In a time where Ipswich Town were knocking on the door of a Premier League return, the Tractor Boys had one seriously promising crop of youngsters, culminating in 2005’s FA Youth Cup success. Teenage attacking talent Dean McDonald arrived that same season, with the former Arsenal prospect going on to feature 15 times for the club under Joe Royle before a summer 2006 move to Gillingham.
He would later appear in Scotland’s top flight with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and the south Londoner’s form at Farnborough would take him to Championship Swansea City on trial as a 24-year-old, even bringing a brief reunion with a familiar face from Ipswich, in flying Finn, Shefki Kuqi. A return to League football never quite transpired, but those who have seen him at close quarters down the years know all about the ability he holds.
He was announced late last month as signing for SCEFL Premier Division side Erith & Belvedere, joining a club heading into the 2021/22 campaign under new joint-managers Danny Murphy and Marlon Patterson. After a season away from the action, their new man Macca can’t wait to get started…
You’ve just signed for Erith & Belvedere, tell me about where you were at just before that, in terms of your football in general and how you were looking at it. What kind of vibe as well do you get from the club so far?
I didn’t get to play last season at all, with COVID and stuff like that, so it was a bit disappointing not to get out there, but that gave me the boost and the enthusiasm to want to get out there this season. I get a really positive vibe from the club. The players, the managers have opened the door to me, and it’s a really lovely club. It’s got a lovely set-up and I’m really looking forward to getting started.
If we wind the clock back a little way, to scoring that winner for Ipswich against Crewe (in February 2006), Joe Royle said after the game how talented you were. He also mentioned how they were always on at you about crosses and shots, what do you remember of that?
I think it was just being a young player, learning when to shoot, when to cross. Just being in the first team as well, so that transition from reserve football, you get less time on the ball. Thankfully, I got that goal on Valentine’s Day, which ended up being the winner.
In that time involved with the first team, was your mindset back then ‘I’ve still got a long way to go’, or was there any sense of ‘I’m here now and I’ll be at this kind of level for years to come’?
Definitely based on the influence of my dad, I knew that I hadn’t made it yet at that time. I was just working hard and doing everything I could in training and in the matches to be selected.
There were plenty of notable senior pros at Ipswich at the time, with the likes of Jim Magilton, Jason de Vos, Kevin Horlock etc. How would they be in training or in the dressing room? Were you ever on the wrong end of Jim Magilton’s fury?!
Do you know what? Jim was actually a lovely person, and he took me under his wing. When he needed to give you the hairdryer, he gave you the hairdryer! It was a great experience. Tommy Miller, Jim Magilton, Darren Currie, Kevin Horlock, Jason de Vos, Darren Bent, Shefki Kuqi. The array of talent in there and what they were able to achieve at Ipswich and beyond was amazing, so I couldn’t help but learn from them.
A lot of talented youngsters coming through at the club at that time as well, some of whom did make it into the first team. Was there anyone you had a particularly good connection with?
Darryl Knights, Dean Bowditch, Owen Garvan, Scott Barron and Scott Mitchell. In particular, Darryl Knights, definitely. His family helped me off the pitch, I lived with them for a little while, and it was amazing, just to help me get settled in and find my feet in Ipswich.
— Craig Rocastle (@craigrocastle4) May 23, 2020
Going on loan to Hartlepool in late-2005, to the cold of the North East in winter! Was it a proper exposure to what football was about at that level (League One)? What do you remember in general about going there?
The people there welcomed me with open arms and it was a lovely experience. I was staying in a hotel up there, and I remember going to the cinema one day, and being the only person in there! It was just a great experience, going up there and getting to score my first league goal (in a 2-1 win against Bournemouth). My dad came up to watch me. It was amazing and I hold Hartlepool in high regard.
You signed for Gillingham at the end of that season. Did Ipswich want to keep you, what was the situation at the time?
There were a couple of enquiries about me, and I wasn’t going to be able to get as much first-team football as I hoped. The manager changed, Joe Royle left (with Jim Magilton taking over), and in that period of time, I made the decision to sign for Gillingham.
Looking back on everywhere you’ve played up to now, is there a spell that stands out as your happiest? The most complete in terms of feeling good on the pitch, good dressing-room dynamic, and so on. Obviously Farnborough was a particularly good one.
That is the spell that stands out, to be honest, Farnborough. The changing room, the manager (Steve King), just everything. The fans were absolutely amazing and what we were able to achieve down there was fantastic. The two years I had there, we won the league and then lost in the play-off final, we had a good cup run that first year. It was absolutely fantastic and that’s my most memorable time, being able to actually play week in, week out, scoring goals, assisting, the banter. It was first class.
Is there a most difficult time you’ve had, where you’ve maybe had to push through that bit more?
The time I had to push though was Inverness. My mum had passed away whilst I was up there and that was the most difficult time for me; I went back to training after two days. That was the most difficult period in my football career. Just the people around me helped support me; my dad, my partner and my brothers. Everyone just helped me push through it, to be honest.
Thinking about the players you’ve played alongside, do any instantly come to mind as ones you felt an extra level of understanding with on the pitch?
Daryl McMahon, Owen Price, David Bentley down at Arsenal, Darren Currie. Those four, absolutely amazing; could literally put a ball on your big toe from 40 yards! It was amazing being able to play with those types of players. David Bentley especially taught me a lot in the youth team.
What about standout characters you’ve been around? Anyone you’d always look forward to sharing a dressing room with?
Darren Currie and Kevin Horlock – by far! Those two were absolute lads. Darren Bent as well. The pranks that they would play, oh my gosh. That rubbed off on us, and me and Darren (Bent) would be doing bits as well!
Any pranks that especially stick in the mind from that time?!
The best prank they did was on the assistant manager (Willie Donachie). You know when Harry Redknapp was doing the interview (with Sky Sports) and David Bentley and the Tottenham players tipped the water over him? It was one of those in the changing room!
Are there any individual battles you’ve had with opponents that were particularly memorable?
Steven Taylor at Newcastle. He was an amazing player and the battles that we would have in those youth-team games and reserve games, Arsenal versus Newcastle, were second to none. Luke Moore at the other end of the pitch for Aston Villa; we played them and anything around the box was a goal.
Have you ever had any initiation songs to do, maybe when you joined the first team at Ipswich?
No, funnily enough, only at Dulwich Hamlet have I ever done an initiation. At Dulwich, I did French Montana ‘Ain’t Worried About Nothin’’. I never had one at Ipswich; because I came from Arsenal, I don’t know if they just decided to leave me alone a bit!
Away from playing, what else are you currently involved in, in terms of ventures, interests, whatever it may be?
I started my own business, MM Global Elite; we provide education and sports for children and young people. I ran my own camp last summer and it was absolutely amazing. I’m looking to do another one this summer. It was amazing just seeing the children out there enjoying themselves and just learning from sport. I’ve recently had a son as well a few months ago, and I do have three others, so those are the things that take up my time.
Finally, knowing what you know now, what would you tell that kid at Arsenal, or the one playing for Ipswich?
Knowing what I now know: be humble, practice every day, and smile.
Interview by @chris_brookes