I was sad to read the other day that Stan Bowles has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Stan who?’ you might ask, if you’re under 40.
That question is truly ironic, with the sad memory problems associated with such diseases. But being ancient – oh, I remember Stan Bowles… Recently voted QPR’s most popular player ever, 66 year-old Stanley Bowles was one of the great characters of English football in a long career of quirky genius that carried him through 565 games between 1967 and 1984. From starting at Manchester City Stan travelled via Bury, Crewe, Carlisle, had nine great years at Queens Park Rangers, then onto Nottingham Forest and then finally to Leyton Orient and Brentford.
Stan’s skill and artistry were admired everywhere he went. Though not especially known as a playboy with the women, Stan was more a spikey comedian, a joker, an inveterate gambler who came from the betting shop to regularly turn up for top games ten minutes before the kick off – and then went on to perform brilliantly. At half time, Stan would take far more interest in the immediate horse racing results he’d missed than on his own team’s performance, or any other team’s results he hadn’t bet on.
His antics were legendary: in the days when the FA Cup meant more it does now, the Cup used to be paraded whenever and wherever by the winners. In 1973 Sunderland had amazingly and unexpectedly just won the Cup against mighty Leeds at Wembley and for their final home game had proudly placed the Cup on a table by the pitch, before the match – against QPR. For a bet (of course) Stan dribbled across the field from one side to the other before irreverently belting the ball straight at the Cup, successfully knocking it off its perch. The faithful fans at Roker Park went berserk:
“We had a bet to see if anyone could hit the Cup,” Bowles recalls, ‘I did, even denting the bloody thing. We won 3-0, I scored two goals. It was the headlines on News At Ten… they had a riot in Sunderland…. they don’t get many of them.”
The longest lasting Loftus Road legend was a highly gifted but outspoken footballer who played in the George Best era, indeed the Irishman was his idol. “As a footballer, there’s nobody to touch George, greatest player I ever saw by a mile. Rooney’s a good player, but he hasn’t got it all like George had. And George was a good-looking kid. Poor Wayne’s got a face only a mother could love.”
Stanley Bowles’ life eventually became one long rollercoaster ride from football pitch to gambling club, casino to greyhound track – and often pub to police cell. A former manager famously said of Stan: “If he could pass a betting shop like he could pass a ball, he wouldn’t have had a problem.”
As Bowles admits in his 1996 book ‘The Autobiography’: “Everywhere I went things seemed to end in chaos” – except, it seemed on the football field. Like many players touched by genius, it was only with a ball at his feet that he appeared totally focussed. His was the kind of charmed and colourful existence that led Terry Venables to remark recently that Bowles was more crackers than Gazza – and Bowles still doesn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult.
There were only five appearances for England, a pathetically poor return for such a talented player. “I walked out on England,” Bowles says without a trace of regret, after arguing with manager Joe Mercer. Bowles saw this as a legacy of the bad blood between the two when Mercer and Malcolm Allison were both in charge of Manchester City.
“I just got the hump. I do things on instinct. I walked out on the European Cup with Brian Clough as well. I woulda got a medal. Woulda got twenty grand for that now … John Robertson, he was my best friend at Forest, Clough left me out of his testimonial. It sounds stupid, but to me it wasn’t.”
For all the controversy, Bowles loved those times. He doesn’t see his modern equivalent. “There’s some brilliant players, don’t get me wrong, but no characters. They can’t relate to the fans any more. I’m not sentimental,” he says. “I didn’t know I’d played football for 17 years until a statistician at QPR said it. I only watch it on the telly if I’ve had a bet. Some players miss it. Not me. I mean, Dave Clement, from QPR committed suicide because he couldn’t handle coming out of football. He was a good friend of mine, a lovely fella.” With all those fabulous memories and anecdotes it is today truly tragic that Stan’s mind is failing him. His family have respectfully asked that people do not approach Stan for autographs or similar requests: how sad…
Last week I was having a pop at the behaviour of current Jack-the-lads Wilshere and Grealish, not to mention (£50m to Man City?) Raheem Sterling. My theme was that these young men are unprofessional in today’s football, getting involved in unsavoury off-field incidents they were caught doing. But when I think about it, perhaps I’m being harsh – has anything really changed? All footballers are human: but in 40 years’ time, will those young players of today be remembered with the same awe reserved for characters like Stan Bowles?