This article/interview titled: ‘Stan the Man: A Footballer in Limbo’ first appeared in ‘Street Life’ in issue No. 17, Volume 1 and was dated June 12 – 23, 1976:
‘In such good company, Bowles had a wonderful first season in the top division. He scored 19 goals, Rangers finished comfortably in the middle of the table, and the Loftus Road crowd were even beginning to forget the name of Rodney Marsh.
The press were not completely mollified. Bowles’ addiction to gambling was by now fairly common knowledge. QPR were attempting to cater for it by paying his wife and most of his regular household bills themselves, and giving Stanley pocket money, but that unsavoury crew of drunks that go by the name of sports reporters decided that gambling was a vice destined to haul down Bowles from his peak of success and refused to leave the subject alone.
Bowles’ own easygoing nature and the fact that at the time he “used to like the press” gave them ample opportunity to put the first touches to the portrait of Bowles the ‘Reprobate’ which, three years later, would be complete, and would nearly have driven him out of the English League.
Back in 1973, though, the odd comment about how much better off he’d be if he could pass a betting shop like he can pass a ball didn’t affect Bowles too much. What annoyed him more was the condescending noises being made in some quarters of the media, suggesting that First Division defences, would somehow adapt to handling his “riotous imagination” within a month or two.
“It surprised a lot of people,” Bowles says, “and that was their excuse, that they were caught by surprise. It didn’t surprise me, I had no fears of the First Division. I knew what I could do there, and I’ve since done it. But it seemed to shock the media, they were saying: ‘They’ll be wise to him next season, they’ll know what to do with him then.’ They’re still trying to know what I’m going to do next season.”
His form and private activities might have left some doubts in the minds of the press, but they were satisfactory enough to convince, of all people, Alf Ramsey. In the 1974 close season Bowles was picked to play for England in a friendly match against Portugal…..
RH: What was it like, working for Ramsey ?
SB: Not too bad, actually. I found him a lot better than I thought I would. He was quite friendly, and he didn’t place any ties on me in the game, he said just go out there and play –
RH: It was his last game as manager.
SB: Yeah, he probably knew he was going to get the sack.
RH: Did you get that impression ?
SB: No, Everyone was surprised when they found out. But I think he must have known. He must have. He definitely knew.
RH: There’s a story that was in the papers about that game, about you walking out beside Malcolm Macdonald, and it was a filthy night –
SB: Yes it was pouring with rain –
RH: And you’re supposed to have pointed at a stretcher and said –
SB: No, no. I’ll tell you what happened. It was Parksey (Phil Parkes, QPR goalkeeper, was also deputising for England that night – Ed) who pointed at the stretcher – ‘cos I’ve been off on the stretchers plenty of times, as you probably know – and he said: ‘Look Stan, they won’t have to run very far with the stretcher to bring you back’. So Macdonald chipped in and said: ‘There’s only one way I’m going to be carried off this pitch, and that’s shoulder-high.’ We drew, no-score, and I think he was brought off before the end of the game.
RH: Then Joe Mercer temporarily took over the England team, and he continued to pick you until you walked out on his squad…
SB: Yes. That was in the Home Internationals. He played me against Northern Ireland, and brought me off. What annoyed me most was that he told Harold Shepherdson at half-time to bring me off. He said, let him play another ten minutes and then bring me off. Now in that ten minutes I could have scored twice (laughs). As it happens, I didn’t. But I might have done. Then he brought me off, and that’s why I walked out on the England squad.
RH: Because he’d done it behind your back, and not told you himself ?
SB: Yes. And I had feedback from Malcolm Allison. He rang me up and asked what happened, and I told him, and he said: ‘I’d have done exactly the same thing, if it’s any consolation to you’. Which was nice, you know.
RH: It was perfect fuel for that section of the football world which insisted that vice-less, obedient footballers of little talent were infinitely preferable to brilliant footballers with unpredictable streaks of eccentricity. Better the sober Madeley than the hiccupping Hudson, and better anyone than the sulking Bowles. Joe Mercer announced that Bowles should never play for England again, and was roundly applauded by the press. “Football,” declared Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “does not need people like Stan Bowles and George Best”.
And, as if in answer to all their prayers, Bowles’ next season for his club was not a good one. Rangers lurked dangerously near the bottom of the division for most of 1974, and only began to climb to safety in 1975 after Gordon Jago had resigned (claiming that the chairman had allowed him too little control) and Jim Gregory had replaced him with Dave Sexton. “The best signing I’ve ever made,” said Gregory of this move.
It was certainly good for the team. Sexton immediately bought Don Masson, and Rangers reached the middle of the table by the end of the ’74/’75 season, Masson having replaced and even improved upon the absent Terry Venables. But it was not good for Stanley Bowles.
Bowles had argued in the past with Gordon Jago (mainly about money, he claims), but had never really disliked the man, because Jago had rarely interfered with his style of play. Sexton was a different proposition. His recent experiences at Chelsea having resulted in the disastrous departure of Osgood, Webb, Hudson and Weller, Sexton was likely to be cautious in his dealings with Bowles. But he was not likely to compromise his carefully researched and deeply felt ideas about how Rangers should play.
Sexton’s concept of the Rangers team certainly included Bowles, but only a Bowles who would put the ball back into midfield more often than run at a packed defence. Bowles had always resented any attempt to change his style of play – usually with good reason – and after being substituted in a cup game at West Ham, he stalked sullenly off the pitch, flashed a V-sign at Dave Sexton, and told a newspaper reporter that he intended never to kick another ball for Rangers.
Shepherd’s Bush winced, and primed itself for another agonising week or two. Would Stanley come off the transfer list ? Would Stanley really retire ? Would anyone buy Stanley ? In the background the media muttered darkly about a footballer betraying the spirit of the game, and all this time a worried, frustrated Stan Bowles was wondering how to get over the things he’d said and done and start to make a living out of football again. In the end, he came off the transfer list and adapted to Dave Sexton’s scheme of things. He now admits: “I was quite stubborn. I didn’t want to do what he was telling me to do. But I’ve come round to accept it now, it was good for me as well as the team. Me and Dave get on…not too bad now.”
Sexton’s insistence that Bowles release the ball earlier certainly helped the player in one very concrete way: it meant that Bowles got kicked less. “I take so much stick during a game,” he says, “that I was playing with injuries for ages…”
RH: What kind of injuries ?
SB: Ankle injuries. The bruises are all right, but over a season you get a kind of clot, it comes up in a lump and takes days to get rid of, and come Saturday it just wasn’t ready. But I was playing anyway, with it strapped up.
RH: Referees seem to penalise you more than the players who provoke and injure you by constantly ankle-tapping and niggling fouls ?
SB: That’s right. I’ve been booked now over fifty times, but never for fouling, always for dissent. It’s bad news, it’s ridiculous really. I’ve seen players break other people’s legs, on purpose. When Martyn Busby broke his leg, that was an intentional foul. He’s never played in the first team since and that was two and a half seasons ago. I’ve seen players really go in and hurt people and nothing happens. The referee does nothing.
RH: Are there any referees that you reckon provide a decent service ?
SB: Not really, no. I haven’t got a good word for any of them. I don’t think they control this kind of tackling nearly enough. The newspapers say they’ve clamped down on it, but they haven’t really. If you’re out there playing you know that they haven’t clamped down on it at all. Gordon Hill wasn’t too bad, but he’s retired now.
RH: Did he really have the attitude that he stated in his book, that Norman Hunter was basically a good bloke, and by taunting and beating him all the time you were asking for everything you got ?
SB: I think he did have that attitude, yes. He was very friendly with all the players. And when we played Leeds and he was referee, he did seem to have a soft spot for Norman Hunter…But he’s not too bad, Norman. He’s somewhere in between a dirty player and a fair player.
RH: Who isn’t a clean player ?
SB: John Roberts. Big John Roberts of Birmingham, who used to play for the Arsenal.
RH: What about Ron Harris ?
SB: Yes, I must give him a mention. We’ve played Chelsea ten times, and he’s been booked every time for tackles on me. George Best says in his book that all Harris can do is man-to-man mark, and that’s right. I mean, if you put your mind to it, you could mark me. If you thought, I’ll stay with this geezer and wherever he runs, run with him, and just not be distracted… there’s just nothing I could do about it, it’s nearly impossible. So you can imagine what a trained athlete, a man like Harris, can do with his mind set – the ball could be there, two yards away, but all he wants to do is just stay here with me. He specialised in that. And he’s still in the team, isn’t he ?
RH: Yes, but surely that’s only really useful if the other team has someone like you or George or Best. What if he’s playing someone like Oldham…
SB: Yes, that’s true. But then, if he’s playing against an average team who don’t have a particular player to be marked, he just sticks to the nearest one…..’
(The final part will follow in the near future)