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The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)

Excellent premise, execrable execution. That’s how you could sum up this book. I thought it would be a proper biography, but it turned out to be a collection of newspaper clippings and extracts from interviews with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Robin Friday, the legendarily skilful and anarchic footballer who dazzled fans of Reading and Cardiff City before dying of drink, drugs and debauchery at the age of 38.

And yes, that’s right: 38. If you’re not that age now, you soon will be. If you’re older, you won’t have lived half Friday’s life. Or so he would have told you. Like Kurt Cobain, he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. But if he’d used the fuel of his talent more carefully, could he have been one of the all-time greats? Possibly, but it’s much easier to look good when you’re surrounded by mediocre players. Friday looked good at Reading, then at Cardiff City, but neither Reading nor Cardiff was a big club with the best players.

Then again, the most skilful and successful players today would find it difficult to cope with the tackling and physical intimidation of Friday’s day. Hard-man defenders dished it out to Friday and he dished it right back. He never wore shin-pads and often came off the pitch bruised, battered and bleeding. Or concussed after an elbow in the head. But he could come back from a pub or night-club in the same way, because he enjoyed fighting and exercising his will to win. He liked life the way he liked his music: loud. He was a heavy-metal fan and brought the blood-and-thunder of his records to his football. That’s why he had a bad disciplinary record, as you can see sports-reporters lament again and again in the clippings. Presenting Friday’s life like that has its appeal. The book mixes pop-charts and snippets of world-news in with the reports about Friday and other cult-players, so you almost feel as though you’re back in the 1970s, following Reading’s push for promotion in the local paper or watching Cardiff try and fail to turn Friday into a star. But why couldn’t the book have had both clippings and a proper narrative?

Well, Paul McGuigan was a member of Oasis and had an image of lumpen stupidity to maintain. Write a proper book? Fook off. And he wouldn’t have wanted to put his name to a proper book that some other cunt had written. At least, that’s how I like to see it, being a dedicated Oasisophobe. But there is room to appreciate beauty and the transcendent even in the soul of a member of Oasis. Men like Paul McGuigan undoubtedly like Friday’s toughness and thuggish side, but it’s not the thugs and bullies of football who become the true legends. George Best was far too small and delicate to be a thug. It was his skill that made him a legend. His drinking and womanizing were only the icing on the cake.

Friday wasn’t at Best’s level, but he could have matched or surpassed other ’70s legends like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, with their silky skills and their balls of steel. And ’70s nostalgia is now a large part of what has made Friday a cult-figure. Men were men and football was football in those days. Or football was thuggery enlivened with skill.

You get some impression of the 1970s from the unrelieved stream of clippings and personal anecdotes, but this book could have been so much better. Irvine Welsh gives it the kiss of death in his banal introduction: “Yeah, perhaps not a lot of us did get the chance to see Robin Friday play, but those that did are just that wee bit more enriched as a result. And that’s what it’s all about.” No, it’s about much more than that and you get glimpses here of a might-have-been-great from a vanished culture.

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