Stan Bowles obituary: Gifted footballer with a penchant for the wild life

Colourful character was a key figure in Queen’s Park Rangers’ greatest team in the 1970s but battled a gambling addiction for most of his life

Born: December 24th 1948

Died: February 24th 2024

It was once said of Stan Bowles that he had spent all his money on betting, booze and women, to which he responded: “Well, at least I didn’t waste it.”

Bowles, who has died aged 75, was a goalscoring midfielder of breathtaking speed and touch, a down-to-earth street genius with long flowing hair – he could win a game with one move.

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His golden years, in the mid-1970s, were spent at Queens Park Rangers, when a familiar sight outside the Loftus Road ground were the badges on sale bearing the legend, “Stan Bowles and his amazing dancing feet”.

Another familiar sight was Bowles, in his kit, 20 minutes before kick-off, in the betting shop up the road. Soon after the match he could be spotted in one of the pubs close to the stadium.

At Loftus Road he replaced a club great, Rodney Marsh, taking over the No 10 shirt that none of his new team-mates had dared to wear. Bowles just shrugged and put it on, claiming he was from Manchester so had never heard of Rodney Marsh.

While Marsh had been a showman, the clown prince, Bowles was something much more intriguing, a star player almost completely without ego, an unselfish team man who quickly established a near-telepathic rapport with Gerry Francis, the QPR and England captain.

He became a key component of QPR’s greatest side, the side of Ireland’s Don Givens, Frank McLintock, Don Masson and David Webb, which came within a hair’s breadth of the 1975-76 league title.

In 1974 he made his international debut against Portugal. It was to be England manager Alf Ramsey’s last match in charge, and between then and 1977 Bowles made only four more appearances for England in spite of his exceptional talent and consistently outstanding performances in the league. His only international goal came against Wales in England’s 2-0 win at Ninian Park in 1974.

He was born just before midnight on Christmas Eve in a prefab in the Manchester district of Collyhurst; his father, a window cleaner, used to say, “If you’d left it another five minutes you could have been Jesus”. In spite of the constant struggle to make ends meet it was a loving family, and Collyhurst proved a rough but stimulating environment that gave Bowles a lifelong relish for the company of spivs and bad lots.

He was educated briefly at a Church of England primary school, then at the local Catholic St Mary’s junior school, where his talent at football was already so far in advance of his team-mates that he was made to play in goal to ensure matches were evenly balanced.

At the age of 11 he moved to New Moston secondary modern school. In October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, his head teacher took him to one side and said: “Look, Stanley, if nothing happens I think you’ll make it as a footballer”.

He left school as early as possible for a job in a raincoat factory, working the press, for which he was paid £10 a week. It was so hot, he said, that he thought it was hell come to life. He lasted three weeks, after which he joined his father on the window-cleaning round. But his head teacher’s prophesy was borne out when, at 17, he signed for Manchester City as an apprentice professional and then, two years later, full-time.

He was soon scoring goals. But Bowles, an unassuming, happy-go-lucky character who paradoxically possessed a fiery temper, soon fell out with Malcolm Allison, the first-team coach, and after a series of clashes during the 1969-70 season he was sent on loan to Third Division Bury. After five appearances there he was sacked for breaches of club discipline.

That same season, Crewe Alexandra, in the Fourth Division, offered him a lifeline. By now on his uppers, he had to borrow the train fare to get there, but it was at Crewe that he recovered his touch and appetite for the game. After 18 goals in 13 months he was winning acclaim as the finest midfielder outside the First Division, and the perpetually cash-strapped Crewe put him on the market. In October 1971 he moved to Carlisle United, then in the Second Division, and within a year he was sold to QPR in September 1972 for £110,000.

Bowles devoted as much attention to his exploits off the pitch as those on it, but he was more successful at playing football than he was at backing horses and dogs. When he married Ann Kyte in 1968, his father paid for the marriage licence because Bowles had gambled away his £20 a week wages.

Later, Jim Gregory, his long-suffering but indulgent chairman at QPR, constantly had to supply advances on his salary to settle up debts before the bailiffs came to the door. His mother used to tell him that if he ever bought a cemetery, people would stop dying.

In 1979, after seven years at Loftus Road, Bowles left for Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest after falling out with QPR’s new manager, Tommy Docherty. The move was not a success and one season there was followed by spells at Leyton Orient and then Brentford, before he finally stopped playing in 1984.

In retirement there was media work, including betting columns in the national press.

“People may think of me as a footballer who gambled too much,” he once said. “But I’m a gambling addict who happened to be a good footballer.”

In mid-2015 it was announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In 2022 QPR renamed the Ellerslie Road Stand in his honour.

He is survived by his wife, Diane Bushell, and by his children, Andria, Carl and Tracy, from his first marriage, to Ann.