Robin Friday: The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw
Author Paolo Hewitt tells Barry Healy about a forgotten footballing great
Robin Friday played professional football for just three years. Henever played for England or in the top tier of English football but for those who saw him play in the ‘70s, he was one of greatest players to grace the earth. A tenacious competitor, his skill and vision were beyond compare. His goals for Reading are still considered amongst the best in English football. Former World Cup finals referee Clive Thomas, who witnessed Pele, Cryff and Best, claimed Friday’s goal against Tranmere Rovers in ’76 was the best goal he had ever seen.
Friday’s notoriety was for more than his footballing prowess; his rebelliousness, the red cards, his rock ‘n roll lifestyle, the mad-cap antics of kissing policemen as goal celebrations, kicking Mark Lawrenson in the face and famously flicking a ‘V’ sign to Luton goalkeeper, Milija Aleksic, after rounding him to score. Troubled, strong-minded and reckless, his life away from football was every bit as colourful and often chaotic. Tragically years of alcohol and drugs abuse took their toll and in 1990, he died aged 38.
Friday’s story remained largely unknown until Paolo Hewitt and former Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan penned his biography, The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw.
How did Friday’s remarkable tale remain hidden? Unlike the media circus which surrounds it today, Hewitt says “football coverage was very limited then” with highlights of five First Division games televised and newspapers only reported on players from Division One. That said, Hewitt still thinks it incredible that “up until this point [he and McGuigan wrote the book] Friday was a hero in Reading and Cardiff yet unheard of elsewhere. It’s interesting that this guy, a contemporary of George Best in a way, with a similar story could exist and nobody knew about him”. Some of the reports about Robin on the pitch were remarkable “week after week, he was doing the most amazing things and it’s just incredible that such an amazing footballer lived and nobody knew about him.”
Hewitt believes Friday’s character ensured his enduring appeal, describing him as, “a force of nature”, who “was so unique on the pitch”. Between thespectacular goals and his on and off-field antics of “kissing defenders, grabbing Bobby Moore’s bollocks and kissing policemen” all cemented his allure, “especially now as football is so disciplined. Robin couldn’t play today. No club would touch him”.
Especially now as football is so disciplined. Robin couldn’t play today. No club would touch him.
The loss of figures like Friday in modern football is to its detriment, something Hewitt agrees with “We all love football. It’s fantastic to watch. It’s an incredible sport now but those characters, especially of the ‘70s, added another dimension which is now missing; the relationship between players and fans. Fans indentified with Robin. They wanted to be Robin and after the game they could walk into a pub and there was Robin. These days it feels like there’s some planet called ‘Planet Premiership’ and where players beam down into our lives and play, before beaming back. It’s very telling that the season Robin left football was the season Hitachi began advertising on Liverpool shirts. It was a real marking of an era, an end of an era as it were.”
Work is currently progressing on a film about Friday’s story. The script is co-written by Hewitt and Julian Stone and it is hoped shooting will begin this year, with a view to a release in 2015. The aim is to sidestep the whole sports movie says Hewitt. It “isn’t really about him as a footballer, it’s about him as a spirit, this force of nature who kind of lived in the present the whole time. He didn’t live in the past or the future. It’s interesting to see how someone lives that way. Robin lived life to the full and one of the things that happens is, we all kind of precariously live through him and I think a lot of people would have loved to have done what he did, but never had the balls to.”
Robin Friday’s spirit is probably best summarised by a conversation with Reading coach Maurice Evans who asked him “What age are you son? If you could just settle down for a few years, you could play for England”. Friday replied “What age are you? I’m half your age but I’ve lived twice the life you have!”