FOR most of this week, George Friend has found himself having to deal with a family dilemma. “My eldest daughter, Isobel, is seven, and she’s proud to be a Middlesbrough fan,” said Friend, an adopted Teessider who will return to the Riverside with his current employers, Birmingham City, tomorrow. “All this week, she’s been asking, ‘Am I allowed to still be a Middlesbrough fan on Saturday?’

“Obviously, while I’m down here playing, I’ve been trying to get her to cheer on Blues, but she was born in North Tees and she keeps telling all of her mates she’s a Middlesbrough fan. I don’t think it’s a discussion I’m going to win, to be honest.”

Isobel won’t be at the Riverside tomorrow – even professional footballers can’t separate a seven-year-old from their party-heavy social calendar – but Friend’s parents will both be making the long trip to Teesside from their native Devon.

Then, there is Friend himself. Having left Middlesbrough when his contract expired at the end of the 2019-20 season, he returned to the Riverside in January and was selected as Sky’s Man of the Match as Birmingham enjoyed a 1-0 win. That was behind-closed-doors, though. Tomorrow, he finally gets the chance to say a proper goodbye to the supporters who came to worship him as a cult hero during his eight seasons on Boro’s books. It promises to be an emotional experience.

“I know it sounds silly, but I’ve genuinely been waking up at about three o’clock in the morning for most of the last week just thinking about this game,” said Friend. “I know I came back last season, but it wasn’t the same. The supporters weren’t there, and because of the Covid restrictions, we had to go straight in and straight out and I wasn’t really able to speak to anybody.

“Hopefully, it’ll be different this weekend. I think everybody knows what my time with Middlesbrough meant to me. It wasn’t just a football club, it was my home. It’ll be nice to be back, and nice to be able to see all the people I’m still really close with. And I’m obviously looking forward to seeing the fans. Because of the way things happened, I never got chance to thank them for everything. It’ll be good to go over and give them a wave.”

It goes without saying that that gesture will be reciprocated. Players come and go at a football club, but every so often, one makes such a significant impact that they will forever be remembered and loved. Friend is one such player, partly because of his performances on the pitch as Boro grew under Tony Mowbray before winning promotion under Aitor Karanka, but also because of the way he embraced Middlesbrough and the wider Teesside region during his time in the North-East.

Through his work with the MFC Foundation, and most specifically thanks to his charitable campaigning at the time of the SSI steelworks closure, Friend became a champion of a region and community that can often be ignored. Teesside got under his skin, and remains a huge part of his life.

“I just think everything came together,” said Friend. “I like to think I’m someone that will always be interested in the community where they’re living, and lots of clubs do really good community work. At Middlesbrough, though, it just all felt that bit more important and meaningful.

“I moved up and initially started living in Ingleby, and straight away I was around people and made to feel part of their lives. That sense of community is massive, and it was obvious from a very early stage that the football club was at the heart of that. I’ve never been at a club before where everyone, and I mean everyone, lives and breathes Boro. The staff, the cleaners, everyone, it was an obsession.

“Then , obviously, the longer I was around, the more I learned about the region and its identity, and the more I wanted to help and be part of things if I could. The closure of the steelworks was a big moment, and I think everyone involved with Middlesbrough should be proud of the way the club rallied round and tried to help. I saw the impact the Foundation was having on people’s everyday lives. I’m sure they’re still having that impact today.”

Off the pitch, Friend was an impassioned ambassador. On it, he was the kind of fearless, flamboyant full-back that supporters were always going to love. He was there leading the celebrations when Boro claimed a point against Brighton to win promotion in 2016, but was perhaps even more proud of some of the final moments of his Middlesbrough career.

“Winning promotion was incredible,” he said. “We’d obviously had the disappointment of missing out in the play-offs, so to be a part of getting Boro back into the Premier League was such a proud moment. I remember stepping out against Stoke in the first game of that Premier League season, and there was a real sense of pride in what we’d done.

“In a funny way, though, its maybe the last two or three months of my time with Boro that I look back on with most satisfaction. I’d had a really bad thigh injury towards the end of my penultimate season, and wasn’t really sure if I’d be able to play again. Then Covid struck and everything was up in the air.

“Fortunately, I managed to get back for the last seven or eight games of my last season, and the results in those matches ensured Boro stayed up. It seems strange to say it, but being able to keep Boro in the Championship in those final few games probably meant more to me than winning promotion.”