‘The Legend of Rocky was born’ – This Gunner recalls the North London Derby Semi’s of 1987

The Legend of Rocky was born


Today I am delighted to welcome and old twitter friend, Darren Jacobs @dazzyd001 to ‘1nildown2oneup.’ Darren like me is a London lad who has moved South but still makes the trip back to N5 frequently. No real introduction required as Darren does it himself but suffice to say if this does not get you fired up for Saturday go and see a doctor…..

My inspiration to write came the other night while reading a piece on Dave’s site last week by @GoonerGirl69 describing her experience of Anfield 89. As I was fortunate enough to be there myself, not only could I identify but I also found myself re-living the whole experience as I have often done since that glorious Friday night in May.

In the wake of the latest Hillsborough inquiry where it’s taken a staggering 23 years for the stark facts and the truth to emerge it appears that lately there has been more and more editorials chastising the state of the beautiful game throughout England in the 80’s. It goes without saying that the tragedies of Hillsborough, Heysel & Valley Parade in that era should never have happened. However that aside, as a teenager growing up in the 80’s, following Arsenal was nothing short of magical. 

My love affair with the club began as a 6 year old boy being taken to his first game at Highbury in 1977. I come from a family of Arsenal supporters and once I’d walked through the turnstiles of The West Stand Upper my life was to never be the same. As a youngster I was fortunate with my father to be in attendance when Brady scored that majestic curler when we won 5-0 at the lane in 1978. I attended all 4 games of the epic FA Cup semi final v Liverpool in 1980 which included a trip to Hillsborough, 2 trips to Villa Park & the final one at Highfield Road witnessing Brian Talbot’s header to send us back to Wembley for the 3rd season in a row. Standing with my father, uncle & cousin singing “Good Old Arsenal” & “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the top of my voice are memories that have and will stay with me throughout my life. The emotions I experienced at such a young age, the connection I felt for that ‘Cannon on the chest‘ are indescribable. Of course as has always been the way with Arsenal along with the good comes the bad. Crying myself to sleep after losing to Valencia on penalties in the Cup Winners Cup Final, being inconsolable walking out of Wembley Stadium after being beaten by Ipswich in 1978, these are the experiences that shape the life of a football fan.


Even our greatest let us down – Brady after Valencia shoot out miss. Scars we bear

I can sense I’m beginning to ramble so let me get to the point and the purpose of this piece. The year is 1986 and it’s the first game of the season under our new manger George Graham. After 6 years of boring Arsenal and mid table mediocrity there seemed to be a sense of renewed hope buzzing throughout the stadium where we were due to play Manchester United. Despite the fact we won 1-0 with a Charlie Nicholas goal, what was most significant for me was that it was the first time I was allowed to go to a game with my mates whereas before I had always been with my family sitting in the upper tiers. This was the first time I stood on The North Bank. There were will over 41,000 spectators jammed into Highbury that day. I remember paying my money at the turnstiles and walking up those steep steps where I turned right to find myself at the top of a swaying thong of people. Eventually after enough pushing & shoving my mates and I found a place to stand with a decent view to watch the game. As a kid watching the North Bank from my seats in The West Upper, seeing the swaying, learning quickly that all of our chants started in there, to finally be a part of that for the first time was exhilarating. I can’t remember much of the match apart from when Charlie scored and I was literally thrown from the top of the terrace to the bottom. I was hooked as there was nothing in the world like this.


I Nil v Man United – Charlie Nicholas

Throughout that season I traveled the length & breadth of the country following the boys in red home & away. That year I visited numerous stadiums for the first time, sang my heart out and fell in love with players like Rocky Rocastle & Tony Adams, players that loved Arsenal and knew what it meant to represent a club with a long history of upholding tradition and winning trophies. For those of you maybe too young to have either been around or remember, this was a trophy starved time. Arsenal had not picked up any silverware since winning the FA Cup in 1979. Therefore when were drawn against Spurs for the Littlewoods (League) Cup Semi Final the excitement of once again having the opportunity to return to Wembley by knocking out our greatest of rivals was at fever pitch. Over the years I have been to well over 30 North London derbies including the two FA Cup Semis at Wembley in 91,93 and Old Trafford in 2001. Perhaps it was because we were so starved of success, perhaps it was because that year they had a far superior team than ours managed by a ‘curb crawler’ whose leading goal scorer was still not adverse to shaking hands!!! Perhaps it was because this was the first time we had met our rivals in a Semi Final. What I do know is that that for me since then not one NLD has come close to the sheer tension, exhilaration and atmosphere produced in those 3 epic games in March 1987.

Clive ‘2 bob’  Allen – An angry coach now, a 40 goal a season striker back then


The atmosphere of yester year makes the NLD of today seem almost sterile. There was nothing like standing in the North Bank seeing the Clock End jam packed full of our rival fans. Likewise standing in the Park Lane, occupying the whole end behind the goal with thousands more sitting above us, there was something about that that created a feeling that in my opinion cannot be replicated in today’s modern corporate world of football. The 1st leg at Highbury ended in a 1-0 defeat with 2 bob Allen as the scorer. The second leg at WHL went from bad to worse when we went 1-0 down 2 nil on aggregate. At that point a comeback seemed unlikely. Then, out of nowhere up popped Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn too take the game to extra time. It is hard to describe the sense of elation I felt on that Sunday afternoon although nothing compared to what was to become.

The venue of the replay was decided on the toss of a coin, as Spurs won they elected to play the game at WHL. The game if memory serves me correctly was scheduled for the Tuesday literally 2 days after the 2nd leg. My cousin & I got to Highbury on Monday afternoon and queued for 3 hours to get tickets. Next evening there we were back at the venue of our incredible comeback 2 days earlier. For me the game becomes a different spectacle under floodlights which always seems to intensify the atmosphere. That night at the Lane standing shoulder to shoulder with 8000 Gooners desperate for success was the night Rocky became my hero. At half time Spurs had the audacity to announce over the speaker system the date they would be selling cup final tickets. Unbelievable! Once again for the 3rd time in a row ‘two bob Allen’ put Spurs ahead in the 61st minute. The game seemed like it was slipping away. All around us Spurs fans sang wildly, chants of Wembley, it was sickening until the 82nd minute when substitute Ian Allinson, only on the potch as Nicholas had been carried off injury, squeezed the ball into the corner of the home teams net.

Ian Allinson – An likely hero

Pandemonium ensued. The whole Park Lane end swayed backwards & forwards, extra time was on the cards, or was it? In the 90th minute exactly with every fan crammed into the ground feeling crippling knots of anxiety in their stomachs up pops ‘Rocky’ in the box to see his shot creep under the keeper body. We went from ‘one nil down to two one up.‘  Final whistle, grown men crying, the whole Park Lane end roaring “One nil down two one up we knocked Tottenham out the cup la la la la” alongside “oh Rocky Rocky…..Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle”. The out pouring of emotion was like nothing I had ever witnessed. I was hugging complete strangers. We were back at Wembley and had done a number on our greatest of rivals to boot.


Oh Rocky Rocky! Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle – A legend was born on 04/03/87

Throughout my 35 years of support I have experienced incredible highs coupled with depressive lows, in fact some have suggested that I am bi-polar where Arsenal are concerned! Despite having been fortunate enough to be in attendance at nearly all of our greatest achievements since I was  born, as a 16 year old kid standing on the terraces at White Hart Lane with my best mates, on a floodlit starry night, seeing my beloved team reach a cup final…………..well it doe not get much better than that!

Thanks Darren. Wonderful, wonderful, stirring piece my friend. I was at the first two but as a poor university student could not get back to London from Colchester for the epic replay.For those like me not lucky enough to have been there or too young to have been please relive the final minutes of the come back with the late great Brian Moore. Yes he of ‘It’s up for grab’s now!’ Don’t forget to follow @dazzydoo1 on twitter.

[youtube.com/watch?v=geJbTwOQoQU 100% 250]

Lastly let’s stick with Gooner Darren’s.  @DarrenArsenal1 shared his memories of the same epic night with Arsenal Collective a while back to further put us all in the mood for Saturday.



Until next time thanks for reading.

Like what you read? Agree/disagree? Leave a comment below or follow me or comment on this blog on Twitter – http://twitter.com/goonerdave66


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  1. That was my first ever really big game too (or it seemed so at the time) having been going for two/three years at that point. I still remember the David Pleat TV interview afterwards….”you have to be able to put it in perspective – I mean, people died tonight, in hospital…..” With hindsight, it was a health and safety nightmare too – many hundreds of gooners all round the ground being walked round the ground and put into an already jammed Park Lane. Happy days indeed

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment. Yes that night was crazy, Gooners everywhere, even in the Shelf for 1st leg if I remember

  2. Darren, firstly, I’m so chuffed you felt inspired by my piece, on Anfield ’89, to write a blog. Secondly, what a fantastic piece of writing your blog is, I was getting excited reading it. I was at all 3 games, first away game I was upper tier with the Arsenal fans and I remember them announcing at half time about the Spuds tickets for Wembley etc. The replay I was in the East Upper and again we went mad when Allinson and then Rocky scored. I loved your blog, as any Gooner will, and watching the video I got excited when Rocky was just about to score, those were the days…..Anyway, again, well done, brilliant piece.

    1. ah so glad you enjoyed, reading your piece on Anfield put me right back in the moment. Tbh Spurs 87 & Anfield 89 are my two best memories, perhaps because I was a teenager but these will stay with me for a lifetime. All I want now is 3 points on Saturday!!!

  3. Awwww too many levels of lovliness…
    That was my first year of support too, as a wee 10 yr old in Ireland we rarely had tv images but where there was a will there was a way we’d try anythin to get to see the games…
    Aww Rocky and Davis, and an Arsenal team with Irish players – thems were the days..
    The sway of the terraces is what i love about these clips, its a pity England can’t be like Germany and still have one Stand left available for terracing,would end the silent atmosphere’s and allow the working class’s more chance of getting into games, not just the corporates as you said..
    Aww shorts that go the whole way into a players stomach haha…
    And back to a time where we took the league cup seriously…
    A brilliant piece, i felt like i was on the terrace with you on that starry night…

    1. Could not agree more…atmosphere sterile compared to games of yesteryear…there was something about standing on a terrace that made it all seem far more real. Glad you enjoyed

  4. Thank you for a wonderfully evocative piece. This was before my time but growing up in a Gooner household I’m always fascinated by our history. There was much talk in the press after the Hillsbrough revelations about the bad old days of the eighties (Oliver Kay wrote a simply brilliant piece in the Times)and I have to admit I’m one of the people who’s grateful for the sanitisation of the game as I certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to attend matches as a young girl had the worst of the excesses continued. But it’s good to be reminded, also, of the good things lost to the present generation and the visceral excitement of how things used to be.

  5. Superb piece. Had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up just reading.
    The match was before my time, but the way you described it made me feel like it was actually there.
    Dave was right, if you don’t feel up for the cup this weekend after reading this then there is something wrong with you.

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