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Stan Bowles, brilliant maverick QPR and England footballer – obituary

Stan Bowles, 1976
Stan Bowles, 1976 - Colorsport

Stan Bowles, who has died aged 75, was a footballer whose maverick skills on the pitch were matched by his colourful antics off it; his flicks, dribbles and lay-offs were exquisite, while his drinking, gambling and womanising became the stuff of legend.

Not known as the most conscientious worker in training, he admitted he was lucky to have such a vast reservoir of natural talent: “If I’d had to work hard to achieve that level of skill,” he once said, “I would never have been a professional footballer.”

Stanley Bowles was born at Collyhurst in Manchester on December 24 1948, and worked in his family’s window-cleaning business – but was so bad at it that he was sacked by his grandfather after one day on the job. He was taken on as an apprentice by Manchester City, but for all his massive potential, his short fuse led to a falling-out with Malcolm Allison, who managed the club alongside Joe Mercer, and he appeared only 17 times in three league seasons before being released in 1970.

Bowles in action for QPR, 1973
Bowles in action for QPR, 1973 - Colorsport

He played a few games down the road for Bury, then joined Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra, where he soon had bigger clubs sniffing around. In 1971 he moved up two tiers to Carlisle United, where he scored 13 goals in 36 league games, then in 1972 he was sold to Queens Park Rangers, then also in the Second Division, for a fee of £110,000.

Alongside such other talent as Terry Venables, Dave Thomas and Gerry Francis, he helped to usher in the greatest period in the club’s history: QPR were promoted to the top flight at the end of his first season, and when Dave Sexton took over as manager in 1974, inculcating a style based on the “total football” played by the great Netherlands side of the time, they rose up the First Division.

They finished their 1975-76 season on top of the table, and went off on holiday. But Liverpool, suffering from a huge fixture backlog, still had one game to play and were given permission to play their final match, against Wolves, 10 days after everyone else had finished.

With 14 minutes left the Reds were losing 1-0, but they sprang into life and won 3-1 to take the title by a single point.
That year Bowles took part in Superstars, the show that pitted athletes from different sports against each other in a variety of disciplines. Summoned to an army base in Northampton, he spent the night before his events with the racing driver James Hunt, drinking lager, wine and brandy, and ended up with the lowest points total in the programme’s history. “Everywhere I went things seemed to end in chaos,” he once said.

Queens Park Rangers footballers (from left), Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis, Frank McLintock and manager Dave Sexton,after QPR had beaten Leeds 2-0 to go top of the league, May 14 1976
Queens Park Rangers footballers (from left), Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis, Frank McLintock and manager Dave Sexton,after QPR had beaten Leeds 2-0 to go top of the league, May 14 1976 - Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

The tale of Bowles shooting the ball at the FA Cup, knocking it off a pitchside table at Roker Park, where it was being proudly displayed by the holders, Sunderland, appears to be apocryphal, but Bowles was as impish on the pitch as he was off it.

Once, when QPR were playing Liverpool, a story had appeared about his teammate Don Shanks having “stolen” Miss World, Mary Stavin, from the fearsome Liverpool midfield powerhouse Graeme Souness. Bowles spent the entire game reminding Souness of the story, Shanks recalled.

“Stan played football without stress or pressure,” he said. “While other players would be in a panic during a big game, or poor shape for a bad one, Stan would just play. ‘Give me the ball, I’ll do the rest.’”

His appetite for playing, if not training, was insatiable. Whenever QPR had a game in the north-west, Bowles would stay over on the Saturday night and then turn out for his old pub side with his school friends on the Sunday morning.

A year after QPR had gone so close to the title, Dave Sexton was poached by Manchester United and replaced by Tommy Docherty, a manager who had raised rowing with his players into an art form. When he told Bowles: “You can trust me, Stan,” the player replied: “I’d rather trust my chickens with Colonel Sanders.”

Docherty made him train with the reserves for nearly six months, finally selling him to Nottingham Forest in December 1979. But there, Bowles chafed in what was essentially the role of understudy to Trevor Francis, and – an all-too familiar story – did not gel with Brian Clough. When the manager refused to let him play in a testimonial for his teammate John Robertson, Bowles ruled himself out of the 1980 European Cup final, in which Forest beat Hamburg.

After only 23 games for Forest Clough sold Bowles to Leyton Orient, where he stayed for a season. After two years at Brentford he retired in 1983, returning briefly on a non-contract basis for a few games the following season, and carried on playing non-league football for Epping United.

Internationally, Bowles was one of several mavericks – alongside the likes of Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh, Duncan McKenzie and Frank Worthington – who were criminally underused in an era when England could have profited immensely from harnessing their trickery and often mesmerising creativity.

Currie won 17 caps, Marsh nine, Worthington eight, McKenzie – staggeringly – none, and Bowles only five. He made his debut against Portugal in April 1974 in Sir Alf Ramsey’s last match in charge, and scored his only international goal in a 2-0 win over Wales at Ninian Park later that year.

Stan Bowles in 2014
Stan Bowles in 2014 - PAUL COOPER

In retirement he found work as a Sky pundit, and for a while wrote a column for the lads’ mag Loaded – for whom, with his reputation for drinking, womanising and gambling, he ticked every box: as his manager at Crewe, Ernie Tagg, once put it: “If Stan Bowles could pass a betting shop like he can pass a football he’d be a rich man.” In 2004 QPR fans voted him club’s all-time greatest player.

Stan Bowles, who had been suffering from dementia, was thrice married. In his final years he was cared for by his daughter Andrea, who survives him with another daughter and a son.

Stan Bowles, born December 24 1948, died February 24 2024