There’s been much talk this season and last regarding a certain Manchester City player, Mr Mario Balotelli. Many people recently, such as Garth Crooks on Football Focus, have claimed that the Italian is bringing City’s reputation into disrepute and the lack of professionalism he displays on occasion is a ‘disgrace’. There are others that see him, on the other hand, as breath of fresh air in the Premiership. Mario certainly divides opinion.
My personal view is more in line with the latter’s judgement. How can you dislike someone so original, so talented and so mad?
There are few real characters in modern day football anymore. Most of these, unlike Mario, find themselves trapped in the lower leagues with Premiership clubs unwilling to take a punt on them. Others, however, are so mad they struggle to make it into the Football League at all. Twitter mentalist Leon Knight would be one such example.
Nevertheless, this point is somewhat moot. There are far less ‘free spirits’ in football these days. Which brings me to the original basis for my article, to bring to your attention the ‘greatest player you never saw’, Robin Friday. Robin was born in Acton, west London in 1952 and would go on to be one of the most controversial players of his generation (putting today’s ‘characters’ to shame).
Having spent most of his childhood in a London borstal, Friday eventually started playing football for Isthmian League side Walthamstow and worked as a full time asphalter. After moving to Hayes, the team drew Reading where Friday was to get his big break. Although Hayes lost the reply with Reading 1 nil after a 0 – 0 draw manager Charlie Hurley was suitable impressed and offered Friday a contract the following season.
Once he broke into the first team Friday soon rose to be not only the best striker in the club but the best player. However, with his rise in success came a rise in outlandish behaviour. The Boars Head pub in Reading banned Friday on 10 separate occasions. On one night (after being kicked out the Head) he went to a local nightclub with friends called Churchill’s. When they entered Friday removed his coat, to his friend’s amazement he was wearing nothing underneath, and preceded to dance completely naked on the dance floor.
It was on away games where Friday’s behaviour really disintegrated. One away game he reacted to news that a team mate had brought a girl back to the team hotel by kicking the door down and he was later seen walking into the hotel bar with a swan under his arm.
In the 1975/76 season Robin was overwhelmingly popular with the Reading fans. Partly for his goal against Tranmere Rovers which Clive Thomas (the referee for the game) said was the best he’d ever seen. The Reading goal keeper past it out to the team’s right back Gary Peters, Peters pumped the ball long to Friday who controlled it on his chest on the edge of the Tranmere area and overhead kicked it onto the net. When Thomas congratulated Friday after the game he replied, “You should come down here more often, I do that every week”.
In 1977 Friday was to marry for the second time. Such was his celebrity status that it was broadcast live on TV. However it didn’t go as smoothly as the couple would have liked as nearing the end of the night (full of drinking and drug taking) the guest began to fight amongst themselves and stole the couple’s wedding presents.
This increasingly erratic behaviour was putting ever more stain on his relationship with his club. The straw that broke the camels back so to speak was during a 4 – 0 loss to Mansfield Friday was subbed off after a poor game. He was so angry that before he went for his early shower he broke into the Mansfield changing room and defecated in the opposition’s team bath.
Robin was transfer listed and eventually signed by Cardiff City. Fridays start to his career didn’t start to well however, he had to be bailed by club manager Andrews for travelling all the way from Reading only using a platform ticket. He also refused to live in Wales for his time at Cardiff, preferring to reside in Bristol, despite this he still quickly became a favourite with his new club.
Paul Went, Fridays new team mate, described how the player wouldn’t even bother showering after games, he’d just take his plastic bag full with bottles of dry Martini and leave without saying goodbye.
His greatest moment however came against Luton Town. After clashing with Luton keeper Aleksic, Robin offered his hand to which the keeper refused. Robin was so incensed when the free kick was pumped up the pitch he tackled the ball back in midfield, beat five players, rounded Aleksic and passed the ball into the empty net. To celebrate Friday walked past the keep kneeling on the floor and gave him two fingers.
However his time at Cardiff was nearly up. After missing much of the preseason and early games of the 1977/78 season he made his comeback at Brighton. After being marked out the game by Albion defender Lawrenson he was sent off in the second half for kicking said defender in the face. Legend has it that Friday broke into the Brighton changing room at the goldstone ground and defecated in Lawrenson’s kitbag, before leaving the ground not to be seen again for weeks.
Such was Fridays popularity that 3,000 Reading fans petitioned for the club to resign him. When called by the club Friday responded, “I’m half your age and I’ve lived twice your life”. Friday died at the age of just 38 but is remembered fondly by both Reading and Cardiff fans, and I think, rightly so.