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The man who didn't give a f**k

As part of Genius Week, we chat to Paolo Hewitt about his biography of Robin Friday, one of the great footballing cult heroes.

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This article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms.

Below, Paul Fennessy profiles Robin Friday and chats to Paolo Hewitt, who co-authored the book on the former Reading star entitled ‘The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw’

robin Robin Friday has been dubbed 'the greatest footballer you never saw'.

‘THE MAN DON’T Give a Fuck’ is one of the best-known songs from Welsh rock group Super Furry Animals.

Released in December 1996, not long after the peak of ‘Britpop,’ the song was controversial, both for its inclusion of the word ‘fuck’ 50 times and its prominent use of a Steely Dan sample, prompting the latter band’s frontman Donald Fagen to demand 95% of the track’s proceeds.

The song’s liberal use of f-bombs ensured it didn’t exactly light up the airwaves, but it has since drawn significant acclaim — in 2011, it came 66th in NME’s list of the best 150 tracks of the previous 15 years.

As memorable as the song itself was the packaging for the single, which featured a former Cardiff City player Robin Friday showing a V sign to Luton Town goalkeeper Milija Aleksic, after scoring a goal against him. Included also was the band’s dedication to the footballer “and his stand against the ‘Man’”.

Despite Friday’s death six years previously, the song coincided with a mid-90s renewal of interest in the cult footballer.

The journalist Graham Wray wrote a feature on Friday for Goal magazine, which inspired another journalist Paolo Hewitt and Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan to write a biography entitled ‘The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw’.

I went to Chicago to interview Oasis,” Hewitt tells The42. “Guiggsy had read the article and he was pissed off. He really knows his football, and it was someone he didn’t know. He had never heard of Robin and he was like: ‘How come I’ve never heard of this guy?’

“They had the summer off, so we had three months of going down to Reading to see if there was anything in it. The whole story just got bigger and bigger, and that’s how it all started.

“We got Lisa’s number, who was his second wife. Tony’s his brother, so we met Tony. All the dominoes fell into place, as it were.

“I think it was Guiggsy who came up with that line, if George Best was the first pop star footballer, then Robin was the first rock star footballer.” 

Hewitt and McGuigan went to work in the latter’s house, proceeding to put together the definitive account of Friday’s incredible life, through a mixture of oral histories as told by family and friends, combined with old match reports outlining some of his phenomenal footballing feats.

And the musical parallels do not end with Oasis and Super Furry Animals. Friday in many ways lived like a stereotypical classic rock star, improbably balancing football with a lifestyle that encompassed a flamboyant fashion sense and no shortage of drink and drugs. He loved heavy metal and Janis Joplin. George Best was sometimes referred to as ‘the fifth Beatle’. Friday, though, was more like the Velvet Underground — far from universally popular, but those few people who saw him came home raving about this unsung hero.

He never played at a higher level than the second division and retired at just 25, but Friday had an indelible impact on those who watched him. Reading named him their ‘Player of the Millennium’ in 1999, while fans of both the Royals and Cardiff voted him their all-time cult hero in a 2004 BBC poll, making him the only player on that extensive list to feature for two different clubs.

Source: Kevin Kriel/YouTube

One fan, Tony Chapman, summed up his appeal: “He was the epitome of a ‘flawed genius,’ graced with incredible talent, but having a wild and unpredictable temperament that could see him kissing a policeman one match, pulling down an opponent’s shorts in a second, and being sent-off and taking a dump in the opposition’s bath in a third. Robin Friday was one of those characters that only crop up in football only once or twice in a lifetime. Anyone who saw him play for Hayes, Reading or Cardiff will tell you he was wild and unpredictable on and off the field, yet with a footballing talent that surpassed anything any of us had ever seen.”

And it was an Irishman who can take plenty of credit for a substantial portion of what he achieved in football. Charlie Hurley, the Sunderland legend and former Irish international, was managing Reading when he plucked Friday from non-league obscurity.

The Cork-born manager first came across Friday when Reading played his team, Hayes, in an FA Cup tie. From there, he embarked on a few scouting trips, which served to confirm the young player’s significant talent.

“[Hurley] used to go down to Hayes and stand with the fans,” Hewitt explains. “It’s an old technique scouts would use. ‘Who’s that player? What’s he like?’ So he got a good sense of him, because at Hayes, they loved Robin, because he was so skilful, entertaining and all the rest of it.

“I did meet a Hayes fan who didn’t like him. I asked ‘why’. He said: ‘Because he’d get the ball, beat three players, the centre forward’s standing with an open goal, then he’d go back and beat the three players again.

“Charlie then signed him and he has him in the reserves for a month and he sees all his talent and skill. He also knows outside of that, he was a firecracker.

“So he’s down the pubs and he’s carousing with women and getting up to all sorts. Charlie knows that Reading are bottom of the fourth division and they need a player of his calibre.

“One thing about Robin, apart from his skill, was his passion and determination to win games. He said ‘I’m a warrior’ and Charlie needed that.

By the time he put him in for his debut, which was against Northampton, Charlie sat him down and said ‘you’re in on Saturday’. Robin says: ‘That’s great boss, I tell you what — I won’t drink, I won’t get in any fights and I won’t go with any women between now and the game.’ Charlie says: ‘Mate, you can lie to me once, but not three times.’ That, I think, summed up their relationship. Charlie knew what he was doing outside of it. He also knew that as long as it wasn’t affecting what he was doing on the pitch, then he was happy to turn a blind eye to it.

“Tommy Youlden was the club captain and the complete antithesis of Robin. On matchdays, he’d go for an hour-long walk just to get his muscles ready, all that kind of stuff.

“Tommy had his wallet nicked one week from the dressing room. So they get all the players in the dressing room and they say: ‘He’s had his wallet nicked.’ And Charlie Hurley says to Robin: ‘Did you steal it?’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘Well, that’s good enough for me.’

“They all said: ‘Well it probably was Robin.’ He said: ‘The most honest man in this room is Robin Friday. If he says he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.’ So that gives you an idea of their relationship. I think it was very much a father-son one as well.”

sunderland-v-hull-city-premier-league-stadium-of-light Charlie Hurley, the former Ireland international, brought Friday to Reading. Source: Owen Humphreys

Friday’s lax attitude, which saw him routinely skip training, infuriated many of his team-mates.

A couple of months after he joined Reading, a number of players met with Hurley to express their disapproval of such behaviour.

“They’d say: ‘It’s not fair. We do all this training and he’s not doing anything.’ Charlie Hurley said: ‘Fine, I’ll drop him, which probably means you’re going to lose games, which means you’re going to lose your win bonuses.’ And they went: ‘No, no, we’ll keep him in.’ And they dropped all the complaints.

“The thing about Robin was, he was a very honest man. He never bullshitted anybody. He was very upfront about what he was up to. It wasn’t like he was trying to hide it.

It wasn’t like he was sneaking off here or there. If people are like that, you get a respect for them, especially when you get promoted. And without Robin, they wouldn’t have got promoted. They had some good players, but it was Robin who pushed them over the line without a doubt.”

Hewitt believes Friday’s individualistic tendencies had been accentuated by a childhood that was often turbulent and at times traumatic. His talent for football was apparent early on and while he had short stints as a youngster at QPR, Crystal Palace and Chelsea, all three clubs quickly lost patience in attempting to curb his excesses.

Jobs as a plasterer, window cleaner and van driver followed, though he didn’t last long in any of these less-than-glamorous occupations. Even his father admitted: “He didn’t care.”

And at 16, after being caught stealing on multiple occasions, he was sent to Feltham Borstal — a detention centre for young offenders — and spent 14 months there. 

Returning to Acton upon his release, Friday had a baby daughter, Nicola, with girlfriend Maxine Doughan. The interracial romance caused controversy and even led to a physical attack. Nevertheless, the pair married at 17, with Friday’s father Alf refusing to attend the wedding. It would be the first of three marriages and did little to alleviate Friday’s hedonistic philosophy, as he continued to drink heavily and sleep with other women.

Three years later, there was an incident that only served to strengthen Friday’s determination to live every hour as if it were his last. While earning £30 a week for Hayes, he was also working part-time. One day, while working on a roof in Lambeth, he fell and landed on a large spike, which went through his buttocks and narrowly missed his lung.

In that moment, Friday was literally inches away from death. Remarkably though, within three months, he had recovered sufficiently to the point where he could return to football.

“I think that incident persuaded him that life is so random, you might as well go out and enjoy yourself,” says Hewitt. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”

A later conversation with former Reading boss Maurice Evans neatly encapsulates Friday’s subsequent mindset.

soccer-reading-football-club-photocall-elm-park Maurice Evans, the former Reading boss, was among the many people in football who failed to persuade Friday to knuckle down. Source: PA

Beguiled by Friday’s talent, Evans sat him down and suggested he could captain England one day so long as he knuckled down and cut out the bad habits off the field.

Friday responded by asking Evans what age he was and when the coach divulged this information, the youngster said: “I’m half your age and I’ve lived twice your life.”

“Football was really important to Robin, but life was as well,” Hewitt explains. “So devoting himself to [football] was never going to be an option really.

“One of the things his brother Tony told me is that on the estate he grew up in in Acton, you either had a giggle, or you died.

“It didn’t matter if he was playing for England, Reading or the pub side, he would always be the same character. He wouldn’t change, because that’s who he was as a person. That Shakespeare quote: ‘To thine own self be true.’ That’s what he did. He enjoyed winning, he enjoyed drinking, he enjoyed drugs. He enjoyed that side of it, but he also loved playing football.

“The problem he had was that when you’re 22, you can do that. But by the time he got them promoted in ’76, his drug use had increased. When he came back after the promotion season, he’d lost a yard of pace. He was never the quickest player. His speed of thought was brilliant, but in a one-on-one race, you’d probably beat him.

“So he couldn’t sustain the two things [football and partying].”

The out-of-control drug use was one of a number of issues that prompted Friday to walk out of Cardiff City and leave football behind at 25 — an age when most stars are only approaching their peak.

He was getting no protection from referees, referees hated him. In the ’70s, if you had long hair, you were frowned upon. A lot of these referees were these sort of army boys. Robin thought you should be equal, it should be a level playing field, so that really pissed him off.

“The thing about Charlie Hurley was he let him do whatever he wanted on the field. Charlie’s philosophy was: ‘Give the ball to him. Things will happen.’ Jimmy Andrews, the Cardiff manager, was a tactician and he didn’t like freewheeling spirits. 

“So when Robin went to Cardiff, he played 25 games, but probably only played well in about three of them, because there is no system that could accommodate him. So he got disillusioned at Cardiff, his drug use had increased and he was getting kicked all over the place. He just walked out, he wasn’t enjoying it. It just wasn’t for him. And so, that’s why he retired. He played a game against Brighton. Got sent off [for kicking Mark Lawrenson in the face]. And went home. That was it.

“Then he went back on the building site with his brother for the next 10 years.”

After the Cardiff departure, Evans, the then-Reading boss, was presented with a petition, signed by 3,000 of the club’s fans, requesting that Friday be re-signed, but the move never materialised. Friday spent the 1978-79 pre-season training with Brentford, but left the club abruptly just as he was nearing full fitness and would never return to football thereafter.

“Without Charlie, he was adrift really,” Hewitt explains. “It’s such a shame, because if he stayed with Charlie, he could have achieved a lot. He just burnt himself out. And everything conspired to make him think: ‘Sod this, I’m leaving.’

“The drug use was part of it, but also the way football was going. It was very symbolic. In the season he walked out, the next season, Liverpool started advertising on their football shirts, which laid the seeds for where football is at now with the money coming in, the advertising, the TV rights and all the rest of it.

“If it were right now, he wouldn’t get within 200 yards of a club. No one would have him. Now, if you come back from holiday a pound overweight, you get fined. He’d only come into training on a Thursday. He’d been banned from the local pub 10 times. Even if you’ve got the skill of Lionel Messi, people aren’t going to deal with it, the game has changed so much. So it was a combination of things that conspired against him. But that 75-76 season, he shone like a fucking star. He was doing what he wanted to do, and he could do it.”

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After his third marriage ended in 1983, Friday briefly lived with his parents, before moving to a nearby housing association flat. Prison time would follow as he was punished for confiscating drugs and impersonating a police officer, before his life sadly came to an end at the age of 38. On 22 December 1990, his brother found him dead in his flat. He had suffered a heart attack caused by a suspected heroin overdose.

“When he died, at his funeral, there were 600-700 mourners. So he obviously had a huge effect on people. Even Tommy Youlden was there, and Tommy hated him. But Tommy said to me: ‘If I wanted one player with me when we were playing Northampton away on a cold December night, it was Robin Friday. Because he was a warrior, and he was a skilful player.’”

30 years on from his death, people’s fascination with Friday remains as strong as ever. In recent years, Hewitt has been helping to try to get a film made on the late star that he is optimistic will eventually see the light of day.

And perhaps, it is no coincidence that the surge of interest in Friday began in the mid-90s, when the Premier League was getting off the ground, the sport was becoming increasingly commercialised and footballing mavericks were a dying breed.

“They call it the beautiful game and he helped make it beautiful,” Hewitt concludes.

I’m absolutely sick of watching Match of the Day and someone like Harry Kane has scored a wonder goal. He’s interviewed afterwards, and he goes: ‘Yeah, it was a good goal, but the important thing was we got three points for the team.’

“With Robin, there’s that great quote — he scored a goal against Tranmere Rovers, which most people would say was unbelievable. There were no TV cameras to capture it, but the ball comes over, he’s got his back to goal, he’s 35 yards out, he controls it on his chest and then he volleys it without turning. The ball flew into the net. The referee that night was Clive Thomas. Clive went up to him afterwards. He said: ‘I’ve refereed games with Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best, but that is the best goal I’ve ever seen.’ Robin’s reply? ‘Well, you should come down here more often then.’” 

The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story by Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt is published by Mainstream Sport. More info here.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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