Stan the Man: A Footballer in Limbo – ‘Street Life’ Article from June 1976 – Part One

‘Street Life’ cost 25p and hit the streets fortnightly, but I don’t remember it lasting very long. It was mainly music related and this particular issue also included interesting articles on Tom Waits and Dr. Feelgood. Issue No.17, Volume 1 is dated June 12 – 23, 1976, and features a superb article/interview with Stan Bowles which will go up in three parts:

‘In the close season, Stan Bowles contemplates his future, his past, and thinks about Hamburg. Can this man really be a “recurring nightmare” to his club chairman, or is there a little more to the Stan Bowles Saga than meets the jaundiced eye of the media ? Will Stan Bowles ever be re-admitted to the Don Revie bingo sessions ? Or is he one of that ill-fitting breed of talented footballers destined to join the growing ranks of exiles in richer climes ? Roger Hutchinson talks to Stanley and sorts out the pearls and the swine.’

‘One of the things to get clear about Stan Bowles is that he is no more neurotic than you or I. He seems, in fact, to be rather better balanced than the average television newscaster. His hands do not shake, his eyes have no haunted, glassy stare in them, and he laughs as he talks: easily and confidently.

Now, all this may not seem terribly relevant to the reader. But the reader, unless he’s the chairman of S.V. Hamburg, does not have stacked in front of him a hundred or so assorted press cuttings from the last couple of years, all featuring Stanley Bowles, and mostly combining to paint a picture of the man which is so distorted, so ridiculously false that it’s… that it’s just about what you’d expect, I suppose, from the addle-heads who write most of the sports copy in Britain’s national press.

According to that sports copy, Bowles’ life “seems to revolve around a series of V-signs”, he is guilty of “wanton behaviour” and of retreating into “layers of self pity which he has helped to make fashionable.” He apparently “sickens us with his off-field behaviour” and heartlessly inflicts a “recurring nightmare” on his club’s chairman, Jim Gregory. According to Brian James of the Daily Mail, Bowles, Marsh, Hudson, George & Co do not “deserve admiration as people”.

Well, I’ve never met Brian James (although those who have done inform me that the sheer, naked goodness of the man shines like an aura around him), but I’ve just finished interviewing Bowles and I have to tell you that he isn’t that bad. In fact, were he a film or rock ‘n’ roll star, his very ordinariness would astonish. As it is, Stan Bowles is one of the best skilled and most attractive entertainers in another field of show-business: that of professional soccer, and to be a rebel in professional soccer you don’t have to try very hard at all.

The extraordinary inability of our professional football organisations to adapt to the second-half of the 20th century is a grievous and perplexing thing. Essentially, the people responsible for staging soccer in this country seem either to have forgotten that soccer is an entertainment, or (if they’ve remembered that) to have forgotten how to make soccer entertaining. The first point in that sentence is easily explained: the game is not controlled by those who know and love it the most, but by those who know and love it and are rich enough to put several thousands of pounds into buying a seat on the board of their local club.

To these men (who are forbidden by legislation to receive more than 7.5% per annum profit for their investment in soccer) the game needs be nothing more than a large slice of local prestige. There are naturally some people who have a lot of money and a lot of soccer knowledge, but there always have been enough men with too much of the former and too little of the latter, as that Stan Bowles of the 50’s, Len Shackleton pointed out when he titled a chapter in his autobiography: ‘The Average Football Director’s Knowledge of the Game’, and left the next page blank.

The second point is considerably more complex: what have we done to our game ? Why are our teams and players not miraculously imaginative, lithe, and confident; why are they consistently outclassed by foreign opposition ? Why can the most highly regarded league in Europe produce no more than one European Champions Cup winner, and one World Cup winning team ? A morbid suspicion that Britain is, by some genetic freak, incapable of giving birth to world-class footballers has crept into the game. It probably began when the Hungarians did unexpected things at Wembley in 1953 and won 6-3, and it developed throughout the 50’s as foreign team after foreign team proved to us that the cradle of soccer was no longer its university.

In fact, for a country which had disdainfully ignored international football until 1950, England did reasonably well in the 1954 and 1958 World Cups. They lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals of the’54 competition, and went down honourably by a single goal to Russia in 1958, after hitting the post twice in a play-off. But a third failure to reach the semi-finals in Chile four years later made up the FA’s mind: England was apparently to the rest of the world what Ipswich Town was to the Football League.

Ipswich, under the management of ex-England full-back Alf Ramsey, had gone from the 3rd Division (South) to the 1st Division Championship in the five years between 1957 and 1962. Ramsey’s Ipswich achieved this not because it was a more exciting or brilliant team then, say, the Spurs or Burnley teams were at the time, Ramsey’s Ipswich won the league because their manager had realised that mediocre players could contribute more to a successful side than you would normally expect of them, if you concentrated them in the midfield and the defence, and emphasised that – above all – they must not lose possession or try any fancy tricks that might not come off.

With the help of such tactics, weak opposition, and six home games, Alf Ramsey’s England team won the World Cup in 1966. And pennies dropped all over the English soccer establishment. The individual player, with his quirky, singular playing habits, must be sacrificed to the overall design of the team. Gradually, the worker became the most important player on the field. He used to be known as the ‘player’s player’. He ran all the time, never flinched from a tackle, and took a massive amount of work from the shoulders of other, more skilful players, who could then get on with playing football and entertaining the fans. The worker has always had a place in soccer, and it has probably been an underestimated one in the past, but to become the most important player on the field ! That was a transformation devoutly to be cursed.

In a league reverberating with the success of Alf Ramsey’s tactics, Stan Bowles made his debut for Manchester City when he was 17-years-old. It was a bit of a dream come true for this Manchester kid who’d been supporting City since he was thirteen, to sign forms for them about the time that they won the 2nd Division, and prepared to embark on the most successful four or five years in the club’s history. George Poyser was the manager who signed Bowles, but he was soon replaced by Joe Mercer, who in turn soon appointed Malcolm Allison as his assistant…..

RH: What was it like, the Mercer/Allison team ? You know Allison says now that he was carrying Mercer. Did you get that impression ?

SB: I definitely got that impression, yes. Well – I wouldn’t say he was carrying Joe, I’d say that whatever they did was down to Malcolm. He wasn’t carrying Joe, Joe knew a lot about football, but out there on the pitch Malcolm was doing it. They were all Malcolm’s orders, and everything that Malcolm said, you did.

RH: Did you have a hard time at that age in the First Division ? I mean, why did City get rid of you ?

SB: Well, I was giving them a hard time. I was falling out with Malcolm, and falling out with Joe. It was Joe’s decision to

RH: At 17 ? You were arguing with those blokes at 17 ?

SB: No…18 (laughs). It was probably my own fault. And Joe made the decision to let me go.

RH: So you were with Manchester City when they won the Second Division, the First Division, and the FA Cup, and you hardly got a look in during those five years.

SB: No, just played the odd game when people were injured. They had a fantastic team then: Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee, Tony Coleman, Neil Young, a really good team, you know, it picked itself…

RH: So you went to Bury –

SB: Yeah, free transfer –

RH: But not for very long ?

SB: Three weeks.

RH: What happened there?

SB: Me and the manager didn’t get on. A man called Colin McDonald, used to be the England goalkeeper. We didn’t see eye to eye.

RH: What about ?

SB: Well, he insisted on playing me on the left-wing, which is a totally impossible position for me.

RH: So then you moved to Crewe Alexandra on another free transfer, and for just over a season finally became a regular first-team player ?

SB: That’s right, Ernie Tagg took me there, Fourth Division – I enjoyed it.

RH: Did you get away with a lot ?

SB: You get away with as much as you want to get away with. Then Carlisle bought me for, what ? …. Twelve grand. I was there for just over a year under Ian MacFarlane. It’s a nice place, but you do get the impression that it’s the farthest outpost of English football….

The Second Division was not as unsuited to Bowles as many people had suspected it would be. He played 33 games for Carlisle. And finished that ’71/’72 season as their joint leading scorer with eleven goals. He also attracted the eye of another Second Division manager, one with considerable ambitions for himself and his club.

Gordon Jago had inherited at Queen’s Park Rangers the embryo of an excellent team. Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, Gerry Francis and Terry Venables were all firmly ensconced. All he needed was a forward line – a need which was made all the more acute by the departure of Rodney Marsh to Manchester City.

Shepherd’s Bush’s sorrow at this move was deep and apparently inconsolable. If ever a player had seemed irreplaceable, that player was Rodney Marsh. His absence from the team emphasised just how much Rangers had built around his speed and wit, how much they had depended on him to cover up the deficiencies of the rest of the forward line. Certainly Jago did not want to sell Marsh, managers have been ruined by less. But having sold him, Jago used the money brilliantly. He bought together Don Givens, Dave Thomas and Stanley Bowles and unleashed them on an unprepared Second Division.

In the first season of their partnership, Queen’s Park Rangers strolled into the First Division. Once there, they were obviously going to stay. In the hard-working Thomas, the tall, sharp Givens, and the bulldozing Francis, Bowles had found his perfect foils. And in Terry Venables, he had found his soccer soulmate…

RH: Gerry Francis says that you’re the easiest forward he’s ever played beside, could you say that about anyone else ?

SB: The best player I’ve ever played with was Terry Venables, with no disrespect to Gerry. He made it so much easier because he always knew where I would be, and that’s the art of being good players. I have the same understanding with Gerry, but to a smaller extent.

RH: Francis hasn’t quite got Venables’ confidence yet, do you think it’ll come ?

SB: It might do, yes. But I always thought Terry was a better player than Gerry, Terry was the club spokesman, as Frank McLintock is now. Gordon would put down his ideas, and Terry would put them into practice.

RH: Those celebrated dead-ball situations, that Venables got all the credit for –

SB: Oh, he invented them all himself. He’d just turn up at training one morning and say: ‘Let’s try this.’ And Gordon gave him a completely free hand, we’d all listen to what Terry had to say.

RH: The papers suggested that there were differences between Jago and Venables, when Jago sold him…?

SB: Well, it wasn’t evident, not while I was there…although, it was a bit dodgy at the end….

RH: Well, why did Jago sell him ?

SB: Complete mystery. It’s surrounded by mystery. He was training on the Tuesday morning, and on the Wednesday morning he was gone. That was it.

(Part Two will follow very soon)

Steve Russell

8 thoughts on “Stan the Man: A Footballer in Limbo – ‘Street Life’ Article from June 1976 – Part One

  1. Brilliant piece Steve… the mercurial Sir Stanley Bowles…. he lit the place up… what a privilege to have seen him grace LR over the years…. he had it all, both on and off the pitch…. and they talk of Legends!…
    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. This was the last issue of Street Life. I think Pete Townsend was one of the backers. I’m sure one of the reasons that it lasted such a short time was that, at 25p, it was more than twice the price of NME and Sounds (12p). I remember finding a copy of this in the mid 1980s and being utterly delighted – a great article from a great era! I’m looking forward to part 2.

  3. Brilliant article .Steve how do you find this stuff.I wish i kept all my SHOOTs now .I kept them pristine in date order from 1976to 1981 and then gave them away ??????????????????????????????????????????????????

  4. Hello Rob…glad you liked it. It’s just one of the things I managed to keep hold of mate. Final part to follow soon.

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