In 2004 the BBC conducted a poll surveying fans of each Football League club for the “cult hero” of their team’s history. In Cardiff City’s poll, the winner was not John Toshack, the towering center forward who would go on to fame as a player with Liverpool and as a manager with Real Madrid. Nor was it Robert Earnshaw, who burst from the club’s academy to score 100 goals for the Bluebirds in the late 90s.
The winner with the votes of 41% of terminally online Cardiff fans was Robin Friday, a skillful and aggressive striker…who scored only six goals in a single season with the club back in the mid 1970s. Despite his meager production on paper, Friday lingers in the hearts and minds of fans in South Wales through an extroverted playing style matched by an equally eye-catching personality. His (mostly unfilmed) acrobatic goals are still mythologized, and his flicking of the obscene “V-sign” at a just-victimized goalkeeper is commemorated on the cover of a single by local indie rock legends Super Furry Animals. Though Friday’s impetuousness eventually spiraled into alcohol and drug abuse that shortened his career and life (he died in 1990 at just 38), the power of his spirit was enough to outweigh statistics at both Cardiff and previous club Reading, whose cult hero poll he also won despite only a two-year stay.
In a sport like soccer where hundreds and thousands of professional clubs worldwide are constantly shuffling through personnel, the specter of the possibility that even a popular and productive player could leave with minimal ceremony is always present. In a salary-capped, roster-rigged league like MLS, this dynamic can be even more pronounced, as the New York Red Bulls and its fans can attest to with recent figures such as Luke Rodgers, Fabian Espindola, and Armando Lozano playing major roles before departing the next winter. The club and its fans are getting a strong taste of the dynamic yet again in this particular offseason.
On Friday afternoon, Clube Atlético Mineiro announced the signing of striker Fábio Gomes Netto, who just finished up a year on loan with the Red Bulls that did not end with a permanent signing. The transfer of the 6’4” target man will reportedly earn his parent club Oeste (who have tumbled into the third division in his absence) $1.5 million for “50% of his economic rights,” a price that New York was ostensibly unwilling to meet following a single season of appraising the Brazilian.
But like Robin Friday, Fábio is more likely than most single-season players to linger in the imaginations of Red Bull fans for some time. With his slender, towering frame covered in tattoos and topped by a shock of often-bleached hair, the forward was an obvious visual focal point on the pitch before a ball was ever kicked. But it was also his boisterous playing style, with his long legs churning all over the field in the service of both attacking runs and defensive close-downs, that captured the attention of New York fans. Though he contributed just seven goals over his lone season in Gotham, clutch finishes against Montreal and Nashville during the late season playoff chase were among the few cathartic moments of a Red Bulls season that generally failed to launch.
It was unsurprising that Fabio emerged as one of the most popular players in the new-look Red Bulls team assembled by Kevin Thelwell and Gerhard Struber at the start of 2021. But by the later parts of the season, a combination of injuries, a lack of goalscoring, and struggles in combination play as the team changed formations made his potential permanent signing less obvious. On a personal level, his stint in New York under a European-style management program has been a massive boon to his career, allowing him to make a step to the defending Brazilian champions at Atlético, where he will line up alongside international stars such as Hulk and Eduardo Vargas as the highest level in his home country.
In the meantime there are more loanees confirming their departure from the Red Bulls in the new year. On Saturday morning it was announced that Youba Diarra had signed for the second time with Austrian club TSV Hartberg following an injury plagued season in New York on loan from Red Bull Salzburg. The Mali youth international defensive midfielder was sharp in his rare minutes and received praise from his former youth coach Gerhard Struber, but the 22-year-old who earned $398k in 2021 was ultimately deemed not worth another year of high-cost risk. Left-footed defender Andrew Gutman’s status is unclear as he returns to the roster of Atlanta United, but a combination of George Bello transfer rumors and zero buzz from the New York camp on negotiations for a return make it likely he will also be a single-season wonder in Harrison.
One 2021 Red Bulls loanee whose window of return to New York may still be slightly cracked open for is Tom Edwards. The English defender returned to hometown club Stoke City at the end of 2021 ready to fight for a first team place, but was the only lapsed loan player who the Red Bulls officially declared they were still negotiating with following the MLS season. The chances of such negotiations going in New York’s favor perhaps gained a bittersweet boost this week with the news that Edwards will miss the next two months with a knee injury, landing a bitter blow to his chances at breaking into Stoke’s lineup in the crucial late season period. While the two-month layoff would cover most of the MLS preseason, the Red Bulls would still likely be more than happy to bring back a player who emerged as a dependable and versatile leader in a young 2021 side.
The “try-before-you-buy” approach pursued by head of sport Kevin Thelwell that secured these loans last winter was a strategy that successfully subverted the logistical difficulties of covid to bring in a desperately-needed wave of new talent into what had become a stale New York side. The most successful of the loanees, Brazilian goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, was permanently signed from Salzburg and appears set to mind the net in Harrison for years to come. But the inevitable drawback of not owning the contract of nearly half their preferred starting eleven now has the Red Bulls back at the drawing board in several positions going into 2022.