REVIEWED BY ROBERT NIBLOCK – @wackyj67
In the world of British football circa late sixties/early seventies much has been written about the exploits of the so called misfits or nearly men. The wasted talents—the scoundrels—the cheeky chappies. Think Stanley Bowles, Charlie George, Tony Currie and Frank Worthington. Fantastic talents each and every one, with baggage to spare. Which accounts for the meagre amount of international caps they garnered between them.
Fast forward to the more modern era, to the infamous Gazza – he of the flute mimicking pose – of his many off field exploits, his treatment for depression and his OCD condition. His relationship with Jimmy Five Bellies or erstwhile spats with wives and girlfriends. All this marks him down as a rebellious soul who never achieved what he should have. His oft reported misdemeanours made sure of that.
Or, more recently, Luis Suarez—he of supreme talent but sadly an overshadowing cannibalistic trait. So who was Robin Friday? He combined all of the above. And more.
Which makes this biography mesmerising. Written by the unlikely combination of a music journo, Paolo Hewitt and a rock star—Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan—he of Oasis fame, much of the book is formed around old newspaper articles of the time. However, there are many anecdotal stories from former players and colleagues that enhance the telling. In simple terms Friday could have been described as a wide boy or as we like to say in Northern Ireland, ”a bit of a header”. He had a unique gift. And wasted it.
Born in Acton, West London in the early 1950’s Friday – who had a twin brother – had a prodigious talent for soccer from an early age, but an equally remarkable talent for seeking out trouble. By his mid-teens, not only was he being scouted by every London club at the time, he was never far away from the clutches of the law. In 1967, as a Chelsea Youth, he accompanied the full team—under the tutelage of Tommy Docherty—who lost to Tottenham in the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Within months, though, he was serving the first of a string of custodial sentences at a local borstal, this time for a theft offence. He served fourteen months. By all accounts, as is well illustrated throughout, Robin was a fairly ‘light-fingered’ chap.
Friday gives the fingers to Miljia Aleksic after rounding him to score.
Upon his release he immersed himself in the local amateur game, mainly around the Isthmian league which drew on teams from the southern regions of England. Mostly he played for Walthamstow and Hayes while working as an apprentice plasterer and earned around a tenner for his efforts. At this time—when he was only seventeen he was involved with a relationship with a local black girl—which caused great consternation to both families. They married at 17 and had a baby daughter, but the relationship was short lived. Again there was interest from Football League clubs but the belief was that he was too much of a loose cannon for many to take a chance on. Reading was the club who took the chance. They were then managed at the time by ex-Irish International and Sunderland stalwart Charley Hurley.
Hurley had a reputation of being able to control the rowdy, wayward types but even he found it difficult to keep Robin on a tight leash. Over the next couple of years—indeed his professional career only spanned four paltry years ending when he retired aged 25 in 1977—he would become a cult legend at both Elm Park and latterly Cardiff—the only other team that had the balls to take him on.
Within the book there is virtually a story on every page—either of his antics on the pitch—or of his many transgressions off it. Some are hilarious, others tell of his extraordinary skill. Clive Thomas, the referee who would go on to officiate in the World Cup Finals, claims he witnessed Friday score the greatest goal ever scored. Team mates tell of his amazing skills and of impossible feats. We read of the scrapes, the fights, the weird and funny situations, but ultimately cannot give way to the feeling that here was a talent that was totally wasted.
Friday had a reputation from an early age; one he worked hard at nurturing over his short life span. He would die from a heart attack in 1990 aged only 38.
You don’t get voted the biggest cult football hero without having the credentials to back the claims up. Here, Friday didn’t disappoint.
*Sent off 7 times during his amateur days in the Isthmian League *Played his whole career refusing to wear shin pads
*Travelled by train to sign for Cardiff on a platform ticket—he was arrested and bailed out by the Cardiff manager
*Barred ten times from his local – The Boars Head in Reading *Had tattooed knuckles and was a member of a hippy commune when he played
*Was an habitual drug user and a heavy drinker—cannabis and LSD being his preferred narcotics and Colt 45 his tipple
*He didn’t shower after games…he just threw his clothes into a carrier bag and left with his bottle of dry Martini in hand *Perfected his own dance—The Elephant—which consisted of him turning his trouser pockets inside out and dancing on tables with his manhood exposed
*Brought a live swan into a bar on a team night out *Was married—his second one—wearing a leopard print suit and snake skin shoes
*This was the same wedding that was televised by Southern Television—the bride and groom smoked joints in the wedding photos—the reception with over 200 people descended into a full scale fracas and many of the couple’s wedding presents were stolen, including a huge bag of cannabis
*Kicked a young Mark Lawernson in the face during a game against Brighton because Lawro was marking him too closely…he was sent off and left the Goldstone Ground before the game finished…but not before breaking into the Brighton dressing room and shitting in Lawrensons kit bag
*Long before the Jones/Gascoigne ball squeeze, Friday was an habitual testicle attacker
Yes, this is truly the stuff legends are made off. Friday is regularly voted the best Reading player of all time. He has topped numerous polls as football’s greatest rebel. Virtually every manager he played under rated him good enough to be an England International. Reading and Cardiff games were regularly monitored by leading English club managers but alas none had the pluck to sign him. In an age when we are festooned with overrated, pampered, overpaid prima donnas on the football stage The Greatest Player You Never Saw is a worthy read and an incredible homage to a true cult footballer.
The Greatest Player You Never Saw – The Robin Friday Story by Paolo Hewitt and Paul McGuigan is available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon HERE