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Football was punk with Robin Friday

The striker who didn’t give a fuck

He came before punk. Before the photo that shows Paul Simonon banging his bass against the stage, on the cover of “London Calling”. Before Sid Vicious burned himself out. Before anarchy arrived in the UK. Before the crested hair, he was there along with the hippies. His last name was a day of the week: Friday, the beginning of the party, the end of the working week. Hours to wile away in front of pints ordered in the pub, or in a club, chasing a night owl love. But his name, Robin, was that of a bird, the robin redbreast.

Just as he would fly away, free as a bird. Robin Friday: the Romans said that a name carried the person’s fate, that it was a prophecy, an omen. Judging from his life, it can’t be said that they were wrong. He had arrived after George Best, but he didn’t need cups, victories, an extravagant lifestyle, Miss Worlds, champagne, a destroyed liver and another chucked away, in order simply to be himself. He wasn’t interested in Wembley. He had stayed with Reading, in the Fourth Division, and there was no wider stage for his mastery of the game, but he didn’t really care.

He came from Acton, a neighborhood where hardship was the norm. He had grown up be- tween the ’50s and the ’60s, the fabulous sixties, but for Robin there weren’t the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Mary Quant’s miniskirt. No Strawberry Fields Forever, or Satisfaction. He had grown up with a mission: to get high. And so he did, between alcohol and drugs, a prison he came to know early on, but also a lot of football, the religion in which he washed away his sins, every damned Saturday.

His priesthood is an angry prophecy: “As a striker I take a lot of beatings, but I give them back. On the field I hate all my opponents. I don’t care about anything or anyone. People think I’m crazy, insane. I’m a winner,” he says, and it’s not an act, but a way of being. A hustler, but because he can’t be anything else. Subject to no rules, because Robin Friday is an exception and shuns commonplace patterns of thought. He was always like that. In years when racial prejudices were still a toler- ated normality, he married Maxine, a colored girl, and with her he had a daughter, Nicola.

There are rhetorical ramblings that describe him as the sixth Beatle (the fifth was Best, of course), but Friday had nothing to do with John Lennon or Paul McCartney. His fame was a niche cult, built in the suburbs, in the areas that always had a bad name, on the pitches where the semipros played. With Walthamstow, Hayes, places where the fans are footballers and the footballers are fans. And so Robin spent his time, before and after the matches, at the pub. Once, with Hayes, he was supposed to play against Dagenham & Redbridge, but when the teams ran out onto the pitch he wasn’t to be seen. They found him outside the stadium, in a smoky bar, with beers lined up in front of him, deep in conversation with – but unable to make himself heard by – an ashtray. They threw him onto the pitch and he was the one who scored the winning goal for Hayes, after he had stag- gered drunkenly on the grass like an inebriated ghost. And the audience acclaimed him in a state of collective delirium, but that’s merely a detail. No, forget the Beatles.

Forget them when you think of a barely averted tragedy, with Robin walking on a roof and falling, impaling himself on a pole that almost pierced his lungs. Don’t venture to imagine him any different from the boy from whose house heavy metal music echoes at an apocalyptic volume, even late at night. Friday is an icon, but they will discover him late, when that life of hellbent folly he chose, because he didn’t want any other, had flown away like his namesake the robin.

He had returned to Acton. He had already rejected the idea of growing old. He was no longer interested in football. At Reading he had had a good time. They had been promoted to the Third Division and his goals had been de- cisive. While celebrating one, he approached an on-duty policeman and kissed him: “He was the only serious person in the whole sta- dium. But I immediately regretted I’d kissed him. I hate policemen,” he said, immediately afterwards. Best, meanwhile, was lost in the United States, and with him John Lennon had also gone to live there. The Beatles had broken up; Manchester United had lost its most beloved and reckless champion. The punk era was coming. But at the grounds where the lower divisions played, people hadn’t stopped spreading the word about Friday. Just as the London clubs were starting to ring with the sound of scuffed and broken guitars and some people were proclaiming that the only certainty was the absence of the future, so too was Robin the manifesto of self-destructive nihilism, the answer of an angry working class to Hamlet’s doubt: “To be or not to be?”

The important thing for Friday was to not give a damn about anything or anyone. So, in 1977, at the very time when it was in to dye your hair and comb it up and the music was mov- ing into a revolution that was to spread faster than a fire along a street, Robin performed the gesture that achieved eternal fame and was preserved for posterity in a photograph. It was after he left Reading and went to Cardiff City, during a game against Luton Town. He got into a tussle with the opposing goalkeeper, Milija Aleksic. He swore he would teach him a lesson, and wasted no time in doing so. He got the ball and entered the goal area, dribbling past any defender who stood in his way.

Aleksic ended up on the ground, with the ball in the net. Friday raised the middle and index fingers of his right hand to the pros- trate goalkeeper. Not exactly an invitation to reconciliation. They would make a record sleeve with that shot: the Super Furry Animals, a Welsh cult band, and the song would be a tribute to Robin, entitled “The man don’t give a fuck”. Before punk and, come to think of it, beyond punk. But when the song came out, in 1996, he had already left. An overdose struck him down in 1990, at the age of thirty-eight. Drugs were what Robin called “the Lady”. She had been with him for too long. Yet it was what he had always wanted. It had al- ways been his way not to give a damn: he died as he had lived, setting a pace that everyone would remember him for, though that was the least of his cares. The robin had spoken his “No future” well before anyone knew what it meant: it was enough for him to create it, not to imagine it. 

Credits

ILLUSTRATION Sara Brown
TEXT Matteo Fontana

 

March 26, 2020

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