Thursday, October 6, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: October 14, 3:37 PM UK
Robin Friday: Rock 'n' roll star
Robin Friday never played a game in the English top-flight and retired at 25 after three years in the Football League. The closest he came to a trophy was a defeat to Shrewsbury Town in the 1977 Welsh Cup final. By the age of 38, he was dead.
He was a player easily provoked into violence, a heavy drinker and a drug user but, in less than two years with Reading and only one with Cardiff, his name passed into legend at both clubs. Some of those who worked with him said he could have played for England, and a 1997 biography chronicling his turbulent life was entitled The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw. "He was the superstar of the suburbs," co-author and then Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan said in 1996, "the one who made George Best look like a lightweight."
From the very start, the signs were there. Growing up in London, he attracted the interest of the capital's top clubs, but they were reluctant to take a chance on a player so markedly individualistic. By 15, he was taking drugs and, at 16, he was sent to borstal for multiple thefts. At 17, he entered an interracial marriage - a source of great controversy at the time - after the girl fell pregnant, but it did nothing to halt his womanising, drinking or drug use.
Against this backdrop, he signed for Isthmian League club Walthamstow Avenue, making his debut in March 1971 at the age of 18 before moving on to Hayes in the same division at the end of the year. He was making a name for himself even at that stage, for a variety of reasons: his ability made him stand out, but he was also becoming known as a hard case. By the end of his time at amateur level, he had been sent off seven times in three years, while he seemed to have a superhuman ability to withstand injury, declining to wear shinpads despite his role as provocateur.
During the summer before 1972-73 season, while working as a labourer, Friday suffered a near fatal accident, falling onto a spike that tore through his buttock and nearly punctured his lung. In October, three months after the incident, he was back in action, and scored seven goals in six games. "We thought he would be out until well after Christmas," Hayes secretary George Jones told the Daily Mirror.
Hayes beat third-tier Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup first round soon afterwards and then lost to Reading after a replay. Although Friday did not score in any of the three games, his performances caught the eye of Reading boss Charlie Hurley and, 13 months later, the striker joined the Royals in Division Four.
He made his debut as an amateur in late January 1974 - putting in what the Reading Evening Post described as an "outstanding performance" - before opening his account in his second appearance. He was handed professional terms a few days later, and celebrated with what the Daily Mirror labelled "two great goals" - he beat four defenders for his opener - within six minutes of his home debut. Reading defeated Exeter 4-1 that day, and Hurley said after the game: "That lad can put us back in the promotion race."
A month after his arrival, Reading had scored 16 goals in five games and, after Friday curled home a 25-yarder with the outside of his boot in a 5-0 demolition of Doncaster in late February, the Daily Express wrote: "Robin Friday, a professional for three weeks, wrecked bottom-of-the-table Doncaster with an arrogant Rodney Marsh-style performance that earned him a standing ovation at the close."
Reading ultimately missed out on promotion in the 1973-74 campaign as they finished sixth, but Friday continued to inspire. In 1974-75, when they finished seventh, Friday became both the club's top scorer, with 18 league goals, and player of the season. In 1975-76, Reading were promoted in third place, and Friday, with 21 league goals, was again top scorer and player of the season.
During that promotion campaign, Friday had scored what the Mirror called "the goal of the season - or any other season" in a 5-0 thrashing of Tranmere: "The striker flicked the ball over his head, turned, and unleashed a fearsome 25-yard drive, which rocketed into the net." The referee that day - Clive Thomas, who would later become famous for his appearances at the European Championship and World Cup - reacted to the strike by putting his hands on his head in disbelief. Thomas was later to say that "even up against the likes of Pele and Cruyff that rates as the best goal I have ever seen", and when telling Friday at the final whistle that he had never seen better, the striker is said to have replied: "Really? You should come down here more often. I do that every week."
Despite the majesty of his play, controversy was always simmering under the surface and at times boiling over. His temperament had not improved, and his alcoholism was still rampant. In 1996, a Reading-supporting Guardian columnist recounted a tale of Friday running down the touchline before spotting a Royals fan drinking from a hip flask. The forward passed the ball, jumped over the advertising boards and asked for a glug of the whisky. As he rejoined the game, the referee booked the forward for leaving the field without permission. "But, ref, I haven't had my pint chaser yet," Friday said, prompting the referee to send him off.
Friday's problems became increasingly public after Reading had secured promotion. He submitted a transfer request when the directors failed to offer a satisfactory payrise - "For Robin, that was his excuse to go back to living wild," team-mate Eamon Dunphy said in The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw - and, during the off-season, he became divorced from both his wife and sobriety. Reading boss Hurley became aware of his drug problems when he returned for the new season and, though he still contributed goals amid the club's dismal start to life in the Third Division, he was to be sold to Second Division side Cardiff for £30,000 at the end of 1976.
Friday had wanted to stay in London, with Millwall and Crystal Palace having shown interest, and was seeking more money and top-flight football, but he reluctantly agreed to the move. He took the train to Cardiff without a valid ticket, and had to be bailed by his new manager, Jimmy Andrews, upon arrival. He made amends on his debut, a 3-0 demolition of Fulham, as he scored two goals and had a hand in the other; he also squeezed Fulham defender Bobby Moore's testicles that day.
Though Friday was to have further good days, they were overshadowed by the bad. The problem was not a lack of commitment on the field: he played with the fire and passion that characterised his career, and in a game against Charlton remained on the field for more than an hour despite having suffered a fractured cheekbone. Off the field, though, he apparently disappeared on a regular basis to indulge his addictions.
At the end of the season, Cardiff reached the Welsh Cup final and, after beating Shrewsbury 2-1 in the first leg, they were beaten 3-0 in the second. Friday, it is said, responded by standing on a snooker table in the team hotel, throwing the balls around the room in the middle of the night while wearing only his underpants.
Inevitably, he soon fell out with Andrews and, ahead of the 1977-78 campaign, failed to turn up for pre-season training, having been told he was not entitled to travelling expenses from his Bristol home. Friday's new wife contacted the club claiming he was suffering with illness, but this was disproved by tests.
He was given a second chance, and made his first appearance of the season in a league game at Brighton on the final day of October - his absence officially explained away as "a long illness" - but it was to prove disastrous. Cardiff were beaten 4-0, and Friday was sent off within the hour after kicking Brighton defender Mark Lawrenson in the face. Andrews defended Friday in the aftermath by claiming provocation - "Players know that Friday operates on a short fuse and they aggravate him" - but Brighton boss Alan Mullery dismissed his remarks as "the most ludicrous I've ever heard". It is rumoured, perhaps dubiously, that Friday defecated in Lawrenson's kit bag before exiting the ground.
Andrews, telling the South Wales Echo that he was "sick and tired of it", placed Friday on the transfer list that week and in December, at 25 years old, he told the club he wanted to retire. Cardiff, though still paying off his transfer fee, agreed to cancel his contract 12 months after he had signed it.
Friday, who was in the process of divorcing his second wife, never recovered. In February 1978, he admitted a drug-pushing charge and told the magistrate: "I've never done anything like this before and I'll never do it again. My wife leaving me has made me very depressed." He attempted to make a return to football in August that year, signing for Southern League side Hillingdon, and then trained with Brentford before retiring again.
He married and divorced a third time, and spent time in prison, before suffering a fatal heart attack in December 1990 at the age of 38. The news of his passing escaped the attentions of the national press, and he was by and large a forgotten man outside Reading and Cardiff until his memory was revived in the mid-'90s. Cardiff-based band Super Furry Animals used a shot of Friday giving a V-sign to Luton goalkeeper Milija Aleksic in 1977 for their 1996 single The Man Don't Give a F**k, and the aforementioned biography was released not long afterwards.
The many stories, apocryphal or not, of his lifestyle have seen his status as a cult hero grow and grow; with it has come an appreciation of a talent that would otherwise have been forgotten.