This feature is part of The Fleeting Fraternity
As defining moments go, having a spike pierce your backside is one of the less edifying. As the carefree long-haired 20-year-old fell off the roof, the offending piece of protruding metal penetrated him within two centimetres of his left lung and his heart. He had been asphalting a building in south-west London to make ends meet when he slipped to a near-fatal end, but within three months was back in rude health, utterly dumfounding the doctors and surgeons that had treated him.
To come so close to death at such a young age would terrify most people, but not this man; for he was not only a manual labourer but one of the most gifted artists in any medium. This was a man who kissed a policeman, danced stark naked in a nightclub, got married at 16, retired at 25 and died at 38. This was a man who inspired literature, film and music. This was Robin Friday.
It is inconceivable that someone of such awe-inspiring talent could pass under the radar in today’s game, when videos of nine-year-old wunderkinds go viral within minutes, but Friday wouldn’t care. As his twin brother Tony revealed in the incredible tale of his life, The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw co-authored by former Oasis bass player Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt, there were two choices on their estate in Acton; “have a giggle, or die”. Friday certainly had a few giggles, if the word is enough to faithfully portray the phenomenal journey that his short life took, but his stage upon which he enthralled thousands deserves to set the scene.
Born in 1952 to Alf and Sheila Friday when his parents were only 21, Robin and Tony used to play with some of the first valve-inflated balls in the park as youngsters, but it became quite clear that Robin had a prodigious touch. It was Tony who first made the school team at Rothchild Infant School, but he was soon joined by his slightly older twin at the age of 10, and they both represented the district age group side alongside Tottenham Hotspurs legend Steve Perryman. Robin could flick an orange and balance it on the nape of his neck by this age, showing an impetuous virtuosity that would go on to become his trademark. When Alf, Tony and he went for their kickabouts on Acton Green, Robin would thrive on being in goal, using his incredible reflexes to fling himself about.
At the age of 13, he joined Crystal Palace Sports Club (unrelated to the current Premier League side), and went on to continue his footballing education at Chelsea, QPR and Reading. On paper his youth career looks promising; his maternal grandfather had appeared for Brentford before the war, so athleticism was in his blood, but his childhood was interspersed with a wild life off the training pitches. Although he displayed a serious aptitude for other sports, in particular cricket – “I’ll tell you, he was a bit tasty, I reckon he could have made it as a bowler,” said Alf – he got in trouble for incidents of petty crime and underage drinking.
Having left school at 15, where he had expressed himself with an effortless drawing ability, he started taking speed and methadone as he frequented the Roundhouse to watch ska and rock music. Tommy Docherty had decided against keeping him on at Chelsea, and it looked like his nascent career was about to disappear. A year later, he was sent to borstal for robbing a toyshop and impersonating a police officer with a child’s helmet. It was a tough 14 months, where the teenage boy had to survive alongside drug addicts at Feltham Prison, but he had one saving grace – his football. There was a team run for inmates, who were allowed to play under heavily supervised visits to local side, and it was while incarcerated there that he was invited to train with Reading where his future career would blossom.
After filling out and bursting with confidence, he had begun playing with men despite an unspectacular frame. However, his spell at Reading was cut short when he moved home to live with his black girlfriend Maxine; ever the one to buck the trend, Friday had chosen to set up a home at 16 with a girl of a different race at a time when “the guys round South Acton wanted them all back home,” as his father said. Although it wasn’t a case of choosing for Friday: it just didn’t come into his conscience that her skin colour should be of consequence at all. They married and had a child soon after. Not that this stopped the renegade from following his carnal instincts; by this stage, his other career as a successful womanizer was well and truly underway, and he had no intention of retiring.
It was through work that he got back into the game. He had picked all manner of odd jobs for some cash but was particularly drawn to plastering and asphalting, and when a friend took him down to Walthamstow Avenue, he started training with the team and took on a job nearby too. His weekly football salary was only £10, but the plastering paid him significantly more. He soon started scoring goals for fun in the Isthmian League, but after helping his side beat the more conveniently located Hayes, he was approached with an offer of £30 a week.
After a year and a half at his new club, he suffered his horrific accident. He was in surgery at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which was fortunately nearby to the Lambeth work site, for six hours after having removed himself from the spike, and it was feared he wouldn’t be able to regain his previous strength. He was strong though, much stronger than one would assume from a fleet-footed entertainer, and pulled himself through to return in plenty of time for the FA Cup first round against Bristol Rovers. After upsetting their league opponents, they were drawn against Reading in the next round, where he once again sparkled enough to catch the eye of his future mentor, Charlie Hurley.
Friday was the ultimate rockstar: good looking, talented, and someone who lived by his own rules
Hurley would be the one man to truly master Friday’s wild character, or at least to allow it to flourish. Author Roger Titford, who has followed Reading for over half a century, described the then-boss as a “get out of the trenches and at them kind of manager”.
“[He liked] Big strong boys, no fairies – pretty unsophisticated, really. It was his first job in management and his last. He wasn’t against playing attractive football but, frankly, I think he was a bit nervous about management. I think the best thing he did as a manager was find Robin, dare to play him and dare to keep him happy in the team. Whether Charlie had any control over his off the pitch activities, well, I shouldn’t think he did. As long as Robin was doing it for him off the pitch, Charlie couldn’t complain.”
Friday signed for £750 in January 1974 as an amateur but didn’t waste time asserting himself. In his early training sessions he threw himself about so aggressively, such was his boyish enthusiasm for the game in any format, that three senior pros were left hobbling off. While Hurley had to send him off from training five-a-side matches frequently, he was smitten by the pure, unadulterated joy that emanated through his mercurial striker’s style of play. He had planned to hold him back for a couple of months in the reserves, but after three games playing with “a bunch of poofs”, as Friday crudely assessed his new teammates, he could wait no longer, and called him into his office to tell him he was handing him his debut in the old Division Four.
“I’m thinking of giving you a game on Sunday against Northampton,” Hurley said to Friday. “Oh boss,” he gushed, “I’ll stay home, I won’t drink, I won’t fight.” “Robin, I don’t mind you lying to me, but not three times,” came the oft-quoted reply. And he was true to his word. Even if he didn’t mind, however, the other players wavered between frustration and incredulity as Friday proceeded to turn up late for training – or sometimes not at all – but would more often than not win games single-handedly at the weekend.
How could they begrudge him? At the time of his debut, Reading had gone on a terrible run of two wins in 14 matches and were in a rut creatively. It is hard to quantify exactly how great an effect an individual can have on a side without witnessing the skin-tingling collective anticipation that ripples through a live crowd the moment before a star receives the ball, but with Friday it safe to say he had a hugely magnetic effect on all around him. In the next game at Barnsley, after going two down, Friday scored his first goal for the club to help his side drag themselves back on level terms. Reading hadn’t won away for four months, and here was an amateur inspiring them to break the barren run. “I was thinking of chesting it down and backheeling it in, but I thought I’d better not muck about,” came the cheeky post-match comment from the man himself.
There was no question – the fans shared Hurley’s allowances for his excesses. The 1970s was still a time when fans and players had a lot of contact; Friday would never have demanded a huge loyalty bonus or built a tasteless gated mansion, but he would frequent the local nightclubs and pubs. He was even barred ten times – ten! – from one local pub. The fact that he was barred that many times shows how in the end, even after being censured for his actions, he had a charm that made people forgive him his sins.
There was a strange juxtaposition to his rock star status – whereas many in the spotlight would suffer from the torment of inner demons, and would suffer wild mood swings, this never came across with Friday. Around this time, George Best was embarking on his bizarre post-Manchester United tour of the world in South Africa, which took the Northern Irish star to four continents but with frequent unexplained disappearances. Many have sought to draw comparisons between the two, and there are undoubtedly some, such as their talent with a ball and for attracting the ladies, but as people they differed greatly.
At the end of his first season at Reading, the players went their various ways on holiday, and reported back for training a few weeks later, but Friday was nowhere to be seen. The day before a behind-closed-doors friendly against Watford – an appropriate opponent for the rock and roll Friday, whose new director Elton John had put on a fund-raising concert with Rod Stewart a couple of months earlier – a dishevelled figure strolled onto the training pitch with shaggy hair and a carrier bag holding some boots. Friday had spent the summer at a hippie commune in Cornwall and had tattoos covering his fingers, which had to be surgically removed, leaving him with a cast on his hand for a month.
Clearly any form of aerobic exercise other than fornication had been well off his agenda as Hurley and coach Maurice Evans feared their star had thrown it all away. The next day he dazzled their Division Three visitors to everyone’s dumfounded disbelief; with no pre-season whatsoever, he was running rings around professionals who has sweated out their summer excesses for over a month.
His approach to training and playing was anything but wasteful. Some would say it was reckless and irresponsible, but he was highly in tune with his own limits and requirements, and never shirked responsibility. If anything, his insistence on the highest levels of commitment caused friction with teammates, usually because his type of commitment was to playing the game, not to sweating through endless physical training sessions. Of course in the modern game with dieticians, sports nutritionists, whole medical teams and technology, the overall level of aerobic capacity of the average professional player is higher and the attention from media is greater, so Friday could not possibly have got by on such a low level of training. But as Hurley always said, he produced on a Saturday like clockwork, and that was what mattered to him.
Evans was more often than not the one tasked with getting him line on the rare occasion he turned up to training, and he explains the strange dichotomy of Friday’s unique approach. “You couldn’t teach him anything. He was undisciplined as a team player. You couldn’t work on anything to improve him; the only thing that I tried to do was improve his fitness and he obviously didn’t like that. Give him a ball and he loved it. But make him do some running and he hated it, detested it, thought it was was a terrible waste of time. So what we did was to get him involved in five-a-side. That’s what he loved.”
In matches, he used to take an almighty kicking on on a regular basis, but loathed the concept of accepting defeat by showing his opponents he was weakened by their challenge. His victory was to stay on his feet, socks rolled down to his ankles and shirt hanging out, as he glided through the mud past the hapless assailants, preferably with a nutmeg or shimmy to add extra ridicule. It was all about the show – and the fans lapped it up. This was the era of mavericks, when Stan Bowes, Frank Worthington, Rodney Marsh and Peter Osgood ruled supreme and were worshipped by the increasingly raucous and tribalistic crowds.
Read | The fleeting career but eternal brilliance of George Best
The ultimate rebel without a cause was, of course, George Best, even if his era had been a decade earlier. He would, however, tantalisingly miss three opportunities to face his lower league incarnation. Former Manchester United youth team product and current RTÉ pundit Eamon Dunphy, who would be a teammate of Friday’s at Reading, sees similarities between them. “George Best was one of his heroes. They had things in common. Both were beautiful, childlike, vulnerable and behind all the bravado, shy.”
The differences between the two were as stark as the similarities. The Northern Irishman’s slightly sad scamper from one far-flung, obscure contract to another was almost painful for fans to watch, but such was the purity of Friday’s vision of football, it is hard to imagine him embarking on the same gun-for-hire playing spree.
Evans tells a story that exemplifies the childlike nature Dunphy alludes to. When the former was in charge of the reserves he took them to play Crystal Palace, and Friday hitched a lift back to London because he had no money. Despite some understandable reluctance from his manager, the first team star convinced Hurley to allow him to play. “So anyway, out he goes. He hasn’t even cleaned his boots – they were absolutely caked in mud. The game started and Robin did two or three unbelievable things. Terry Vena was there at Palace and he leant over to us in the dugout and said, ‘Who the bloody hell is that?’ Robin was brilliant that day. Just playing in a game like that because he loved football. He really did. He loved it.”
The same summer that Friday returned from the Cornwall hippie commune, 1974, Manchester United were relegated to the Second Division where they proceeded to rampage through the season on a wave of powerfully hedonistic football that was matched in the stands and streets. ‘Tommy Doc’s Tartan Army’ became a potent symbol of rebellion, flair, and the darker side of football support – hooliganism. While their season ended in promotion, Reading missed out after their form faltered after Christmas, but Friday was starting to attract serious interest from the likes of Sheffield United and Arsenal. Bertie Mee had tracked his progress since his second game when he had still been an amateur, and personally watched him, but chose not to sign him for the Gunners.
After finishing his first full professional season as player of the year and top goalscorer with 20 in all competitions, Friday was well and truly established as the king of Elm Park. It seemed there was nothing he could do wrong, charming fans, media and friends alike. If he had a black mark, however, it was his discipline. When one thinks of the heavy-handed treatment he accepted from the opposition, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this came in the form of retaliation, but frustratingly he developed a habit of drawing yellow cards for persistent niggling and tripping of other players. This resulted in him being suspended with the season barely two months old, by which time he had already scored nine goals.
The following summer saw the arrival of Eamon Dunphy, who had been an Irish international teammate of Hurley’s. “He was adored by Irish fans, the media and the Blazers [the FAI selection committee],” Dunphy said of his new manager. “There was a touch of the movie star about him.” Dunphy had himself developed a reputation as a troublemaker after being appointed the PFA representative at Millwall, and Reading’s enigmatic manager had a specific role in mind for his countryman.
“One of Charlie’s suggestions when I signed was that I might try and keep Robin on the straight and narrow. ‘You’re a fucking rebel, he’s a fucking madman,’ Charlie told me. ‘You should get on well together.’ I liked Robin from day one. Everybody did. Everybody in the dressing room loved him because he was an amazing player, a centre-forward who scored and made goals. In our happy dressing room Robin was the outlaw. ” As it turned out, the pair would bond at the back of the team bus over a few beers and various illegal substances, but their meeting coincided with the most historic season for half a century of Reading Football Club.
The last time they had earned promotion was the year Queen Elizabeth II was born, 1926, and in recent years they had threatened intermittently to challenge that unwanted record. In the second match of the season away at Crewe the signs of the camaraderie in the squad were already evident. Having gone 3-1 down, they battled back to draw a six-goal thriller, and in the club bar afterwards club director Frank Waller commended the players for the character they had shown. Friday saw this as a golden opportunity to crack wise: “It’s like me, chairman, I showed a lot of character over the Forbury Gardens yesterday, in and out like a fiddler’s elbow.” The septuagenarian clearly missed the pun, but it showed the cheeky confidence of Friday in the presence of officials.
Friday and co. went about dismantling the 50-year hoodoo in style, as they embarked on a club record-breaking run of 13 consecutive home victories that ran from the opening weekend right into the new year. By this time he had been courted by Cardiff City, who were putting together an impressive run towards the promotion places in the division above, but the £60,000 offer was swiftly rebuffed by Reading. It is almost impossible to ascertain exactly how much interest there was in him, but what is known is that throughout that season representatives of West Brom, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Liverpool, Leeds, Preston and Coventry, all of whom were at a significantly higher level than his employers, came knocking.
A measly five wins away from home all season threatened to derail the party, and although they ended up 14 points behind eventual champions Lincoln City (in the days of two points for a win), a celebratory 3-1 win in the last game saw them finish third and earn their place in Division Three. The players were overjoyed, not just because of their success, but because it brought the prospect of improved contracts to the fore. Friday had never been overly concerned with the exact number of coins in his pocket, but he was a highly valuable commodity, and everyone knew it.
As it turns out, it was a different commodity that created the first fissures in the harmony at the club. A local farmer had promised the squad all the meat from a cow of their choosing as a reward for the efforts and even invited the players down to pick out the bull they wanted to be slaughtered. After the players returned from their holidays, they eagerly arrived at the stadium to collect their prize but were left bemused. What they found were carrier bags with lowest quality mince and boiling beef, with not a fillet, rump or sirloin to be seen.
When they cornered they ebullient manager on the subject, Hurley’s response revealed his true relationship with the board and players. Dunphy takes up the story: “When challenged, Charlie was dismissive. ‘It’s only a bag of beef, what’s all the fuss about?’ He smirked. He claimed not to know who got the roast, fillet and sirloin. We didn’t believe him. He didn’t get the significance of this shabby little stroke.
“In truth, we weren’t crazy about King Charlie, even before the beef had gone missing. Behind the smart suits and the movie-star looks, we thought he was a bluffer. Living proof that you could look like a manager, talk like a manager, walk like John Wayne – and still know fuck all about the game. While Charlie spouted generalisations about attitude, Maurice [Evans] understood the forensics of the game, how to identify what was going wrong. And know what to do to put it right. Maurice was the chef, Charlie the maître d’.”
When it came to contract negotiations, only Friday, Dunphy and Gordon Cumming were offered a raise of £5, and initially they held firm and refused to sign. Eventually Friday, Dunphy and John Murray were offered improved salaries, but when Dunphy questioned the raises for other members of the squad, Hurley threw him against the wall and place him on the free transfer list. The lack of cohesion was palpable, and eventually Friday placed a formal transfer request, citing the lack of ambition of the club.
Original Series | The Fleeting Fraternity
It doesn’t quite tell the whole story. He had returned from his usual summer of excess having lost his touch and sharpness a little, and Hurley noticed. The manager was feeling the stress of not enjoying the previous carefree atmosphere he had engendered in the dressing room, and as results wavered it came to a head in a match at home to Preston. After a shocking first-half performance, he was fuming. Having unleashed a torrent of expletive-ridden angst, he walked straight out of the stadium threatening to never come back, and although he officially quit in February 1977, Maurice Evans took charge on a more hands-on basis.
However disenchanted Friday had become with the furious Hurley, however uncultured the Irishman’s approach, the latter had still been the mentor to a man who was virtually unmanageable. It was clear the player was angling for a way out, and in December 1976 Jimmy Andrews submitted a bid of £30,000, which was begrudgingly accepted. Reading got rid of a man whose heart wasn’t in it, and Friday got a move to a higher level.
True to form, his arrival was less than dignified. After a heavy night of drinking in London he caught the train up to Cardiff to sign his new contract but had only bought a platform ticket, and so was arrested by the Transport Police before he was even officially a Cardiff player. Andrews picked him up personally, took him for the official signing, and a few days later, on New Year’s Day 1977, he made his debut.
What a debut it was. Facing the glamorous Fulham of Bobby Moore – George Best would have faced his alter ego, but was injured that day – Friday made a mockery of the step up in level by scoring twice and grabbing the World Cup-winning captain’s testicles. Andrews was euphoric, gushing forth with praise for his new star. “Oh Charlie,” he told Hurley on the phone after the game, “He was magnificent. He tore them inside out.” “But Jimmy, you’ve only had him for four days,” came the reply. “Ah, but he’s a real gem.” Hurley’s knowing reply was foreboding. “Give it a few months.”
He would go on to finish the season with a respectable seven goals, but one above all others stands out if only for the celebration. Luton goalkeeper Milija Aleksic had challenged Friday rather forcefully, to which the striker’s response we had been to ask why. Aleksic’s dismissal of Friday’s approach meant there was only one outcome: revenge. Moments later, Friday had scored, and as he wheeled away he stuck two fingers up at his beaten opponent. The image of this moment was captured and immortalized by local rock group The Super Furry Animals on the cover of their single The Man Don’t Give A Fuck – which contained more examples of the ‘f word’ than any other song.
Had he crossed the line? In simple terms, yes, but this was not a simple man. Andrews publically admonished him for his standards of decency, which set the tone for their relationship. Friday travelled back and forth from London a great deal, and once it almost caused him to miss a match against Charlton in early February. Although he did stumble through the doors 20 minutes before kick-off, he was fined for his tardiness, and the dye was well and truly cast.
There are two choices a manager could have taken when dealing with the maverick genius of Friday; correctly, by the book, trying to make him tow the line, or accommodating his quirks and corner-cutting to allow him to blossom. Andrews was very much from the first school of thought and never built the connection Friday cherished. Even teammates at Cardiff talk about how he would just disappear after games with a bottle of Martini by himself.
At the end of the season, he contracted dysentery and missed the first two months of the season. When he returned, he had lost two stone but was raring to go. His comeback was away to Brighton, where he faced Mark Lawrenson who hounded him throughout the match. Eventually, Friday snapped and kicked the future Liverpool defender in the face when he slid in to tackle the forward. A straight red card was inevitable, but his actions even later were typical of the man; he allegedly defecated in his opponent’s kitbag.
Once again, when an arm around his shoulder was the only way to keep him onside, what he got was more publically criticism from Andrews. “I am sick and tired of it,” the manager said. “We waited a long time for the player to get back into action. To be sent off in his first game back is as much as a man can take.” He wasn’t the only one who couldn’t take any more: a month later, after going AWOL from training, receiving fines and suspensions, he announced he was retiring from football.
How could a man of such incredible talent be lost to the game after less than five full seasons as a professional? Without question he couldn’t have existed in another time, and in one sense he was extremely fortunate to have come across a manager like Hurley who was willing to cut him some slack, so people should be grateful they got to see his magic at all. After retiring, he went back to London and worked on the roofs with his old asphalting colleagues, married his third wife, continued bedding a string of impressionable and lovestruck women, and was tragically found dead at 38 having collapsed with a heart attack.
This was in one sense a tragic waste of prodigious skill – countless contemporaries have said he could undoubtedly have played for his country if it was down to ability alone – but in a way, it was more fitting for his character to fit everything into a short lifespan. In a conversation with Maurice Evans, where the coach tried to persuade him to knuckle down to each a higher level, Friday responded, “But I’ve had a far better time than you’ve ever had in your life.” That could not be disputed, so in the eyes of the man himself, there was no tragedy in not playing in Division One or for England.
The tragedy lay in the inability of Robin Friday to find complete contentment. He had periods of extreme highs, he lived by his rules, but in doing so he was always eventually in a battle against society’s constraints. “I loved him,” Hurley once said. “You must understand that wherever he went he would have touched someone’s place, or club or house or whatever. He didn’t just sit there. He was full of life and he always liked a laugh – very crude humour. The lads who weren’t crude didn’t like it, but you can’t have it all. I’d tell everyone that: in life, you can’t have it all.”
Maybe Hurley is right, but you can bet that Friday was as close as anyone to having it all.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint