Monday, September 29, 2008

Profiles of the Great and Good: Robin Friday, the Greatest Player You Never Saw

Robin Friday's career lasted only four years. He never played for England and he never played in the top tier of English football. But for those who saw him play he was the greatest player ever to walk the Earth. Unfortunately he also had a wild side that even made even George Best look tame...

Robin Friday was born in London in 1952. He spent most of his chaotic young life in and out of borstal homes. But it was his god given talent that would eventually make him stand out.

Not much is known about his early footballing career but he first shows up on the radar playing for non-league Hayes in 1972. Early scouting reports of a prodigious talent playing for a non league team were usually disregarded when his age came up, most teams felt that at 20 he was too old to start a professional career.

But that was about to change as Reading drew Hayes in an early round in the FA Cup. The legendry Charlie Hurley was managing Reading at the time and was trying to mastermind their way out of Division Four. And although Reading won the match 4-1, he had seen enough in the talented centre forward to sign him after the match.

Hurley obviously hadn't done a background check on the 21 year old Friday because if he had he might not have signed him. One incident whilst playing for Hayes saw the team start a match with 10 men as Friday hadn't finished down the pub.

He arrived late and after protests from the manager he took to the pitch. By this stage Friday was so intoxicated he could barely stand up. Needless to say the opposition didn't pay him much attention and in typical Friday fashion he scored the winner as Hayes ran out 1-0.

Over the next four years he went on to play 135 games for Reading scoring 55 goals. For those who saw him play during his spell at Reading say they saw the greatest player the world has ever seen.

Friday was blessed with the kind of talent that even professionals can only dream of. There was nothing he couldn't do with a ball. But he was cursed with an insane wild streak. He smoked to excess, he drank to excess and he took drugs like there was no tomorrow. His under achievement was so spectacular because of his antics off the pitch.

Within weeks of signing for Reading he had become a hero to the terraces. And had the local journalists waxing lyrically about his "sheer magic" that had turned an average Division 4 side into an awesome one.

His skill and vision were beyond compare and his 55 goals for Reading are still considered to be amongst the best goals ever seen in English football. Even Welsh referee Clive Thomas couldn't believe his eyes when refereeing Reading in 1976.

Unfortunately you won't be able to YouTube the goal so I'll describe the goal as best as I can. (I wasn't there either but I've read many accounts of it.)

Reading were playing Tranmere in a league match, both teams were cancelling each other out. The Reading goalkeeper threw the ball out to the right full, Gary Peters looked up. Friday was lurking at the corner of the penalty box on the left hand side. The ball was launched in his direction. Friday ran towards the ball and jumped into the air catching the ball on his chest, as he landed he spun around 180 degrees with the ball still on his chest and dropped the ball onto his left foot where he caught the ball on the volley and powered it home into the top corner on the far post.

The crowd were stunned, Reading players, Tranmere players and even the referee could only stop and applaud. Friday ran to the back of the goal to celebrate with the fans and on his way there he saw a police man applauding so he ran right up to him and kissed him!

Clive Thomas talked of the goal after the match. "I've refereed at World Cups, I've seen Pele, George Best and Johan Cryff, this rates as the best goal I've ever seen" When he asked Friday "What are you doing playing at this level? I've never seen anyone score a goal like that" Friday quipped "You should come down here more often, I score goals like that all the time!"

As Friday won Player of the year at Reading and fired them to the clubs first promotion in 50 years in his first full season, managers like Bertie Mee and Bob Paisley had begun to take notice of his mercurial talent. But just as the top teams were taking notice of Friday his wild side began to dominate his life.

His binging on drink and drugs began to get him into trouble. He was a notorious alcoholic and was barred from virtually every bar in Reading as he was a notoriously bad tempered drunk who often did his best fighting naked!

During this period the list of misdemeanors was endless. Hurley tried to calm Friday down and moved him onto a settled street full of pensioners. Friday terrorized them during the day and then played heavy metal through the night. He stole clothes from markets, posed as a train station security guard so he could get free tickets and had a fondness for robbing statues from grave yards.

He used L.S.D. and cocaine in industrial sized amounts. And it was during one of his many drug fueled binges that one of his most famous stories arose. Reading were playing away from home and Friday was literally three sheets to the wind, players talked about him walking around the hotel naked and throwing snooker balls and darts in the games room while naked.

When the team meeting was called just before the team left for the match a disheveled Friday showed up still naked but carrying a swan that he had procured from a nearby lake!

Friday's behavior on the pitch wasn't much better. He drank before games and regularly showed up drunk. He ran over to Police men to kiss them after he scored, he fought with team mates and opponents alike, he kicked players in the face (I'll save that story for later) and then grabbed them by the testicles. His disciplinary record was appalling. And it was only his phenomenal performances that kept him at the club.

But patience was wearing thin at Reading and in 1977 he was sold to Cardiff for a measly £30,000. Scotsman Jimmy Andrews was managing Cardiff at the time and called a press conference to announce the coup of signing Robin Friday for little or nothing. Reading's response was "you'll see."

On his first day in Cardiff, Friday was arrested in the train station after fare dodging. His first action as a Cardiff player was to be bailed from jail by an unhappy Andrews. But it set the tone for the rest of his short Bluebird career.

He was still able to put in performances that to this day make Cardiff fans misty eyed. But he would go missing for days and then show up in a state.

The night before his debut for Cardiff, Friday want on a pub crawl to test the Cardiff nightlife. He was out until five in the morning when he decided it was time to rest up for his debut. So he took a dozen bottles of beer with him to bed. He then went out the next day and scored twice on his debut. While being marked by Bobby Moore.

But in true Friday fashion he then disappeared on another binge. On returning he would score his most famous Cardiff goal where he beat four players and then rounded the keeper. On wheeling away Friday gave the goalkeeper a two fingered salute.

The iconic image (I've used it too) was used on the cover of a single by The Super Furry Animals who wrote a song about Friday called The man don't give a f**k.

His most memorable moment as a Cardiff player came when playing Brighton.

Friday was being marked by a young Irishman called Mark Lawrenson. And was getting frustrated by the close attention he was being given. So he waited for Lawrenson to slide tackle him and as he did Friday turned a kicked him full into the face. Friday was sent off immediately but he wasn't finished there. He broke into the away dressing room and defecated into Lawrenson's bag before disappearing on another binge.

I would be his last match and he never played football again.

And at the age of 25 his short career was over. He only played 20 games for Cardiff where he scored six goals but his time there was enough for Cardiff fans to find a place in their hearts for him. They named him their Cult player of all time in 2006. Reading did too.

He returned to London and worked as an asphalter, but he was never able to control his demons. He went through two acrimonious divorces and lived in squalor until he died in 1990 at the age of 38.

Ultimately, it's hard to gauge whether Robin Friday deserves to be put on a pedestal. His legend grows with each telling and it is tragic that he is a hero for all the wrong reasons to the loaded and fhm generation.

The legendry Stan Bowles who was also a bit of a hellraiser in his day spoke of Friday "There is no doubt in my mind that if someone had taken a chance on him he would have set the top division alight. He could have gone right to the top. He just went off the rails a bit."

There's no doubting Friday's prodigious abilities, and even today if you mention his name to either Reading of Cardiff fans they can tell you stories about him for hours.

Reading coach Maurice Evans once told the forward "What age are you son? If you could just settle down for a few years, you could play for England" Fridays reply "What age are you? I'm half your age but I've lived twice the life you have!"

Sums up Fridays life.