I remember an article that ran in the NME during the late 1990s entitled “Is football the new rock and roll?” No one is calling football the new rock and roll these days, or indeed the new anything, nor is anyone describing anything at all as the new rock and roll. Footballers are a robotic bunch in the modern era – or at least that’s what it feels like to me. But it wasn’t always so. Here are the five footballers who at one point or another have plied their trade in this country, down through the ages, who collectively exemplify the rock and roll spirit.
5. Charlie George
George was an Islington kid who got to play for Arsenal, the kind of story that seems impossible to imagine happening now. He had the hair and he had the attitude; he was a flair forward in what at the time was the most staid, boring football club in the universe. A real legend.
His most rock and roll moment: George’s career is rich in possibilities. That time he head butted Kevin Keegan. The infamous V-sign to the Derby Country fans (whom he would ironically end up playing for). But I think it has to be the time he was substituted during his first England cap, and as he came off the pitch told Don Revie to go fuck himself. Charlie never played for England again.
4. Kevin Keegan
I recall many, many years ago, sitting around a friend’s flat the morning after an evening of heavy drinking. Bereft of things to do that did not involve facing the outside world, we stuck on a video entitled “Best footballers of the 70s”. It was a dire watch, made all the worse by my throbbing head and low blood sugar. It was mostly men with large perms kicking the shit out of one another on horrible frozen dirt pitches.
Until, that is, Kevin Keegan’s bit came on. Then the whole thing suddenly got about twenty times better. This is because, as it quickly dawned on me that hungover Sunday morning, Keegan was about twenty times better than any other footballer who played in England during the 70s with the exception of Hoddle, who had his glory years in the 80s really anyway.
Kevin went on to become a football manager of questionable ability and spouter of quotes such as, “I know what’s around the corner. I just don’t know where the corner is.”
His most rock and roll moment: Obviously when, during his final game as a footballer, playing for Newcastle against Liverpool, he left the pitch while standing on a helicopter.
3. Eric Cantona
Since his retirement, Cantona’s place of almost mythic proportions in English football seems bigger than ever. The flipped up collar. The Gallic insouciance. The unforgettable quotes. It’s hard to imagine Ken Loach making a film about any other footballer being used as both an actor and a metaphor at the same time in said movie without it seeming ridiculous.
His most rock and roll moment: tempted of course to say the time he kung-fu kicked the Palace fan, but I’d rather plump for the press conference held after he’d been found not guilty of a criminal offence for said kick. “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” is not a quote attributable to any other footballer. Second place: an appearance on French television during 2011 in which he told the interviewer at one point: “In England, I am worshipped. In France, look at those journalists, I piss on their asses” (it sounds better in French).
2. George Best
This list would be pitiful without the original rock and roll footballer himself. He had the looks, the girls, the sayings, the pathos. There’s little to say that hasn’t already been said about Bestie so I’ll stop here.
His most rock and roll moment: in 1970, while playing for Northern Ireland, Georgie was so annoyed at the ref’s performance, he threw a clump of dirt at the official. He was duly red carded.
1. Robin Friday
No other footballer comes close to being as rock and roll as Robin Friday, however. He had a very erratic, journeyman career, but remains extremely well loved. The two biggest clubs he played for, Reading and Cardiff City, had their fans both vote for him as their all time favourite player in a 2004 poll. This is despite him having only appeared for Reading 121 times, and Cardiff a mere 21.
He went on to inspire the Super Furry Animals “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”. But what is it about Friday that’s so rock and roll? He was a brilliant footballer, yet his rebellious spirit made it hard for him to find a home at any one club for long. He retired at 25, having had enough. He fits perfectly the romantic mould of someone who was a genius but couldn’t be tamed. He was also once asked to have some tattoos removed by a manager he played for – because they were on his fingers.
His most rock and roll moment: the time he scored a brilliant goal while playing for Cardiff against Luton Town, and having slid the ball past Luton keeper Milija Aleksic, proceeded to stick two fingers up to him.