football than a massive interest in supporting one team. I always used to wear the kits of the teams that he played for, you know. Of course, when dad died I was only nine, so he hadn't quite pushed me in any one direction, but I know that Arsenal would have been the team that he tried to make sure I followed. I'm sure of that."
Having fallen in love with Arsenal at that FA Cup final in 2001, Ryan has seen plenty of tributes to his dad in the time since. Every year, around the anniversary of Rocky's death, Arsenal fans commemorate his memory, and there is no sign of the collective strength of feeling fading even a decade and a half on. If anything, a whole new generation of fans have been introduced to Rocastle's legacy, even if – much like Ryan – they are too young to remember the pinnacle of his career. Asked how it feels to see supporters still acknowledging his dad's contribution to the club, Ryan says: "It's obviously incredible, and nice to know that he was thought of so highly.
"From the fans I've spoken to, I think a lot of it is to do with what he did off the pitch as well as what he did as a player," Ryan adds. While the motto of 'Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent' has been passed down through the generations at Arsenal, the fact that it is most often attributed to Rocastle says a lot about the measure of the man. "Of course, he spent so long with the club and came through the academy, so it was like he was one of their own," Ryan goes on. "For a lot of Arsenal fans, he was an important part of the team very early in their lives, so I think they wanted to give him a proper send off. Still, for it to keep going on is quite incredible, and it's been a while now, so it means a lot."
That said, for Ryan and his family, remembering Rocky is about much more than an anniversary. There is a difference between David Rocastle's private and public legacy, and while the rest of us may celebrate the latter the former is for the people he knew and loved. As well as his family, that includes friends like Alan Smith, Michael Thomas and Ian Wright, whom Ryan warmly cites as some of his dad's most supportive former teammates. "Obviously, for us, it's a bit different," Ryan says, "because as much as the anniversary is a time when everyone remembers dad, for us it's something we think about every day."
Thinking back on his memories of playing alongside Rocky when they were both still youngsters, Wright recalls one particular tournament they took part in. "When we were kids, we used to live on an estate called the Honour Oak estate, and we used to play football next to our block of flats. There was one day when David rushed up – he lived down the bottom of the road in a flat block called Turnham, and we lived up the top of the road – and found us having a kickabout. He said: 'Listen, my team were meant to play a competition at our school but nobody's turned up. The manager says I should get anyone I can together to play in this competition, so come and play'. There was me and a few mates, we went along with David and we won the whole thing. There were all these mums and dad with their kids, we were in a yellow kit with green down the side – we looked like Norwich – and all these parents and everybody was there. We won it, we won the competition, and it was one of those things where I realised he was a brilliant player. He was fantastic that day, and I still didn't know quite how good he was at the time."
Growing up in Brockley, right in the heart of Lewisham, Wright and Rocastle were not from well-off families. The Honour Oak estate is sometimes cited as a warning from history for municipal planners, and in the late sixties and early seventies it would have been a tough place to grow up. Beyond Rocastle's legacy as a footballer and a fan favourite at Arsenal, this seems like an inherent part of his legacy as a man. Often described by teammates as a humble, generous and unselfish character off the pitch, the residing impression of Rocky is one of someone who refused to take anything for granted, especially not representing his football club.
Speaking in the context the new BT Sport documentary Rocky & Wrighty, having seen an early cut of the footage, Ryan Rocastle gives a telling insight into his dad's outlook on life. "He used to speak about those early days because, with the upbringing he had, it was very different to what me and my sisters had. That's not to say we have lived a life of luxury, but more that he wanted us to realise what we had, and that you have to appreciate where you've come from. He made that very clear to me and my sisters, that we are fortunate to be in the position we are."
It's a rare thing for a man to have so much success in his life, and still to impart such a sense of magnanimity. More so than the goals, the titles and the happy memories in an Arsenal shirt, that is perhaps the most important thing that David Rocastle has left behind.