12 Days of Erimus: A Friend Forever

We all know what’s about to happen. We’ve spotted it from a mile away, but the opposition’s right back hasn’t. Even if he has, there’s no stopping it. It’s like time stands still, as if the most handsome man on Teesside has Bernard’s Watch hidden somewhere in his magnificent hair.

The dip of the shoulder, the clip inside and George Friend has rounded a right back for the 100,000th time since his £100,000 transfer from Doncaster Rovers to the Boro.

Friend’s bargain signing typified the Tony Mowbray days, as Mogga had to steady the ship that had been run aground by Gordon Strachan’s S.S.SPL disaster. Though we’d become accustomed to this way of life in the transfer market, the signing of a left back from a recently relegated Donny side hardly set pulses racing on Teesside, until we actually got a look at him.

George would weave his way into our hearts as easily as he cut inside his opposite numbers, soon becoming a fan favourite as he drove down the left flank and whipped in crosses for the likes of Ishmael Miller and Lukas Jutkiewicz, an often thankless task.

Friend finished his first season as Player’s Player of the Year as well as scooping up the Community Player of the Year award, highlighting his work off the pitch. Seeing a player with no connection at all to the local area dive right in and becoming a key part of MFC’s fantastic extracurricular activities only strengthened the growing bond between Friend and the Boro faithful.

For all of his slaloming runs, crosses, good looks and boyish charms; George Friend didn’t manage to score during his first season at Boro. A bet was made between some of our lot early on that “If George Friend scores, we’re going the Bongo”. It was meant to be a joke that became gospel.

The following season rolled round and we soon found ourselves grooving and moving to the sounds of Jimmy Radcliffe and Dean Parrish as the PA system at Wigan blared out some Northern Soul classics. Spirits were subdued when Wigan went one nil up and the clocked ticked away to half time.

Thoughts were turning to pies and pints but then it happened. It happened in the way it was always going to happen. Our George picked the ball up on the left, cut inside with his dip and flick before smashing it past Scott Carson into the back of the net. Cue pandemonium. There isn’t many goals I’ve celebrated in August like that, I’ll tell you that for nothing.

The match ended 2-2 but George had scored. We’d basically won, if we’d have appealed to the FA, they’d have given us all three points. The journey home was littered with cans, songs and all the other things that go on when 40 lads go on tour. We never did make it to the Bongo that night but we made a right good go of being the most pissed up fellas in the North-East as we saluted George until the early hours.

All of George’s goals have been special, the two long range “top bins” efforts against Forest and QPR will always stand out on any highlight reel but it was a simple tap in that truly cemented George Friend’s place in Boro folklore.

Already 1-0 up in a top of the table clash with Derby County, Boro broke on the Rams, the lions about to slaughter the lambs. Cristhian Stuani went for goal and as his shot span off a Derby defender’s back the chance seemed to have gone until David Nugent laid the ball back across the face of goal.

George duly obliged and whipped out Bernard’s Watch again, time stood still as Derby defenders and Lee Grant, now of Manchester United (dream big, kids) could only watch their season slip away again as George slipped the ball into the net.

That goal sent the Boro top of the league for real. The first time in years we could strut into work on the Monday, bursting with pride, because Them Reds were top of the league. Things were looking up for the Boro, now well under the leadership of Aitor Karanka, the days of signing relegated left back for shrapnel a thing of the past.

Goals aside, George Friend became the dominant force for his position outside of the top flight under the tutelage of Aitor Karanka. When we’re all dead and buried, the names of Dimi Konstantopolous, George Friend, Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala and Emilio Nsue will still be being spoken in the Boro as the defensive stalwarts they became helped Boro smash records and secure promotion back to the Premier League in 2016, after seven years in the wilderness.

Battle lines were drawn as Brighton came to the Riverside for an all or nothing, winner takes all promotion showdown that they lost the minute the players came out of the tunnel for kick off. Met by a sea of red and a wall of proper Boro passion and noise, Brighton came, saw and fell like rabbits in the headlights.

The score might’ve been 1-1, the 90 minutes plus stoppage time might’ve felt like 90 hours but watch that game back. They barely laid a glove on us, as the Magnificent Five stood tall and saw off the Seagulls.

The celebrations that followed will live long in the memory for everyone in this town, as after the pitch had cleared and the champagne was officially popped, George Friend began his now customary post-win ritual. Head down, arms out low, full speed ahead towards the Boys End. The George Friend salute in all its glory, wave after wave of limbs and cheers followed by the fist pump and the applause.

The following years weren’t as kind to George as we’d have liked. There was injuries, dips in form and the slow eerie spectre of Father Time threatening to take George for his own. The wear and tear that accumulated due to being an ever present in the side hampered Friend’s efforts in the Premier League, missing fourteen games that season, while not looking completely fit and up to the pace in the majority of the games he did play.

Even then, there was a high point for the man who became the stand in skipper as Grant Leadbitter struggled with his own injuries and dropped down the pecking order. It was his sumptuous cross that teed up Marten De Roon’s equaliser at Manchester City.

In the aftermath of relegation, as players came and went, Friend remained wedded to the area he now called home. Having faced real competition for the left back spot for the first time in his Boro career from Fábio Da Silva, especially in brief Monkbot Era, the arrival of Tony Pulis on Teesside guaranteed George his starting place back with the Brazilian deemed too diminutive and reckless for a Pulis side.

It was here, as the last vestiges of “The Good Times” of the mid 2010s were hoovered up by the mind-numbing, risk averse Pulisball, where George Friend’s standing amongst a section of supporters began to slip. Injuries and the ravages of time had truly caught up with our Devonshire hero and he was no longer the de facto best left back in the league.

He wouldn’t have been the best left back at the club if somebody else had been brought in. The fact he had set such a standard at the club meant his decline was far more noticeable despite still being able to put out a top performance now and then.

No matter what you thought of his performances, there was always something comforting about George Friend playing in a red shirt. It was natural. It made sense. Like slipping on your favourite hoody, pulling the duvet down onto the sofa and watching a childhood classic. It made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We all knew how it worked and what was going to happen.

The dip of the shoulder, the flick inside. The quick introduction to the linesmen on his side at the start of the half. The ridiculously awkward celebrations. The gee up to the South Stand as he leads the boys out for the second half at home games. The Devonshire charm. The soothing tones. The flowing, vibrant hair. The George Friend salute.

We knew exactly what was going to happen every single time that he stepped out as a Boro player because we’d seen him grow into a stalwart of the club, on the pitch and in the community.

Friend had worked tirelessly to integrate himself into the local area, at a level that has become alien to a lot of professional footballers, showing an immediate interest in fostering a connection with the fans and compassion to help those in need with work alongside the Middlesbrough Foundation, Teesside Hospice and countless other charitable organisations.

It’s far easier to defend football players who are arsed when they play poorly than those who seem happy to just pick up their paycheque regardless of if they play in red, blue, green or pink. That was why a lot of fans made allowances for him and were reluctant to fire criticism at him.

Despite being from the other end of the country, George Friend embodied the Spirit of Teesside. He gave everything for the club and the area from the moment he walked through the door and nowhere was his love of Middlesbrough more evident than at the end of last season.

With Boro facing the very real prospect of relegation and having been sidelined for the majority of the campaign with injuries, Friend’s contract was up come the restarting of the football league schedule in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

As Friend watched a number of his colleagues exit the club, refusing to play on past their previous arrangements to safeguard against injuries, the left back stayed to fight on. He knew, like we all did, the devastating impact relegation to League 1 would have on his adopted home and was not prepared to see that happen as he sat at home trying to cultivate a new contract somewhere else.

That made seeing Our George sitting forlornly in the dugout at an empty Riverside in the moments after the defeat to Cardiff truly heartbreaking. As the memories of glories past replayed in his head, it was evident that this was the end, that this was the last time Friend would be a Middlesbrough player at the Riverside and it would be without being able to say a true goodbye to the Red Army who he’d been the flag bearer for over eight years.

It was in that moment, as the eerie roars of the crowd must have swirled in an moment of reflection on all of those years, that George Friend knew if he couldn’t say goodbye he’d have to do the next best thing.

As Boro secured safety at Hillsborough in the final game of the season, George Friend turned back the clock and put on by far and away his best performance of the season. Whether it was the paranormal energy he’d taken in during that quiet moment at the Riverside, spurred on by the countless good times, I can’t tell you but George Friend was not about to leave his club facing a crisis in League One.

When the news broke that he would be leaving for a reunion with Aitor Karanka at Birmingham, Friend went with the well wishes of an entire town because he deserves to end his career on his terms.

Not as a bit-part player sat on the bench hoping for a few minutes here and there which is why he decided to close the curtain on his time at Boro to join up with Aitor. It looks like Karanka is holding up his end of that particular bargain with Friend starting 12 of the 13 games he’s been fit and available for.

However his wait for a goodbye to the Boro fans properly goes on. A leg injury has seen him miss the Teesside Blues last three games and he won’t be involved in tomorrow’s meeting while COVID restrictions look to curtail any hope of there being fans in the stadium at the reverse fixture in January.

At some point, Friend will return and we’ll get the chance to say thank you for everything. For being the best left back in the Championship. For the memories, for the passion, for the goals and the fact that you cared so much during those eight years and 299 appearances.

Thank you, George. No matter where you go or what you do, you’ll always be welcome up here. You’ll always be Our Friend forever.

Middlesbrough F.C., Teesside Live, The Northern Echo, Middlesbrough Foundation

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