When a Gunners icon took the Rocky road to the S.League

As Arsenal arrive in Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy, Neil Humphreys remembers the great Gunner who beat them to it. Here’s the story of how the S-League missed out on signing Highbury hero David Rocastle.

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Chris Chan had a soft spot for rookie reporters. The then CEO of the S.League often entertained wide-eyed scribblers around his table, their tongues hanging out, waiting for a bone.

“I’ve heard Clementi are trying to sign one of your countrymen,” he told me. “Someone called Rocastle.”

“David Rocastle?” I blurted out.

“Yah. Probably.”

Chan was wrong, surely. He had to be. The S.League was only three years old in 1999, still in its infancy, still remarkably popular compared to its current, comatose state, but the honeymoon was certainly ending.

British footballers were occasionally targeted, but they were either embryonic talents like Michael Currie, sent out on loan from QPR for experience, or honest toilers like Jason Ainsley, brought over from non-league Spennymoor to remind brittle youngsters that socks were rolled around ankles and shinpads were optional.

Rocastle couldn’t be coming to Singapore, not the Rocastle mentioned by Colin Firth’s character in Fever Pitch, not the finest young English midfielder of his generation, not the ever-present Gunner in the 1989 Arsenal side responsible for winning the most dramatic league title in history.

It wasn’t that Rocastle. It couldn’t be.

But three hours and two phone calls later, the man who is now one of only 32 Arsenal legends painted on the side of the Emirates Stadium gave this grateful reporter his first scoop.

The first phone call had been to Ken Shellito. One of Tommy Docherty’s young Blues in the early 1960s, Shellito was an attacking Chelsea full-back earmarked by Sir Alf Ramsey for England duties at the 1966 World Cup, until a serious knee injury wrecked his career.

He understood Rocastle’s predicament. He had been there. That’s why Shellito had taken a chance on the 31-year-old’s dubious knee, sending him on an unlikely odyssey to Sabah.

An Englishman in Malaysia, Sabah coach Shellito was convinced that Rocastle’s guiding influence and exemplary professionalism would have a positive effect on his Malay youngsters.

“David did all that I asked and more,” Shellito said on the phone that night. “He learned basic Malay, coached my youth team and still scored eight goals for me in 13 games. I don’t want him to go.”

But a new ruling on foreigners in the Malaysian League forced Rocastle to look elsewhere. He recognised the value of such a multicultural experience for his three children. He wanted to stay in Asia.

So the second call, via Shellito, was to Rocastle’s Malaysian home. He admitted that he’d begun talks with Clementi Khalsa, but the S.League had concerns over his knee. As a marquee player, his club salary could be topped up and Singapore football needed to be sure it was getting value for money.

Rocastle was bringing plenty to the table – two English titles, a long Premier League career with four different clubs, 14 England caps, plus experience of regional football and conversational Malay – but the quibbling over dollars and cents continued.

A Rocastle banner flies at the Sports Hub during Arsenal's game against the Singapore Selection. Photo: Zee Ko

Out of respect for all parties concerned, there’s no point in revealing the proposed monthly salary for an S.League marquee player in 1999. But it would struggle to cover the airfare for just one of the Arsenal players coming over for the Barclays Asia Trophy.

And Rocastle was still only 31.

He was adamant that an S.League move wasn’t driven by avarice. There were more lucrative offers coming in from lower league clubs in England. But he was making a lifestyle choice. He championed the cultural experience he was providing for his children, one that his working-class upbringing had denied him.

Rocastle was determined to be the first English Premier League footballer to play in the S.League.

Balbeer Singh Mangat, now vice-chairman at Balestier Khalsa but then chairman at Clementi, told me recently that the midfielder stayed at his home for four days as negotiations continued.

Rocastle’s wife also emailed me his resume which I – sorry, Balbeer – surreptitiously passed to Fandi Ahmad, who was then managing the defending champions SAFFC, just in case the Clementi deal fell through.

Fandi and Rocastle admired each other’s work on both sides of the Causeway. They were both humble, decent men; fathers first, footballers second, always.

In the ensuing months, the conversations with Rocastle became less formal, discussing apartments for the family and schools for his children.

Our final chat took place at Clementi Stadium in November 1999. The club had organised a family day for the community: face painting, five-a-sides and freebies, the usual Singaporean fare. The place was packed.

It wasn’t a Clementi family day. It was David Rocastle day. They had all come to meet Rocky.

Frankly, the occasion was beneath an English Premier League footballer of his stature. But he signed every autograph and smiled at every asinine request.

When I left him, he was showing a gaggle of eight-year-old stragglers how to jockey on the ball, how to drop a knee to slow down an opponent.

His knee looked fine.

He promised to meet again before the new season and went back to coaching the star-struck Singaporeans. No one had asked him to conduct an impromptu clinic. He could’ve left at any time. Other, lesser footballers, paid employees of the club, certainly did.

In the end, Rocastle’s S.League deal fell through. There were too many misgivings about the knee, the knee that had passed the medical at Leeds, making Rocastle the club’s record signing.

Apparently, the knee that had survived four English Premier clubs couldn’t withstand the rigours of a short S.League season. Honestly, Rocastle could’ve got by with one leg, an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder.

But the parochial myopia that continues to dog the local game won the day and the S.League lost the chance to sign the biggest name in its 20-year history.

Rocastle died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma less than two years later.

Now, his beloved Gunners are in Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy, which is part pre-season warm-up and part PR and marketing initiative; an annual event to win friends and influence jersey sales.

But at Clementi Stadium on that warm, balmy evening, it wasn’t about the money for a genuine Arsenal legend. It was about a bloke with a ball. It always was with Rocastle.

The S.League would’ve been lucky to have him.

Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images