He was the ultimate football maverick. He was the greatest you never saw.
In December 1990, Robin Friday died in his apartment after suffering a heart attack suspected to be caused by a heroin overdose. He was just 38.
Two decades later, both Reading and Cardiff City decreed Friday as their all-time cult hero – he only played twenty-one times for Cardiff. In his two full seasons at Reading, he was awarded consecutive Player of the Season awards while also finishing top scorer on each occasion.
Listen to Episode Two of Nostalgia Ultras: Robin Friday, The Greatest You Never Saw.
This is the same man who was sent for a short spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure for impersonating a police officer in order to confiscate drugs for his own personal use. This was the same centre-forward who showed up for one training session, naked, holding a swan he had just borrowed from the local lake.
There were mavericks like George Best and Paul Gascoigne, and then there was Robin Friday. He was the punk rock star of football.
Simply put, there is a reason that the Super Furry Animals dedicated their 1996 single The Man Don’t Give a Fuck to Friday.
His ability was immense from a young age and he was courted by Chelsea, who snapped the teen up promptly. However, the precocious talent had other hobbies as an adolescent, namely in the areas of illegal substances, the female of the species and petty crime. The latter activity actually landed the long-haired renegade a year-long stint in a borstal. Already, Friday’s football career appeared as though it would be ephemeral.
Upon his release, the youngster had to start all over on the pitch. He, of course, still found other ways to piss off the establishment.
At the tender age of 17, Friday married – tying the knot with a black girl. One has to remember that this was 1970s Britain and mixed-race partnerships were seriously taboo.
The relationship endured for years (despite Friday’s continual philandering) – much to the chagrin of the local community, including his parents – his father refused to attend the wedding. Then an event occurred which many of Friday’s researchers believe cemented his carefree attitude towards life for the remainder of his days.
At 21, while working on a building site, he had an extremely close call. Friday fell through an upturned spike and somehow managed to lift himself off to save his own life. From here on out, if he had not already, Friday was determined to enjoy every day he had on Earth.
In the meantime, his non-league journey burgeoned where he was tearing defences apart at London side Hayes courtesy of his sublime skills.
Reading, playing in the old English Fourth Division decided to take a punt on the outrageously talented troublemaker. Aware of his reputation, Royals’ boss Charlie Hurley signed him for the reserves to see how he coped.
By January 1974, the first team was struggling so Hurley called Friday into the senior set-up. Reading easily maintained their Football League status thanks to the mesmerizing ability of the young forward. To celebrate this achievement, Friday, on the drop of a hat, went off to join a hippie commune in the summer of ’74.
He missed the start of pre-season by weeks, nobody at the club knowing the location of their brilliant new number nine.
Eventually, he showed up for training and ran rings around his team-mates in his first session back, despite having ceased running at all over the previous number of months.
Yet, a little over two years later, Reading got rid of Friday. His constant drinking, partying and womanizing was proving too much to handle.
Before that decision was made, the striker had his best season in football when he was instrumental in guiding Reading to promotion in 1975/76. It would be in this season interval that Friday finally pushed it too far.
A summer-long jolly of sheer hedonism culminated in excessive drinking and drug-taking. When he wasn’t stoned, he was drunk, and vice-versa. He returned to Reading after the summer break a shadow of the player that graced the field just a couple of months prior. Reading knew they had to bring it to an end, not knowing how quickly this would occur. By December 1977, just twenty-one games after moving to Cardiff City, Friday retired from football.
He was 25.
His talent was hard to justify. He was regularly told that he was good enough to play for England if he focused, yet the highest level he ever played was the Second Division with Cardiff. That didn’t seem to bother Friday. It would all be too regimented at the top for this guy. In his eyes, he was living the life that every man wished he could enjoy.
While his ability often compensated for his antics, Friday’s Reading team-mates like Eamon Dunphy loved the maverick for other reasons.
Unlike your typical playmaker, Friday’s work ethic was second-to-none, defending from the front at all times. He was also fearless, foregoing the use of shin pads and bravely flying into tackles.
Then, of course, there was his ability again.
There was one match for Reading when he was at the peak of his form. Friday collected the ball on his chest in mid-air, thirty-five yards from the opposition goal, swivelled and struck it first time into the top corner.
According to those in attendance, there was a momentary stunned silence throughout the stadium. Clive Thomas, who had refereed in World Cups, officiated that day and simply said, “Even up against the likes of Pele and Cruyff, that rates as the best goal I have ever seen.”
When Cardiff boss Jimmy Andrews signed the player for a cut-price fee, he thought he had found a bargain.
He should have known better.
Friday could not have commenced his new career in Wales in more typical fashion. Upon arriving at the train station in Cardiff, he was arrested and had to be bailed by his new manager. Then the next night, the day before his debut, Friday went on an almighty bender – finally finishing the party at five the following morning; matchday.
Still intoxicated at kick-off time, his direct opponent in his first game was Fulham’s Bobby Moore – the living legend and England World Cup-winning captain.
Remarkably, Friday gave the nation’s hero a torrid time, introducing himself to his marker by grabbing his nether regions. Nobody did this to the most respected footballer in the land. Moore was livid and Friday destroyed him all game.
Scoring twice, he proved instrumental in Cardiff’s 3-0 victory. After the match, Andrews rang Charlie Hurley to gush about his new player. The Reading boss ominously responded, “Jimmy, you’ve only had him for four days, give him a few months.”
He was right.
After his bow, Friday essentially stopped caring. He didn’t like his new manager or location. Cardiff would go weeks at a time without seeing their supposed star man, with Friday’s nadir coming in a match against Brighton. This time his marker, a young Mark Lawrenson, got the better of the attacker.
With Friday becoming increasingly frustrated, he lashed out at Lawrence after a tackle – kicking him square in the face. Tired of being told what to do and fed up with the game, he played just one more match before walking out on football. For good.
Returning to work as a labourer in London, Reading fans, in their thousands, signed a petition to re-sign their favourite player. Under increasing pressure, the new Reading manager Maurice Evans contacted Friday with a stern approach in mind to convince the still 25-year-old to return to the game he once loved and the crowds he had wooed.
Evans: “If you would just settle down for three or four years, you could play for England.”
Friday: “How old are you?”
Friday (after Evans revealed his age): “I’m half your age and I’ve lived twice your life.”
That was that. For the next thirteen years, Friday lived life in the only manner he knew how. The outcome was inevitable.
The great shame in the Robin Friday story, from a pure football perspective, is that millions of people will never know how good he was because of the paucity of visual coverage. It is all word of mouth.
But perhaps it is this very occurrence which makes the whole tale all the more intriguing. There will always be that air of mystery surrounding this flamboyant fellow. If ever there was a time that a player like Friday could exist then it was the 1970s – the decade of the football maverick.
The mind wanders.
If modern day professional football was a nightclub then Friday would never gain entry. At least we can be thankful for the open-door policy granted to the flawed showmen of yesteryear. Undoubtedly, we will never see the likes of Mr. Friday again.