This week saw the 70th birthday of Graham French.
Assuming that he is still alive.
Graham Edward French (aka Graham Lafite) decided to disappear nearly forty years ago. The only way to do this in the modern world is to slip quietly into the metropolis. Log cabins in the wilds may afford anonymity for a while, but would-be hermits are always traced eventually. Graham chose Birmingham and his comet trail simply dissolved into the urban undergrowth.
Who was Graham French? The short answer is that he was the scorer of “the greatest ever goal in football”.
Before answering the question more fully, I will run with a brief digression about sport. Professional sport is hugely popular, and obscene sums of money ebb and flow around wages, prizes, sponsorship, television deals, betting, merchandise, agents, ticket pricing and super-profiteering by corporations. It is all too easy to become cynical about the upper echelons of all the major sports and lose sight of the skill, grace, beauty and synthesis of mind and body that lie at the heart of the best sporting activity.
Football, in particular, has suffered from the greed and moral decay of ultra-capitalism. If your awareness of football comes only via the standard media coverage it must be hard to engage with the idea of it as “the beautiful game”. But it truly does remain a beautiful game in essence. Go to your local sports ground and watch amateur teams playing; watch live games in the lower professional and semi-professional leagues; tune in to the increasingly successful and popular women’s game. There is refreshment and sustenance in all these places to challenge the lazy dismissal of the sport as a lost cause.
If you had seen Graham French on the football field you would be in no doubt of the fitness of that phrase “the beautiful game” (even when sporting the weird Afro-with-a-parting as seen in one of the photos below). He is just one example of how sport can provide moments of vivid joy and passion just as valid as those we can experience from music, art, poetry, dance or theatre. And those moments can come at unexpected times and in unlooked for places: Graham French is a name that most football followers would have known from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, but he disappeared from public life and will only ever be celebrated in blog posts like this one.
His story brings together some fascinating extremes: from lavish athletic talent to self-destructive flouting of that talent; from poverty to celebrity, and from there to obscurity. Most intriguing of all, he was a footballer who could be brilliant when he chose, but who could also embody the spirit of that classic text “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (where a supreme young athlete shows how good he can be but pulls up before crossing the line out of sheer alienation and anger at the world).
Graham French spent his childhood in the care system, in a series of residential homes, the last of which was in Shropshire. He apparently had no contact with either of his parents and was only ever at school long enough to impress at football. He was spotted by a Shrewsbury Town scout when he was 16 and just as he turned 18 he was already a key figure in the Young England team that won the youth World Cup in 1963.
After that it was clear that Shrewsbury would not be able to keep him. He liked to play on either the right or left wing as he was equally good with both feet. He was tall for a winger, and solidly built, but he had uncanny balance, acceleration and ball skills. He had absolute, and well-founded, confidence in his ability to get past opponents and to pass with vision and accuracy. However, behind the scenes at Shrewsbury there were already rumours of a ‘difficult’ temperament.
Not long after the youth World Cup triumph he was bought by Swindon Town, who were enjoying their best ever period at that time. Despite the presence of established stars he rapidly won a place in the team. This did not last long. The Swindon manager was a man called Bert Head and French decided to honour the surname by smashing a chair over that part of the manager’s anatomy when challenged about his lateness for training.
This has earned French a place in the Swindon Town “Hall of Shame”, which some would say is a true accolade! He was immediately shipped out to Watford, where he played only a few games before his contract was revoked amidst allegations of drinking and missed training sessions.
A Shrewsbury player, reminding the media that French was still only just 20 years old, gave him a room and used his contacts to offer Graham a possible way back. In the 1964-5 season Wellington Town were in the upper reaches of the 5th tier of English football (they would become Telford United a few years later). Graham French played for Wellington for that one season and he became a must-see local attraction. That was when I saw him play and I am quite simply grateful for having had that opportunity.
On the ecstatic side, watching him control a football, slalom past opponents, deliver imaginative passes, hit brilliant corners and free kicks, and score glorious goals remains an experience I would put alongside the finest artistic moments of my life.
On the darker side, we were always aware of the battle going on inside him. It was known that he was on ‘appearance money’ rather than a proper contract, meaning that he would not be paid if he did not play. He would often take the field looking red-faced and perspiring before even kicking a ball. He looked overweight and much older than 20. Sage voices in the crowd would warn that “he’s been on the pop all week”.
Even so, once the game was on, French performed like a man who wanted to grasp his chance of redemption. In addition to his stock of extravagant skills he would illuminate each game with at least one moment of outrageous beauty.
He had an aura of decadent glamour that partook of both fragility and effortless grace.
Luton Town, then in the second tier, decided that he was a risk worth taking and he played with fitful brilliance for them for the next 4 years. This included the “greatest goal ever scored”, a solo run from his own goal-line against Mansfield Town on 18th September 1968.
It came out afterwards that French had placed a bet of £500 at 15-1 that he could beat every opposition outfield player (i.e. 10 men) in a single run before scoring. As far as is known this has never been achieved before or since. The crowd on the day must have sensed that he had some extra motivation as he made two unsuccessful attempts in the first half of the game, beating 7 men on one occasion and then 5 on the second run.
Then in the second half he collected the ball from his own goalkeeper and worked his way from one side of the pitch to other and back again, outwitting opponents with sleight of foot and fast surging swerves. Legend has it that he beat a couple of players more than once as they doubled back to thwart him, but he ended the move by curling the ball into the net. The bookie accepted the reality of the feat and payed up.
Two years later a man who allegedly owed French money failed to pay up and the footballer marched into a pub in Luton and blasted him with a shotgun. The victim was badly injured and French spent the next 3 years in prison. Still only 28 when released, he was soon regarded as finished by Luton. He tried to rehabilitate in the USA Soccer League but left America in a hurry for “unspecified reasons”, breaking a contract and thus becoming unemployable in football.
In 1975, Southport FC, then in the 4th tier of English football, were hugely impressed by a triallist who called himself Graham Lafite. They put him straight into their first team and he controlled the game from start to finish. A local journalist thought he recognised Lafite as Graham French and approached the player as he left the pitch. Lafite/French brushed past him and left the ground without changing. That was the last and only time that Southport heard from him.
In the 40 years since then almost nothing has come to light. An investigative journalist found out that Graham Lafite had been living a marginal existence in Yardley in Birmingham since the mid-1970s. A different journalist traced a birth certificate to the known date of 6th April 1945. This showed that Graham’s father was recorded as surnamed ‘Lafite’. There is a supposition that Graham was nicknamed ‘Frenchy’ in one of his many residential children’s homes because of the name Lafite.
So, let’s hope that Graham French did manage a tolerably good birthday this week. I rather like the idea that “the greatest goal of all time” was not scored by a Pele, a Best or a Maradona, but by a much less feted player who could beat everybody apart from himself.
Story of my life, he says.