Robin Friday: The football maverick that lived fast and died young

Robin Friday

Two parallels, both alike in dignity, in the 70s, where we lay our scene, from the adage of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, to breathtaking highlight reel football, where the term ‘maverick’ was epitomised and ultimately led us down the precarious life of the greatest footballer you never saw play.

Of course, the parallels we’re talking about are the blurred lines between the cultures of football and rock’n’roll in a period that abridged much of the chauvinism seen in modern-day society. In rock, as in football, the 1970s was a sanctuary for being different, partly thanks to the widespread access the world had to narcotics like cocaine and Quaaludes (which became notorious for their informal name ‘disco biscuits’), that permitted the coming together of people, no matter how they looked and acted.

Men rocked long hairstyles as they had seen on members of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; women wore tie-dye shirts, folk-embroidered Hungarian blouses, and frayed trousers, while children of the time paid a small fortune to buy and look after pet rocks – a strange childhood idiosyncrasy in an era that wasn’t ordinary itself.

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Ultimately, the 1970s was, for teenagers at least, a social utopia. As the old saying goes, ‘be true to yourself’ – in this instance, it was the perfect motherhood statement that emblematised a generation. And among the more bullish characters of the time, some personified coolness, and in football, it produced stories of athletes that lived a life more comparable to a pleasure-seeking rockstar whose life moved faster than light.

Among those we still hear stories about today are George Best, Stan Bowles, and Charlie George. But you will be hard-pushed to find a player with as many wild stories, who wasn’t in the eye of the public, as the flawed genius we explore in this article.

Coincidentally, his name dovetails with what we’d imagine being his favourite day of the week. Robin Friday was like no other individual that came before or after him, and he lived life to its fullest potential.

His tale was a helter-skelter of indecorum and non-conformity, and it’s truly unimaginable that his bohemian free spirit would last as long as it did back then in 2022.

He delivered absurd anecdotes on and off the pitch for his entire life.

Legend has it that his last significant act on it was to kick Mark Lawrenson square in the face. Of course, he was red carded, but the unique enigma that enveloped his craziness was far from over as the then-Cardiff striker, who was only two months from retirement at age 25, burst into the Brighton dressing room and defecated in the defender’s kitbag then leaving the stadium before the match had finished.

A little more than a decade after his retirement, Friday was found dead in his flat after a suspected heroin overdose.

He was 38.

Here is his story.

Early life

When deciphering what we class as ‘early life’, when it comes to Robin Friday, we must tread carefully. After all, it could be contended that all his life was young, both at heart and in age. But in this case, we mean his troubled upbringing.

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Born and raised with his twin brother Tony into a working-class family in Acton, west London, in the 1950s and 1960s, Robin was considered “the quiet one” in the family. This, of course, would change when Friday reached his teens and began his incessant dabbling with drugs.

Also, during his teenage years, he spent time in the youth teams of Crystal Palace, Queen’s Park Rangers and Chelsea, but none would take a chance on the problematic youngster.

While Friday struggled to kickstart his sporting dreams, he would put his foot down and accelerate through life off the pitch throughout his adolescence. He left school at 15 and worked as a plasterer, van driver and window cleaner before his misdemeanours – mainly thefts – led to 14 months in Feltham Borstal.

His dad’s assessment of his son was simple: “He didn’t care”.

He was right. But the figurative glares that Friday got from family and friends didn’t change the way he was, and soon enough, he found love in, although wrongly, a place that shrouded more light on his decisions that disappointed his family.

Shortly after his release from the borstal, Friday and his girlfriend Maxine Doughan had a baby daughter named Nicola. The couple faced aversion and even violence from those around them because of their interracial relationship. Back in the 70s, the older generation was still irresolute over people that weren’t the same race.

Yet again, it didn’t stop Friday from trudging his way through life at his own rate, on his own terms, and when the couple was just 17 years old, they got married.

Adding fuel to the fire in a life that became even more untamed

Over the next three years, while Friday was 17, 18, and 19, the dreams he had cultivated of becoming a footballer were starting to take shape. Starring for semi-professional sides Walthamstow Avenue, Hayes, and Enfield, the heavy-boozing forward was lighting up the Isthmian league, being a fan-favourite everywhere his boots touched the turf.

It was also during this time that the Englishman had his first narrow escape from death. In 1972, while trying to free a hoist rope on a scaffold, he fell and landed on a large spike, skewering himself through the behind. The spike also went through his stomach, barely avoiding a lung.

For most people, this would’ve changed the way they do things. Not for Robin Friday, though. Instead of teaching him a lesson, it encouraged the debauchee to seek more ways of causing havoc.

But first, his football dreams were about to become reality.

Reading FC come calling

Early scouting reports of a prodigious talent playing for a non-league club were usually disregarded when his age came up – most teams feared that, at 20, he was too old to start a professional career. That notion was about to change when Hayes drew Reading in an early round in the FA Cup.

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Charlie Hurley was manager of the Royals at the time and was trying to mastermind his way out of Division Four. Although Reading cruised to a 4-1 victory, he couldn’t ignore the talent Friday had, leading to his signing.

Hurley obviously hadn’t done a background check on Friday, but if he had, he might not have signed him. In one instance, during his time at Hayes, they were forced to start the game with ten men because Robin hadn’t finished down the pub.

He arrived late, and after quarrelling with the manager, he took to the pitch. By this point, Friday was far too intoxicated to even stand up. Needless to say, everything was forgiven when the centre forward went on to score the winner in a 1-0 result.

Nevertheless, he got his chance and took it by the scruff of the neck.

Within three months of dazzling football that was a defender’s nightmare, Friday was given a professional contract with the Royals. The supporters loved him for his immense trickery and breathtaking goals.

But as always, there were issues.

The birth of a maverick

In training, Friday – who never wore shinpads – was over-exuberant, to say the least. Reading historian David Downs recalled: “In his very first training session, they were playing a six-a-side game and Robin went around trying to kick as many of the established Reading players as he could. He must have put two or three out of the game. Hurley had to call him off.”

On the pitch, he was a handful, and off it, he was no more conservative in his actions. Friday spent his downtime chugging whiskey and getting barred from the town’s pubs and bars. One of the more upmarket nightclubs reportedly banned him for doing his ‘Elephant dance’, which involved turning the pockets of his jeans inside out (the ears) and poking his member through his flies (the trunk).

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According to one of his close friends, he obeyed Hurley’s orders not to drink 48 hours before matches by taking LSD and blaring heavy metal music into the early hours of the day. The club’s response was to move him into a flat above their elderly groundsman – if anything, it only led to heavier partying from Friday.

However, he was still the best thing since sliced bread when it came to the football he played in his first season. Friday won Player of the Year at Reading and fired the club to their first promotion in 50 years.

His ability on the ball to strike fear into any defence in the country attracted interest from managers like Bertie Mee and Bob Paisley. But just as the top teams in the world started turning their attention towards his mercurial talent, Friday’s misdemeanour worsened, disabling any chance of him moving up the ladder.

Upon the start of his second season, Friday joined up with the squad after spending his summer at a hippy commune in Cornwall. Neglecting to tell the club that he would be absent from pre-season openers, he was, indeed, choosing drugs and women over his playing time.

Remarkably, it didn’t impact how good he was on the pitch still. He started the season as he ended the last, in scintillating form. But the shenanigans during away trips were nothing short of erratic.

On the way back from one match, while the team bus stopped at a petrol station, Friday scaled a cemetery wall and stole stone angels from a grave, intending to place them next to the sleeping club chairman. Hurley reacted by telling Friday off. But, as you may have guessed, it just encouraged the maverick to invent new ways of being outrageous.

Another time, he walked into a hotel bar with a living swan tucked under his arm after finding it outside. On the same night, Friday was three sheets to the wind, walking around the hotel naked and throwing snooker balls and darts in the games room.

Towards the end of the 1974/75 season, he celebrated a last-minute winner against Rochdale by kissing a policeman behind the goal. Explaining his reason, Friday explained: “He looked so cold and fed up standing there that I decided to cheer him up a bit.” Much to his surprise, Friday later recalled that the policeman kissed him back.

He finished the season with 20 goals, picking up the Player of the Year award as he had done the previous campaign.

In the next adventure, his third as a professional footballer, he was even better, and his exciting play style endeared him to the Royals’ fanbase even more. Surprisingly, he hadn’t yet been assigned to a trademark goal celebration, but this year, he crowned each of his strikes by running a lap of the pitch every time.

And on March 31, 1976, against Tranmere Rovers, he scored his greatest-ever goal by converting a thundering acrobatic overhead kick into the top corner. The referee on the day was Clive Thomas, who told him it was the best goal he had ever seen, even better than Pele and Johan Cruyff. In Friday fashion, the striker responded: “Really? You should come down here more often. I do that every week.”

Pastures new

In the weeks that followed, Reading were promoted to the Third Division. Although not caring, it would end up being the beginning of the end for Friday, who would play his last season with the club that gave him the chance of stardom.

But first, he needed to live it up in the summer months. This time, days after a bitter contract dispute had been resolved, he married his second wife, Liza Deimel. It’s fair to say the wedding was unhinged.

A local TV station filmed the event with footage showing Friday rocking an open-necked tiger skin pattern shirt, brown velvet suit and snakeskin boots, sitting on top of the church, rolling a joint.

Liza has since described the wedding as “the most hilarious thing ever”, but it will forever be remembered as a celebration where guests drank industrial-sized containers amount of alcohol, took drugs and fought with each other. Amidst the chaos, the couple’s wedding presents, including a large haul of cannabis, were stolen.

Meanwhile, the club were starting to consider selling the striker for a small fee. In previous campaigns, football and rock’n’roll were perfectly balanced for Friday, who, despite the constant partying, was still able to keep match sharp. In his fourth and final season, patience had run out for the Londoner after he showed he was incapable of staying away from drugs.

In the final days of December 1976, Cardiff purchased his services for a mere £28,000, which saw Friday move to the Welsh capital reluctantly.

Cardiff City

The Bluebirds made a big deal about the fact they had acquired the finesse and style of Robin Friday for such a lowly fee, but little did they know what they had signed themselves up for. Upon his arrival in south Wales, Reading gave his suitors a warning that declared, “you’ll see”.

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It didn’t take long before his new manager Jimmy Andrews knew what they meant. In fact, when he had first stepped foot in his new hometown, trouble followed him on the same day.

His first action as a Cardiff City player was to be bailed from jail by a less than impressed Andrews, after he had been arrested at the train station for fare dodging. It was a memorable first day that set the wheel in motion for a rollercoaster of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.

Friday was still able to put in a shift on the pitch, but he would go missing for days and rock up at training, or even at matches, in a woeful state. On the night before his debut, he went on a pub crawl to test the waters of the Cardiff nightlife. In doing so, he ended up back at his house at five in the morning on the day of his match. By this time, he was happy to rest up before the three o’clock fixture, so he took a dozen bottles of beer with him to bed.

He then went out later in the day to score twice on his remarkable debut, all while being marked by a certain Bobby Moore.

Afterwards, the striker would indulge in another binge. Upon his return, he scored his most iconic Cardiff goal, where he beat four players and then rounded the keeper. On wheeling away in celebration, Friday gave the goalkeeper a two-fingered salute. The Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals dedicated their 1996 single ‘The Man Don’t Give A F****’ to Friday’s antics, using the image of his gesture as the cover.

The hellraiser’s time at Cardiff was ultimately made overcast by his growing dependence on drugs. The years of partying seemed to finally be catching up as Friday isolated himself.

One teammate, Paul Went, recalled: “He wouldn’t even bother to have a shower. He’d just get dressed, take his carrier bag with his dry martini, and he’d go – no explanation.”

And his high-octane football slowed down, too, as The Bluebirds were relegated to the Fourth Division and knocked out of the Welsh Cup final, losing 3-0 to Shrewsbury. In the hours that followed, staff and players were awoken to a drunken, naked Robin Friday standing on the hotel’s snooker table, launching balls around the room in delirium.

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His only notable contribution in the following season was his assault on Lawrenson, and soon enough, retirement ensued at the age of 25. The greatest you never saw only endured a career that lasted four seasons, but he became a spectacle wherever he went.

Life after football & his legacy

By 1978, he was back in Acton, living at his parent’s house and working as an asphalter. After retiring, Friday got married for the third time and spent a period behind bars for impersonating a police officer to confiscate drugs and use them for his own consumption.

Although he tried his best to live a somewhat normal life, Friday was never able to control his demons as he would go through two acrimonious divorces and lived in squalor until his untimely death in 1990 at the age of 38.

Nine years later, in 1999, Robin Friday was crowned Reading’s player of the millennium, despite only playing 121 games for the club. In 2004, the showman was also voted as Reading and Cardiff City’s ‘All-Time Cult Hero” in a BBC TV poll.

As always with athletes that get attributed with such praise, fans of the club would’ve perhaps expected to see a video of his best highlights on the pitch and a wealth of information regarding his mastery upon the news of his award. Instead, there was nothing. Friday lived a rock’n’roll lifestyle without footage ever being shed of his moments of madness because he never performed above Division Three, despite his potential to do so.

Piecing this story together was difficult. After all, his legacy only lives on through those who knew him personally. In a time when cameras were too busy focussing on other people, Robin Friday was the George Best and Stan Bowles of the lower league. Except, he was so much crazier.

To an extent, the story of Friday is a sad one. There was no doubt he could have become one of the very best in the sport he loved, but he chose a fast-paced lifestyle over it. Then again, it was his choice, and as far as we can tell, he was happy with what he had achieved in such a short time.

Reading coach Maurice Evans once told the forward, “What age are you son? If you could just knuckle down for a few years, you could play for England.” Friday’s reply was, “What age are you? I’m half your age, but I’ve lived twice the life you have!”

It is a moment in his life that defined his spirit.

And although we don’t condone his mischievous shenanigans, there is something, at least, that we can take away from the story of Robin Friday.

When we treat life with the same amount of awareness as our impermanence, we are able to tap into the best, most curious and open-minded parts of who we are as a person. And, in turn, we approach life more spontaneously, allowing ourselves to enjoy what we have in the here and the now.