Hall of Shame #16: Graham French
Mike Minihane inducts the sixteenth entry into our Swindon Town Hall of Shame, someone who you’ll find in the Luton Town Hall of Fame and one of the most revered footballers ever to grace the Kenilworth Road pitch…
When Swindon confirmed their first ever promotion on Tuesday 14th May 1963 by beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 at the County Ground a young Shrewsbury player caught the eye. He was a gifted winger who was Shrewsbury’s best attacking player on the night. Anyone watching could see that the lad had great talent and ability. His name was Graham French.
He was already an England Youth international and a bright future looked assured. Tommy Docherty the Chelsea manager was apparently interested in signing him but for some reason didn’t pursue it. Many town fans thought that this was just the sort of player we needed and there was terrific enthusiasm, and some disbelief, when Bert Head bought him in the close season for around £15000.
When he didn’t start in the first game of the 1963/64 season it was a bit of a surprise, but then again we did have Mike Summerbee and Don Rogers filling the two wing places…surely Graham would get his chance soon, he was certainly too good to be on the sidelines. I remember seeing him playing for the reserves a few times, he knew he had great talent but didn’t seem too bothered.
Rumours started to go around – he’d had an argument with Bert Head and hit him over the head with a chair; he was a bit of a ‘problem’, a gambler and drinker with a fondness for partying.
He finally got a game at home to West Ham in a 3-3 draw in the League Cup on November 19th, the team being reshuffled to accommodate him with Mike Summerbee playing centrally and Don and Graham playing wide. He kept his place in the league game at Huddersfield on the following Saturday which was lost 0-2 and then again in the replay at West Ham on the Monday which resulted in a 1-4 defeat. He was dropped and went off the radar.
His final chance came in March 1964, playing four games over the Easter period when Don was injured. It didn’t help things that we lost all four games. Two of these were against Cardiff and some of us went down to see our 0-1 defeat at Ninian Park. On the way back on the coach another rumour was circulating, Graham had been seen shortly after the match, hammering on the door of a local bookie’s.
At the end of the season – after 7 appearances including 1 draw and 6 defeats – he was sold to Watford for whom he played four games before moving to non-league Wellington Town (a forerunner to AFC Telford).
He was given a chance by Luton Town in 1965 and played over 180 games for them scoring 22 goals, including an appearance against Swindon in a 2-0 Hatters victory at Kenilworth Road in November 1968.
One of his 22 goals for Luton – against Mansfield Town on 18 September 1968 – is still being regarded as Luton Town’s greatest ever goal. He collected the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and set off on a mazy run through the Mansfield team. He then drew the goalkeeper off his line, rounded him and slotted the ball into the net. This was one of many great moments for French in Bedfordshire, later seeing him inducted into their Hall of Fame.
A shooting incident in a pub in 1970 resulted in him serving a three-year prison sentence and obviously put a stop to his football. Although Luton gave him the chance to rejoin them after his release he never made the first team again and eventually left to play in the USA.
Graham French was a tremendously talented individual but his inclination to start games the worse for wear and the lifestyle he chose were not conducive to professional football. His five league games for us cost around £3000 each in terms of the transfer fee alone, a not insignificant amount of money in that era.
He could have been a great player for us but chose to squander his gift. So, for wasting the talent and opportunity to grace the Couny Ground that so many others must have envied, Graham French take your place in the Hall of Shame.
The story gets stranger. French returned from the States and dropped out of football completely. Some time later Southport (then a league team) signed an aging player called Graham Lafite. Although no spring chicken it was clear that the player had skill well beyond those normally on display at Haig Avenue. After a few games rumours started to circulate that Lafite was, in fact, French (i.e. named “French”, rather than having an outrageous accent and a tendency to smoke Gitanes). The local paper ran a story about it and Graham French/Lafite was never seen again. And goal that you mention (where he dribbled the ball the entire length of the pitch and slotted it in) was featured on BBC Radio 5 as “the greatest goal of all time”. An enigma indeed.
At the time of the infamous shooting incident he was one of the best players that had put on a Luton shirt in that era and remains so to this day. When the ball was switched out to him on the wing defenders 3 deep used to try and stop him. Graham used to dribble around them, and again before delivering a cross. Frustrating for the waiting forwards but great entertainment for the fans.
Really intereresting and informative.
Understand Swindon fans feelings that they never got value from a potentially huge talent.
As a Luton fan I have to hold on to our heroes of the past, particularly in these troubled times for our club, anyway Frenchie will always be revered at Kenilworth Road.
He did make a brief return to the first team after his time at Her Majestys pleasure and scored on his first game back, never recovered his form though and soon disappeared from the scene.
Alec Stock, in his autobiography ‘A little bit of pride’ refered to him as a greater talent than Rodney Marsh, I think that says a lot.
Hope to play your boys again one day soon, good luck for next season !
Graheme French was an astomishing talent, and strange enough a freind of mine who used to play in my rock band, had the same name. His brother was Alan Biley who went on to play for Luton, Cambridge, Derby and Everton. As a boy he was a dynamo. Regarding the more famous Graheme French of Luton Town I watched hime for many seasons, 5 yards from his tricky feet. Make no mistake, this man was a genius with the ball, on a par with George Best, but he needed a mentor like Matt Busby, and ex army man Alex Stock, the Luton Town manager, was such a man, bringing the best out of Graheme and giving him a second chance. Not only was his controll of international standard, but his shooting and passing were of equal caliber. He was also hard, and quite often back heeled thug full backs before they got him! But before we name and shame this errant footballer, remember we are all not so lucky to be brought up with loving careing parents. Clearly Graheme had personality and character issues and there but for the Grace of God go we. It matters not in this world if we all don’t achieve earthly accolades, prizes or gongs. God our maker sees our efforts, knows our talents and understands our failings. Lets be grateful that Graheme chose to share his gift with us. I have seen footballers on a similar level that chose not to play at all proffessionally. Thank you for your Joy Graheme, and may God bless you where ever you are. (BJW ex player, manager , club chairman and referee.)
HI. I’m a french journalist currently working on an article about Graham French/Lafite. I work for the french monthly football magazine SO FOOT, the 1st magazine of football in France. Could we talk about your time with Graham please ? email@example.com
Graham French DID try to make a comeback for Luton and played 8 league games in 1972-73. He scored on his return from prison v Millwall on Dec 16th 1972. His last goal and 2 appearances for the club was in the Anglo Italian Cup 1973 v Verona (A) when he scored and v Fiorentina at home in Apr 1973.
Most talented player I’ve ever seen. Watched him first 1964/65 when he played for Wellington Town, now AFC Telford United. Not for the squeamish though, watched him viciously head-butt a player over a very minor thing and the player was flat out for a long time.