Stan Bowles’ chaotic lifestyle could not disguise his brilliance on the pitch

<span>Stan Bowles in training with QPR in 1974.</span><span>Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images</span>
Stan Bowles in training with QPR in 1974.Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

A veteran Fleet Street football writer once shared a story about running into Stan Bowles in a Nottingham betting shop shortly after his move in 1979 to Forest. Bowles was disconsolate, but not because he had backed another loser.

“What’s up, Stan?” the reporter asked.

“This manager,” Bowles replied, and proceeded to tell a story about Brian Clough.

The first time Bowles had sat down in the Forest dressing room, Clough had fixed him with a stare and said: “You. What’s your name?”

“What do you mean, what’s my name?” Bowles replied.

“What’s your fucking name,” Clough persisted.

“I’m Stan Bowles. You’ve just signed me from QPR.”

Clough considered the response and said: “I want you to get the ball and give it to that fat fellah over there [pointing to the great John Robertson].” According to the old reporter, Bowles, who has died aged 75, was in the bookies nursing a suspicion that he had joined the wrong club. If Clough was trying to knock the ego out of him, conformity was always an unlikely outcome.

Related: Stan Bowles obituary

Signed by Clough to provide “time and space” for Forest, according to Peter Taylor, his assistant, Bowles was indeed expected to perform that service for Robertson and complained bitterly about being played out of position. The relationship lasted a season. In one row between the pair, Clough shouted: “You cockneys are all the same.”

“Excuse me,” Bowles said, “I was born and bred in Manchester.”

When they attached the term “maverick” to a generation of 1970s footballers, Bowles was at the front of the queue for the badge. His autobiographies are a litany of dog tracks, drinking dens, punch-ups, villains, gambling clubs, broken relationships and bookmaker debts.

A maverick without talent wouldn’t have made the papers, but Bowles had plenty of that. In a memoir written with Ralph Allen and John Iona, Terry Venables said in the foreword: “He fell into the Dalglish and Beardsley category. Was he a midfield player going forward or a forward coming back? I don’t hesitate to put him in their company either – he was that good.” Denis Law said of him: “He has 100% skill. No one in English football can work a ball better at close quarters.”

For Queens Park Rangers supporters, Bowles was the chaotic genius of their greatest sides. For modern audiences, the mavericks are endlessly fascinating. Lurking beneath the surface of their cash-in-hand, all-day-drinking lifestyles is the question: how long would they last in today’s game? The Premier League’s armies of analysts and data crunchers would have met their Waterloo with Bowles, who, at Manchester City in the late 1960s, overslept for a pre-season flight to Amsterdam and hid in a friend’s house so long that the police listed him as a missing person.

Two fist-fights with Malcolm Allison, City’s assistant manager, were extreme even by the standards of the 60s and 70s, and before Bowles could find “true happiness” with QPR he went into exile at Bury, Crewe Alexandra and Carlisle. The popular image of him as a dilettante is contradicted in part by his long shift as a professional: eight league clubs from 1967-1984. At the last of them – Brentford – he was persuaded to sign in 1981 by “£4,000 in readies”, which he took to White City dogs and mostly surrendered to his old friends the bookmakers.

If 507 appearances in club football spoke well of his ability to mix mayhem with majesty, his five England caps placed him squarely with the mistrusted artists of the 1970s: the players who spectators often assumed would have rescued England from the wilderness of non-qualification for tournaments.

Related: ‘Happens at every club’: Chris Wilder plays down Robinson-Souza clash

Maybe. All that dribbling and deceptive passing earned Bowles only one trophy – the 1979 Uefa Super Cup, at the end of his short time with Forest. He played in Alf Ramsey’s last match in charge and was picked by two of his successors (Joe Mercer and Don Revie). Equally he walked out on England after being taken off 15 minutes into the second half against Northern Ireland in 1974, heading off to White City once more when he should have been travelling to Scotland. There, at the dogs, a friend thumped a Daily Mirror photographer who had been following them around to report Bowles’s no-show for the Scotland game.

After QPR and Forest, he entered the twilight zone of his era, before mega-wages, joining Leyton Orient, where he threw a bucket of water over abusive Grimsby fans. QPR had been his zenith. He moved to Loftus Road in 1972 as a replacement for Rodney Marsh, who had signed for Manchester City, and formed an immortal bond with Dave Thomas, Don Givens, Gerry Francis and Frank McLintock in a side remembered with fondness almost as much by neutrals as QPR fans.

Francis called him “a happy-go-lucky type who lives from day to day” – a euphemism, given his struggle with what would now be diagnosed as a gambling addiction. A compulsion to bet was regarded back then more as a colourful character trait and a mine of good anecdotes than an illness needing treatment.

HMRC was also less vigilant. Bowles always swore that Hamburg had wanted him, ahead of Kevin Keegan, in 1977. Jim Gregory, the QPR chairman, offered him £4,000 cash to stay: a deal they honoured with an afternoon on the champagne. Keegan went on to be European footballer of the year, twice.

Like George Best, Bowles maintained a defiant pose about his drinking and gambling. One of his books ends with trademark gags: “I have enough money to last me the rest of my life – provided I drop dead at 4.30 this afternoon. I also have a big mortgage to pay off – my bookie’s.”

The rambunctious narrative off the pitch obscures the enduring memories of him on it, especially in the blue and white hoops of QPR, where he was always a good bet to delight the eyes. Forest bought him, Taylor explained admiringly, “because he could play”, even if Clough pretended not to know his name.