Stan Bowles was the ultimate footballing entertainer; probably the most gifted English player of the Seventies, he was as famous for his off-field activities as on. Playing sublime football, he inspired Queens Park Rangers to their highest ever league finish of second in 1975-76, but he is equally well remembered for his wit and love of gambling.
A good friend to the turf accountants, he joked once that while George Best had had a statue of himself erected in Belfast, Bowles had had one erected outside Ladbrokes. At Loftus Road, he was regularly in the bookies until minutes before the game ("I never understood why people got ready so early. All you have to do is put your kit on and tie your shoe laces," he said), and endeared himself to the crowd by asking them during matches how his horses had got on.
His previous manager at Crewe, Ernie Tagg, who used to give Stan's wages direct to his wife, famously said: "If Stan could pass a betting shop like he can pass a football, he would be all right." Bowles' own mother also despaired at Stan's ability to be so quickly separated from his cash. "If he invested in a cemetery," she said, "people would stop dying."
Born on Christmas Eve, 1948, in Manchester, Bowles started his career at Manchester City, but frequently missed training, finding he could earn more money running bets for a local gang. He was soon released. A brief spell at Bury was followed by moves to fourth division Crewe Alexandra, where his talent began to blossom and then second division Carlisle United.
First division Queens Park Rangers paid £112,000 for his services in September 1972, and he was tasked with filling the gaping hole left vacant by the departure of Rangers' fans' favourite Rodney Marsh. Players had been reluctant to wear Marsh's number 10 shirt in the intervening six months, but Bowles was unruffled; coming from the north, he claimed never to have heard of Marsh.
Bowles quickly became a folk hero at Loftus Road, cementing his maverick reputation on May 9, 1973, at Roker Park with an act of cheek that made the TV news. Sunderland, playing their first game since their unlikely 1-0 victory over Leeds United in the FA Cup final, were proudly displaying the trophy by the side of the pitch. Shortly into the match Bowles received the ball, took a run towards the cup, then pinged it at the famous trophy, knocking it off its perch. "There were a couple of us who had a bet on who could knock it off the table with the ball first," recalled Bowles. "I wound up their fans even more by scoring a couple of goals and in the end there was a pitch invasion that made it on News at Ten!"
Despite his reputation, Bowles soon was selected for England by arch disciplinarian Sir Alf Ramsey in what proved to be the World Cup winning manager's final game in charge. He then played three games under the ill-fated Don Revie regime, and when caretaker manager Joe Mercer pulled him off just after half-time in the home international against Northern Ireland on 15 May 1974, he decided he had had enough of the international set-up and walked out on England. "I was happy playing for QPR, that was all," said Bowles. "I played five times for England, for three different managers. Some say I got them all the sack."
Returning to the club he loved, and the fans that loved him, Bowles flourished under manager Dave Sexton in a talented team including England captain Gerry Francis, Don Givens, Dave Thomas and Phil Parkes. The 1975-76 season began with the televised match between Rangers and Liverpool at Loftus Road, and the West London side announced their title credentials with a destruction of the Merseysiders that was barely reflected in the 2-0 scoreline. It included a sweeping counter attack that, following a sublime flick by Bowles, and a one-two with Givens, Francis buried past Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence. It was later voted goal of the season.
Rangers' unlikely title challenge lasted right till the end of the campaign, with them leading the table by one point having played their final game. But due to Liverpool's commitments in the UEFA Cup they played their final fixture two weeks later against a poor Wolves side. With 15 minutes to go, however, Wolves led 1-0 and it looked as though the First Division championship would go to West London. Heartbreakingly for QPR, though, Liverpool struck three times in the dying minutes of the game to take the title. Bowles' misery was completed by the fact that he had £8,000 riding on the result.
QPR never again reached the same heights, and with Sexton poached by Manchester United, Bowles' QPR career was effectively ended in 1979 after 315 appearances and 97 goals. Arriving at Loftus Road, new manager Tommy Docherty finished his pep talk to Bowles with the words: "You can trust me, Stan." "I told him I would rather trust my chickens with Colonel Sanders," recalls Bowles. "He dropped me into the reserves for six months!"
A move to Nottingham Forest beckoned and what could have been the highlight of his career, a European Cup final appearance, was missed when he walked out of the camp after manager Brian Clough's refusal to let Bowles play in his colleague John Robertson's testimonial.
But Bowles has no regrets, and no doubt what his priorites were. "The greatest achievement in my life was being named QPR’s all time best player by the fans," he says. "I was chuffed to bits, as they’re the ones who count. Everybody can’t be wrong, can they?"