Non-League Day interview: Craig Rocastle

Premier League and Championship football is on hold this weekend because of internationals, and so the domestic spotlight in the men's game falls instead on non-league as the grassroots game in this country is celebrated.

Non-League Day was set up in 2010 and has grown to become an annual part of the football calendar, with supporters of teams not in action because of the international break encouraged to get down and watch their local non-league side.

Another alternative is to watch Chelsea Ladies who are in action in a big WSL game against Liverpool at Kingsmeadow in Kingston, Surrey. Kick for that on Saturday is 12.30pm.  

The official Chelsea website decided to mark this season's Non-League Day by speaking to a former player who started out in non-league before forging a successful professional career in England, Greece and the United States.

Craig Rocastle followed in his late cousin David’s footsteps by signing for Chelsea, but it was in very different circumstances that he arrived at Stamford Bridge.

David, who tragically died of cancer in 2001, had enjoyed an excellent top-flight career with Arsenal, Leeds and Man City before Glenn Hoddle brought him to the Bridge in 1994. Injuries affected Rocky's time here, but he still played an important part in our first European adventure in over two decades when we reached the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final. 

 David, Craig Rocastle's cousin, celebrates victory over Austria Vienna with the travelling Chelsea support in 1994

Craig’s path to Chelsea was more unusual. A combative central midfielder, his career started at Gravesend and Northfleet (now Ebbsfleet United) before he moved to Isthmian League side Kingstonian, where Steve Sedgley, once of Tottenham, was the manager.

‘My whole aim was to be a full-time professional, but the way it came about was quite strange,’ he recalls this week.

‘I was at Kingstonian, and Coventry called me up for a two-week trial when Gary McAllister was their manager.

‘It was the last game of the season for the reserve team and it was against Chelsea. I played for Coventry but had to come off after about 70 minutes after I took a ball to the face. I went home and got a call from Chelsea asking me to come in the next Monday. It all started there.

‘It was magical. What more could you ask for: being a first-time pro at one of the biggest clubs in the world, surrounded by top-class professionals.

‘I got into the first team squad, and I remember Eidur Gudjohnsen saying, “We have a new Rocky in the building”. It was a proud moment for me.’

Rocastle, then 21, says his eagerness ensured players and coaches alike were willing to help him at every opportunity down at our Harlington training ground.

Talent-wise he picks out Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Arjen Robben, Emmanuel Petit, Jody Morris and Claude Makelele as the best he played alongside during his time at the club. He regularly shone for our reserve side, and though he never made a competitive first team appearance he was named on the bench for a home game against Charlton in February 2004, less than a year after he had joined from Kingstonian.

‘I had all my family there. I worked so hard and to actually get the opportunity was amazing. Claudio Ranieri had me training a lot with the first team in my first year, and then I got an opportunity due to some injuries. It was a great experience. I wish I could have got on, but that’s okay, that’s life.’

 Craig Rocastle during his Kingstonian days

Rocastle did get on in the first pre-season game the following summer, a draw at Oxford United. It was also the first time Jose Mourinho managed us, and Rocastle remembers clearly his ‘aura, respect and will to win’. 

After Chelsea, Rocastle cemented his professional career in the Football League and enjoyed good times at Sheffield Wednesday, Oldham Athletic and Port Vale, among others. He had a couple of spells in Greece and in MLS too, across the pond, and he has remained in the States since the end of his playing career.

Rewinding back to where it all began, there is a buoyancy in his voice as he reflects on the significance of non-league both for his journey, and as a whole.

‘I was always trained well as a kid. Ability-wise there wasn’t that much of a gap for me, but from a physical standpoint it was a different level of training. That is what I had to catch up with when I went to Chelsea.

‘Some people don’t have the luck; some people develop later. It’s the way it goes. If you’re good enough to be playing at that standard, then you should be given an opportunity to do so.

‘The thing about non-league football in our country is that everybody is a winner. Everybody gives 110 per cent. And there is a core fanbase that really supports that club.

‘It’s growing, and Non-League Day is a great opportunity to keep supporting younger talent and helping smaller clubs to be successful.’ 

For a full map of non-league football in the UK on Non-League Day, click here.