Robin Friday – The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw
I recently wrote an article for the equaliser (great website at www.equaliserfootball.com) for their ‘My favourite footballer’ blog they are running at the moment on Robin Friday, a player that most people outside of Reading or Cardiff probably haven’t heard of. As I could only write a short piece I thought I would expand on my article in my own blog providing more information and reasoning as to why a player that played nearly a decade before I was born, and sadly passed away when I was only 5, is my favourite player of all time. Whilst scouring the internet for information I’ve come across many inaccurate ‘facts’ and ‘stories’ about Friday so I wanted to set some of them straight.
Robin Friday was probably Reading’s greatest ever player, voted as player of the millennium in 2004 despite only playing 3 full seasons for the royals and was also voted as Cardiff City’s all time cult hero ahead of more well known names such as John Toshack & Rob Earnshaw even though he only made 25 appearances for the bluebirds. These two awards, voted for by fans should be enough to make people realise he made a lasting impression but when you consider that a lot of the fans that voted, like me, probably never got to see Friday play it’s even more of an achievement. Sadly there isn’t much footage of him playing as the lower leagues (4th & 3rd division for Reading & 2nd for Cardiff) weren’t really covered by T.V at the time, although there is a few seconds of footage on you tube.
Robin & his twin brother Tony were born 3 minutes apart on 27th July 1952; both grew up as Everton fans and lived in South Acton for most of their early life playing football on Acton Green with Robin playing in goal. Both played at district level after impressing in Farraday School’s junior team and started playing in local pub teams with adults from the age of 14. Robin trained with QPR on Tuesdays & Thursdays before Robin’s father Alf wrote to Chelsea to ask if Robin could have a trial at which he was successful and was soon accepted by Chelsea young, but he was only there for a year before the manager, Tommy Docherty, said he wasn’t good enough and let him go. According to Tony it was because Robin was too much of his own player and would always try something different instead of playing the simple ball.
Robin’s drug habit started at an early age, first taking speed pills when he was 15 and a bit of methadone as well, Tony saying that Robin ‘wasn’t one to do things by half’ but denying that Robin was dependent on them from an early age and saying stories of Robin doing them before a game were ‘a load of bollocks’ although Robin did spend time in borstal when he was 16 he managed to stay out of serious trouble with the police for most of his early life, and when he left borstal he moved in with his girlfriend Maxine and married her when he was 17 having a daughter called Nicola at around the same time.
A friend of the family was playing at Walthamstow Avenue and Robin used to go down to training with him, after a while they could see that he was a good player and decided to get him playing for them. It wasn’t long before the team played Hayes and after the game the Hayes manager approached Robin, offered him more money and told him it would be closer to his home and Robin joined Hayes. It was also here that Robin started working with some of his team mates in asphalting and it was then, age 20, that Robin had his near death experience on a scaffold. Apparently a hoist rope was stuck so Robin jumped on the scaffold trying to loosen the rope and fell straight through, a metal spike shooting up his backside and piercing his stomach, missing his lungs by inches according to doctors. Those at the site said Robin pulled himself off the spike and managed to get to the nearby St. Thomas Hospital where they operated and managed to save his life., however this accident was to have an impact on him for the rest of his life, being attributed to his wild ways and flamboyant lifestyle along with his ‘live for the moment’ attitude.
Hayes beat Bristol Rovers in the F.A Cup and were drawn against Reading and it was here Charley Hurley, the manager of Reading, saw the player that he first knew would become something special as well as a handful. Charley had done his research and knew very well about Robin’s off the pitch lifestyle but he said he went down a couple of times speaking to Hayes fans and they said that as long as he did it on the pitch they didn’t care what he did off it. Hurley also took this view reasoning a 4th division team couldn’t be picky over ignoring a player this good for moral reasons and eventually, after some games for the reserves he signed him for £750, although Friday was reluctant to sign at first as he was earning more money in the building industry than he would earn as a professional footballer, however Charlie Hurley went round to his flat, spoke to him and his family and persuaded him to sign. Reading historian David Downs tells the story of Robins first training session where he ran around kicking as many established players as possible before Hurley told him to calm down otherwise he wouldn’t have a team left!
In his debut for Reading he didn’t score, one shot went just inches wide however he made a lasting impression on fans and teammates alike with some moments of skill and trickery. In his second game, a 3-2 loss to Barnsley in which Friday scored his first goal the home team sent on a defender as their sub which Charley Hurley said he found a little strange, after the match Friday told him that player had been sent on to ask him if he wanted to sign for them! 3 days later however he signed professional terms with Reading and eventually, after some persuading from Hurley, used the money to buy a flat in Reading so he could travel easily to training every day. In his home debut against Exeter the game was 1-1 when Robin beat four players and the shot from 18 yards before grabbing a second with a delicate low diving header leaving fans marvelling and his skill and wondering just how long Reading would be able to hold on to this star. A few games later Reading beat Doncaster 5-0 with David Downs seeing Friday do something he’d not seen a Reading player do before or since, hitting the ball on the outside of his foot and swerving it past the goalkeeper and in off the inside of the post and that was his 16th goal in just 5 games in a Reading shirt.
It wasn’t long in to his career though before Robin started spending his spare time in the pubs around Reading, at one point he was barred from the Crown in Caversham after jumping around from table to table with the landlord shouting at him that he was barred, eventually Robin was dancing on the bar before being persuaded to leave. A few months later he tried to come in to the same pub for a pint when the landlord said to him that he was still barred which Robin argued with furiously, eventually leaving the pub when it was clear he wasn’t getting a drink. Moments later however a window next to the bar popped open and Friday leant through shouting ‘fine, I don’t want to drink in your poxy pub anyway’ to which the landlord started laughing before letting him back in to the pub.
Robin finished the end of the ‘73/’74 season by playing the last 4 games with a cracked bone in his foot however still managed to score 2 goals but even with Fridays magic Reading missed out on promotion and started for the next season with Friday scoring and setting up goals like he was the season before and by September scouts were being sent from first and second division clubs to watch this new talent, Charlie Hurley revealing that he was approached by Sheffield United to take over them in the 1st division however he stuck to his word to stay at Reading until they got promoted and it wasn’t long until they were asking after Friday but Reading refused to sell and he didn’t want to move, feeling he owed Reading for giving him his chance, Arsenal also sent scouts down but were apparently put off by rumours of his off the field antics, however this gives you an impression of just how well known this player from the 4th division was becoming and just how much talent he had. It also wasn’t long until Fridays on the pitch disciplinary problems became apparent, picking up several bookings and finding himself in front of the F.A on a few occasions resulting in fine’s & ban’s and missing several games and in 1975 he became the first Reading player to be sent off for nearly 8 years but Friday loved playing so much though he would even put himself forward to play in reserve matches when they were short on numbers.
Despite liking a drink or two Robin wasn’t as heavy drinker as some people at the club, he’d drink a beer called colt 45 or southern comfort but he wouldn’t drink two days before a game however his real weak spot was drugs and he would do things like LSD or speed and smoke marijuana again though he wouldn’t do this the night before a match. John Murray, a player who joined Reading after beating up his manager at Burnley, used to give Robin a lift home from training and on Friday mornings he would give Robin a lift to a house and wait outside for him, half an hour later Robin would be back out and his whole weeks wages would be spent.
Reading again missed out on promotion but Robin Friday stayed at Reading for the following season and scored 4 goals in the first 5 games, and he was being described as a revelation, a wizard and a magician for the things he was doing on the pitch and there was a real buzz around Elm Park that Reading could finally get promoted if Friday kept playing like he did. Come December Reading were sat in the promotion places and looking good to go up, but this didn’t mean Friday behaved any differently, during an away trip he ended up kicking down a hotel room door to see what a girl a team mate had in his room looked like before vanishing for half an hour but was soon discovered in the bar area with a swan under his arms but he was soon persuaded to return the bird after threats of police were made.
It wasn’t long after this that Robin Friday scored a goal that’s been dubbed ‘the greatest goal you never saw’ against Tranmere Rovers. The ball was played up from midfield to Friday who is on the edge of the box on the left hand side and in one motion he controls the ball on his chest where it sits up for him and he volley’s it in to the top corner, turning through 180 degrees after he’d hit the ball so he had volleyed it over his shoulder, causing the attendance of 10,961 to fall in to a stunned silence. The referee that day was Clive Thomas who had been involved in games with people like Pele & Cruyff as well as refereeing in World Cup games yet when he saw this goal his immediate reaction was to put his hands up to his face with his mouth open in shock. After the game he went up to Friday and said ‘I have to tell you that is the best goal I’ve ever seen’ Friday, in typical fashion, just looked around and said ‘Really? You should come down here more often, I do that every week.’ Reading ended the season by getting promotion to the 3rd division with Friday ending the season on 22 goals and scoring the last goal in Reading’s final day win at Elm Park.
Sadly after this season the relationship between the club and Robin Friday went a bit sour, Robin wanted pay that he felt justified his worth to the club and he was also unhappy with what he perceived as a lack of ambition by the club. He did end up signing a new contract, around the same time he got married for a second time to Liza Deimel which it was hoped would help him settle down however this wasn’t the case and by October Charley Hurley knew something was up with Robin as players he should have been beating easily he was struggling to beat, and Hurley knew it was the drugs that Robin was now using more freely but worse was the fact the players knew. He’d become a problem with the other players who kept working & training at full throttle but Robin would only turn up when it suited him and by the end of October 1976 he was on the transfer list and this time there was no coming back from it as Charley Hurley & Assistant Maurice Evans had decided they could have Friday ‘running the club’ but still he kept playing. After Hurley took him off against Mansfield he ‘relieved’ himself in their bath but it wasn’t long after that before Cardiff City offered £30,000 to Reading for him and the board as well as Hurley decided enough was enough and accepted the offer, considerably less than the £100k they were turning down just over a year before. In one of his final conversations with Hurley as a Reading player Robin said that he knew he wasn’t the same player he was before and Hurley told him that, combined with his off the field problems that were affecting his football meant he had to go.
In typical Friday style he got arrested at Cardiff station for travelling with only a platform ticket before Cardiff officials got him released. He made his debut in 1977 and scored 2 goals against a Fulham team that had George Best & Bobby Moore in it, although Best withdrew at the last minute with injury fans soon got over the disappointment when Friday got going, scoring a lovely second goal from 15 yards out and running rings around Bobby Moore. If you’ve ever seen the incident where Vinnie Jones grabbed Paul Gascoigne by the family jewels and thought it was funny, well Friday had done the same thing years before to Bobby Moore and succeeded in causing the usually calm Moore to lose his cool and utter a four letter insult in Friday’s direction. It wasn’t long though until Cardiff manager Jimmy Andrews had to fine Friday for turning up late to a home game and soon after that Friday called Charlie Hurley asking to come back saying ‘I can’t play for that little bastard, you’re the only one I can play for, can I come back?’ Hurley said they couldn’t pay for him and if he could get a free transfer then fine but that would be the only way and that was the last time they spoke.
Not long after that Friday scored two goals against Luton, his second spawning an iconic picture that was used on the cover of the Super Furry Animals single 'The Man Don't Give A F***, as just after taking the ball around stranded keeper Milija Aleksic Robin flicked him a V-sign in revenge as just moments before this goal the referee had lecture Friday for an incident with the goalkeeper who Friday claimed had kicked him on the knee. That was his last appearance for the season and by the start of the next season Robin was totally off the rails, he’d gone AWOL from pre-season training and ended up in hospital in London with a mystery virus that caused him to lose nearly 2 stone (he claimed it was hepatitis but doctors said this wasn’t the case) and then turned up at training apparently looking like the fittest player in the world. However all was not right in Robin’s world and he made one more appearance for Cardiff, in a 4-0 loss at Brighton which he ended up getting sent off after kicking a certain Mark Lawrenson in the face. The kick was in relation for some tight marking and hefty challenges from Lawro but Friday lost it and after Lawro dived in and fouled Friday he saw red, in both his actions and the colour of the card. Still not happy Friday then went to the Cardiff dressing room and defecated in Lawrenson’s kit bag. This was the last time Friday played professional football, Jimmy Andrews lost his patience with the forward, fined him £1000 and transfer listed Friday before Friday announced he was quitting the game for good and with his second wife filling for divorce he moved back to London and worked as an asphalter and decorator. In his time at Cardiff he played 25 games and scored 8 goals but it’s at Reading he is most fondly remembered by fans, scoring 46 goals in 121 appearances and setting up countless more goals for team mates.
Robin Friday tragically died on 22nd December 1990 from a suspected heart attack in his flat in south Acton at the tragically young age of 38. His skills will never be forgotten in Reading & Cardiff and just reading about him makes me remember what it is about football that I love with his care free attitude and outstanding talent willing to try anything to win. If you’ve never read the book ‘The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw’ I strongly suggest you get hold of a copy because it is one of the most interesting football books you will ever read and shows just why Robin Friday should never be forgotten even though he never made it to the same level as George Best or Stan Bowles, so called ‘bad boy’s’ of their time whom Robin could put to shame in both behaviour & football skill.