The greatest footballer you never saw

That dreadful corporate travesty of a TV show, Being: Liverpool, has now finally ground to a halt on Channel 5. It offered absolutely nothing of interest about the running of a Premiership football club or its players, and merely served as a vanity project for the current American owners. The only real insights and genuine displays of passion in the programme came from the supporters themselves. Reviews were unanimously poor, with one TV reviewer comparing it to MTV Cribs, so keen were the directors to gawp at the interiors of footballers’ homes and cars.

It may not be universally true of today’s professional footballers, but the players featured came across as crashing bores. It made me long for a time when football had real personalities and characters, even wayward and self-destructive ones. In the 1970s the likes of Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, Alan Hudson and Frank Worthington were exceptional talents on the pitch and adored off it. Each had a strong anti-authoritarian streak, seemingly combined with that unholy trinity of addictions: alcohol, gambling and women. Whilst not necessarily condoning such antics I think it’s fair to say that the average supporter immediately identified with such a player and, unlike today, they would happily pay their hard-earned cash through the turnstile to see these mercurial talents.

Robin Friday

Perhaps the archetypal ‘character’ of that era is the little-known Reading and Cardiff City striker, Robin Friday, the subject of Paolo Hewitt and Paul McGuigan’s 1997 book, The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw, and cover star of Welsh band Super Furry Animals’ 1996 single, ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. Friday was also voted ‘cult hero’ by supporters from both clubs in a BBC poll in 2004.

Brought up in Acton, west London, and an asphalter by trade, Friday suffered a near-fatal accident in the early 70s. He fell from scaffolding and was impaled on railings below that punctured his buttocks and stomach and narrowly missing his lungs. Friday somehow hauled himself off the spike and was back playing amateur football within three months. Team-mates at Reading attest that Friday’s near-death experience shaped a hedonistic approach to life that included huge drinking sessions in the pubs of Reading, listening to heavy metal music in his flat and consuming large quantities of LSD with carefree abandon.

At Reading Friday scored 46 goals in 121 games between 1974–76, and notched 6 goals in 21 games at Cardiff. His behaviour was often overlooked as his technical ability on the pitch was so good, and he won Reading’s player of the season award at the end of 1974–5, having scored 20 goals in all. In 1975–6 Friday helped Reading to promotion from the old fourth division, scoring sensational goals, flying past hapless full-backs and, in a 5-0 win against Tranmere Rovers in April 1976 at Prenton Park, scoring a goal from 25 yards after picking up a loose ball, his back to the goal, then turning and blasting it instinctively into the top corner of the net. Top referee and notorious curmudgeon Clive Thomas stood and applauded and later told Friday it was the best goal he’d ever seen, despite having refereed both Pele and Johan Cruyff. Friday replied that he did that sort of thing every week!

In Reading’s 2-1 victory at Rochdale Friday scored a vital last-minute winner to secure all three points. Filled with elation he ran behind the goal in celebration and stood directly in front of an onlooking policeman, removed his helmet and planted a kiss on his forehead before replacing the PC’s headgear and running off. Friday regretted this later, revealing to his team mates that he must have been too giddy with delight, because he ‘hated coppers’.

Former Oxford United and Reading manager Maurice Evans claimed that Friday should have played in the top division and should have represented England, he was that good. He once told Friday this and advised that he knuckle down for three or four years to achieve these goals. Friday had no intention of changing his ways, however, and told Evans that he’d already packed more into his 20-odd years of life than Evans had in his 50-plus years. Evans agreed with him: Friday probably had.

Anecdotes about Friday’s antics abound. On one away trip at Cambridge the team bus stopped briefly by a cemetery only for Friday to get off and return with a couple of stone angels taken from a graveside; he planned to give a sleeping coach the fright of his life by placing them next to him. His manager, Charlie Hurley, sternly told him to replace the stolen items forthwith and under no circumstances should an employee of Reading Football Club or indeed anyone ever desecrate a grave. Friday acknowledged his misdemeanour and swiftly returned them. On another occasion Friday was staying in a hotel with the rest of the squad and brought a swan he’d found on the hotel grounds under his arm into the bar. Annoyed with a 4-0 defeat to Mansfield and his own performance supposedly in front of scouts from first division clubs, he broke into the opposing team’s dressing room and defecated in their team bath. But still scouts from Arsenal, Chelsea and Sheffield United queued up to see Friday. In his very last professional appearance, for Cardiff in late 1977, he was having a tough match against a promising Brighton & Hove Albion centre-half called Mark Lawrenson. So frustrated had Friday become that he waited for Lawrenson to slide in and tackle him and then proceeded to kick him in the face and get himself sent off. Long before, this, however, the final straw had come for Charlie Hurley, who admitted that he could no longer control Friday and that his form had dipped since promotion in May 1976.

On 30 December 1976 Friday was sold to Cardiff City, amidst outrage and astonishment amongst the Reading faithful, for a knockdown price of £28,000. Friday famously turned up at Cardiff station ticketless and had to be bailed out of a British Transport Police prison cell by his new manager, Jimmy Andrews. Cardiff players confirm that Friday was an amazing talent, and he scored two goals on his debut in a 3-0 win over a Fulham side containing the great Bobby Moore. Friday had given Moore the runaround all afternoon and at one point stopped to squeeze the World Cup-winning captain’s testicles. The South Wales Echo reporting that Friday would have scored a hat-trick but for being ‘pulled down in a rugby-style tackle’. A talent as special as Friday’s was often exposed to the brutality of 70s football, but Friday could certainly dish it out when required.

Robin Friday's infamous V-sign

Former players confirm that Friday would turn up to matches in scruffy jeans, T-shirt and winklepicker boots and clutching a carrier bag containing a bottle of dry Martini, but it was tolerated because of his ability. In another infamous episode Friday was banned for two games for flicking the V-sign at Luton Town’s goalkeeper Milija Aleksic in Cardiff’s 4-2 win. Moments before this, Aleksic and Friday had had an altercation over a tackle. Friday tried to make peace with a handshake which Aleksic petulantly refused. Friday promptly scored in the next passage of play and gave his legendary celebration. However, by the end of 1977 Friday had had enough of football, and he detested his new manager so much that on one occasion he travelled back to Reading to plead with former boss Hurley to re-sign him. Friday had a terrible disciplinary record and his sending off after the Lawrenson incident against Brighton on 31 October 1977 proved to be his last act in professional football. Tired of the tackles, fines and lectures about discipline and after being put on the transfer list, Friday walked into Andrews’ office on 20 December 1977 and announced his immediate retirement. He never played a competitive match again.

In a grimly familiar tale, after retirement Friday drifted further into drink and drugs, and spent time in prison in the 1980s for impersonating a police officer to confiscate (and then consume) drugs from unsuspecting criminals. On 30 December 1990 he was found dead in his Acton flat, apparently from a heroin overdose. Hundreds attended his funeral. He was just 38.

Friday is much missed and much loved at both Reading and Cardiff, consistently tops best player polls and is included in all-time great teams at both clubs. Philosophy Football paid tribute by immortalising him in a T-shirt with an image of Friday celebrating a goal at Reading looking like former Argentine forward, Mario Kempes, with an accompanying quote:

On the pitch I hate all opponents. I don’t give a damn about anyone. People think I’m mad. I am a winner.

It was announced this August that, with the backing of US film sponsors and the Welsh Film Board, the story of Robin Friday’s topsy-turvy life will make it to the big screen. The film will be based largely on Hewitt and McGuigan’s book. Many football fans will await this film with great anticipation. Although aspects of Friday’s life were undoubtedly tragic he also brought great joy to thousands and football certainly became the poorer for his loss. Just watch any Premiership game filled with slick athlete–footballers today and it is painfully clear that the old adage about ‘not making them like they used to’ rings true.

2 comments on “The greatest footballer you never saw

  1. It’s an interesting point raised by Engels, why is it that there is such a dearth of real personality from professional football today?

    Is it that footballers are over-managed, that they’re too highly trained in media relations, that there’s too much scrutiny of their private lives from the media so they’re more cagey, that the pressures of the big-money game mean they have to be so dedicated to football there’s little energy left for anything else, or are they just more boring people? Or is it a matter of perception, and the footballers themselves haven’t really changed?

    I suspect a combination of some of the above, but in spite of the occasionally fiery game such as the 7-5 match between Friday’s alma mater Reading and Arsenal last night, football does feel a more culturally impoverished sport now. I’ll be interested to see what other people think the difference might be due to.

  2. Our media are partly to blame also. Any “character” in football is deemed to be out of kilter with how footballers should be.

    The introduction of Sky Sports News has meant that football stories and comments have needed to be found to fill in for round the clock viewing. Characters in the game are, overall, given negative coverage to make headlines.

    So, you have the views of Joe Royle or someone similar on the behaviour of Mario Balotelli. Why? Because football fans are happy to watch this rubbish.

    If football fans watch this bland television, the programme makers are going to want to produce bland television. Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Matt Le Tissier and the like make television blander than an episode of Last Of The Summer Wine.

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