"When I look back, Boro was the best eight years of my career" George Friend on his emotional Riverside farewell,.... & bond with the fans. [Gazette]

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George Friend on his emotional Riverside farewell, his Middlesbrough highlights & bond with fans

George Friend talks to Dominic Shaw about his eight years on Teesside ahead of a Riverside reunion with Birmingham City on Saturday

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George Friend during his time at Boro
An awful lot was running through the mind of George Friend as he sat alone in the Riverside dugout and stared out to the pitch on which so many memories had been made.

"I sat there for ages," Friend tells Teesside Live, recalling the moment after the defeat to Cardiff City at the end of last season. The picture went viral on social media.

Friend was remembering the good times. So many of them. Promotion. Brilliant wins in front of a packed out stadium. Full-time roars of celebration with the South Stand.

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George Friend, pictured after what proved to be his final game at the Riverside

But his mind was also focused on the present and the future.

"I didn't know at that point I was leaving at the end of the season, it was all up in the air a bit," he says.

"But it was emotional. It was the last home game of the season, I didn't know what was going to happen in the summer for me but if I did leave I was just so desperate to make sure I didn't go after relegation. That would have hurt so much. Everyone knows how I feel about the the club and the area and staying up last season meant so, so much to me.

"I don't have social media but I did see the picture. I hope it shows I gave everything for the club and loved the club.

"I enjoyed every minute of playing. Hopefully that's what the picture reflects - just what it meant for me."

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Such was the joy of helping Boro survive last season, Friend classes staying up as one of the three high points of his time on Teesside.

"The Brighton game, that's the biggest highlight," he says.

"I was fortunate enough to captain the side in the first game back in the Premier League against Stoke. That was a big moment.

"I have to say, avoiding relegation last season. I had a bad injury for a lot of last season and I worked really hard to get back and play the games after lockdown which enabled us to stay up. I'm not saying I did it single handedly but I felt I was a big part of that and gave everything I could to make sure the club didn't get relegated."

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George Friend celebrates during his time at Boro

From the end to the start. It was 2012 when Boro signed Friend, a little-known £100,000 recruit from Doncaster Rovers - the start of a special relationship between the player, the club and the fans.

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Friend became much more than just a player for Boro. He was the captain on the pitch and an ambassador for the club and the area off it.

"I think it was halfway into the first season under Mogga when I realised I might have found something special at Boro," he says.

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"I remember signing for Boro and the dressing room at Donny had been in a really bad way. I thought wherever I go next I'm going to give it a right go. I gave it a right go at Boro and the fans embraced it.

"It wasn't just that. I had fans knocking on my door at home asking me if I wanted a kickabout in the street. I'd never experienced anything like that.

"I remember beating Hull on a Tuesday night, I had a really good game and had an assist. Afterwards, someone came right up to my window, whacked on the window and was screaming 'yesssss'. I'd never experienced anything like that either. It was that connection.

"Moving on through the years, both my girls were born there. They're little Teessiders.

"I have good friends in Middlesbrough who have nothing to do with the football club."



And he has plenty of good friends inside the club as well.

Friend says he was offered a new one-year deal at the end of last season but felt he had more to offer. All good things come to an end, and with family factors to consider as well, Friend decided the time was right to move on and linked-up with former boss Aitor Karanka again, joining Birmingham City.

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He left Boro on good terms and has nothing but praise for manager Neil Warnock.

"I keep in touch with a lot of people," he says.

"I'm friendly with the physios, probably because I had quite a lot of injuries! But they're all great guys in the medical department.

"I left on good terms with everyone, whether it be Steve Gibson or the cleaners who worked there back in the day, I still speak to some of them.

"Neil (Warnock) was brilliant. Everyone knows what he's about, what he can do and he's proving it again.

"He's an excellent manager a fantastic manager and credit to him, he's continuing to do a good job.

"He said at the end of last season that he wanted me to stay and they offered me a year.

"Neil was brilliant with me, from day one when he came in. We managed to stay up which was the aim.

"I think he mentioned something about potentially being a squad player, which was fine. Personally I felt I could offer more than that but there was no unhappiness or anything.

"It was probably the right time to move on and there were family reasons for moving down south, and the opportunity to work with Aitor again, which was something I wanted to do."

Friend isn't one for regrets but he wishes he could have said farewell to Boro's fans inside a full Riverside last season.

And how he'd love the stands to be full when he returns for the first time as a Birmingham player on Saturday afternoon.

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George Friend in action for Birmingham City (Image: Getty Images)

He says: "It wasn't the same coming back and playing after lockdown with no fans there.

"And then obviously no fans now either, it's tough to take because I have a great connection with the Boro supporters.

"This was the first fixture I looked for and at first I thought there might be a couple of thousand in but that's not the case.

"There are a lot worse things going on, obviously, and I'm sure there will be the opportunity in the future."

Friend doesn't know how to give anything less than 100% so is obviously wholeheartedly committed to Birmingham now and helping the Blues rediscover form after a recent slump.

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But he openly admits he's a Boro fan. Always will be. And other the two occasions when his current side come up against his past employers, he wants Boro to win.

He's delighted to see Warnock's side faring well in the Championship this season and thrilled to see the progression of Marc Bola, who has made the left-back spot his own after a tough first year on Teesside.

"Boles has done brilliantly, I'm really pleased for him because he's a really good guy," says Friend.

"He had a tricky start to his Boro career but he's shown his strength of character and really come through. He's such an important player for Middlesbrough and he's now got the base to go on and play a lot of games for the club if he dedicates himself and keeps that consistency.

"The manager loves him and everyone behind the scenes loves him. He's a big hit in the changing room, hes a great guy.

"I'm pleased for all the lads in the changing room. Some of the young ones breaking through now as well."

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He adds: "When I look back, Boro was the best eight years of my career.

"I'm fully dedicated to Birmingham and on Saturday there won't be any reminiscing or thinking of the past, but I can honestly say I loved every minute of my time at Middlesbrough."

 
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An absolute gent and a great servant to MFC, I definitely think he's manager material after his playing days are over, not necessarily with us but I think he has all of the attributes to be a decent manager. Perhaps he comes back in 10-15 years having had some experience under his belt, that would be great. if a bit 'fairytale-like'

Hope he has a stinker this weekend, naturally.
 
I love George Friend and its more than just for being one of the best left backs we've ever had at Championship level, its for his commitment and obvious love of the area and the club. A consummate professional in every respect and a genuinely lovely bloke too. I really hope that he forges a successful career in football after his playing days are over too.
 
Such a shame the fans can't be there, as he would have got a fantastic reception. I remember being at the Villa game when Adomah returned and he got a standing ovation. Hopefully Friend is still playing well and receives one next season.
 
Such a shame the fans can't be there, as he would have got a fantastic reception. I remember being at the Villa game when Adomah returned and he got a standing ovation. Hopefully Friend is still playing well and receives one next season.

I hope we are in the prem and don’t have to play against Birmingham next season
 
Gentleman George.
Probably the best VFM player we have ever had a true gent and his after match celebrations will always be missed.
 
Lovely read that. Really hope we offer him a testimonial in front of a full crowd when we can go back in, he deserves it.
10 years continuous service for a testimonial although Slaven got one eventually against hereford according to wiki! (It was an ireland select wasnt it?)

We played hereford just after the game i think which contributed towards the poor attendence
 

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Cheers roofie as usual 👍

That was a great read 👍

Loved the following piece,

I had fans knocking on my door at home asking me if I wanted a kickabout in the street. I'd never experienced anything like that.

"I remember beating Hull on a Tuesday night, I had a really good game and had an assist. Afterwards, someone came right up to my window, whacked on the window and was screaming 'yesssss'. I'd never experienced anything like that either. It was that connection.

😁 Class
 
10 years continuous service for a testimonial although Slaven got one eventually against hereford according to wiki! (It was an ireland select wasnt it?)

We played hereford just after the game i think which contributed towards the poor attendence
Yes Republic of Ireland, I have a shirt from the game
Bernie Slaven testimonial shirt.jpegIMG_20200510_182741.jpg
 
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