OBITUARY: Dave Bowen

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The Independent Online
Through the best of times and those less memorable, the cause of Welsh football had no more devoted, passionate and inspirational champion than Dave Bowen.

Wales has never boasted a team likely to conquer the world, but in 1958, with Arsenal's Bowen excelling as skipper and motivator supreme, the Red Dragon fluttered more proudly than at any other time in its football history.

Unfancied Wales, deemed fortunate to reach the World Cup finals in Sweden, were expected to bow out humbly. But the wing-half Bowen - with the likes of John and Mel Charles, Cliff Jones, Ivor Allchurch and Jack Kelsey performing nobly alongside him - had not read that particular script.

After drawing three games, against the majestic Hungarians, Mexico and Sweden (eventual finalists), Wales gave a titanic performance to defeat the Magyars in a play-off for a quarter-final place. Bowen, in particular, was brilliant, his tackling ferocious, his passing perceptive and his strength of will immense, yet he still had plenty left for an even bigger challenge. That was against Brazil in the next round, and the Welsh captain's immediate opponent was a 17-year-old named Pele, who was in the process of earning acclaim as the world's best player. In fact, the young master netted the only goal of the game for a magical side destined to lift the trophy, but not before Bowen and company had covered themselves in glory by their gallant display. That campaign provided an appropriate zenith to the 30-year-old Welshman's career, much of which had been played out in a lower key than many observers believed his ability warranted.

Bowen grew up in the South Wales rugby heartland and was a comparatively late starter in the round-ball game. Indeed, when he contracted rheumatic fever as a boy it seemed unthinkable that he would make a living from sport. However, a pair of football boots won in a raffle gave him the impetus to try and Bowen went on to make football his life.

After he had trained as a surveyor at the South Wales Colliery, he moved with his family to Northampton and joined the local League club in 1947. A handful of senior outings followed, though the versatile youngster was no overnight star. Bowen's big break came when he met Pat Whittaker, son of the Arsenal manager George, during his National Service in the RAF. Prompted by the enthusiasm of Whittaker junior, the Gunners took a close look at the intelligent, articulate Welshman and in July 1950 parted with pounds 1,000 to sign him from Northampton.

After scoring twice on his debut on the wing for Arsenal reserves Bowen settled at left-half, and earned his First Division call-up in 1951. However, a combination of injuries and the presence at Highbury of Joe Mercer kept the younger man on the sidelines until a broken leg ended Mercer's career in 1954. Now Bowen came into his own; he played more games for the Gunners than he missed, and won a place in the Welsh team, becoming captain of his country after just three internationals, He was a storming, passionate performer - team-mates reckoned he made more noise on the pitch than any dozen fans - and it was no surprise when he took over as club skipper in 1957-58. But come the summer of 1959, Bowen accepted a pounds 7,000 move back to Northampton. The job description was player-boss but after one season in the dual role he opted to concentrate on management - with spectacular results. Over the next few terms he led the Cobblers from the Fourth Division to the First, where they spent only one campaign, 1965-66, before sliding back to the basement.

In fact, by the time of the final relegation, from Third to Fourth Division, Bowen had changed roles to become general manager, leaving Tony Marchi in charge of the team; but the game's folklore credits Bowen as the first man to guide a club all the way up one side of the Football League mountain, then all the way down the other.

The upswing, which included the Third Division championship in 1962-63, represented a phenomenal achievement, but Northampton possessed neither the support nor the resources to maintain it. In 1969, with the club at a low ebb, Bowen resumed charge of team affairs, keeping the reins until 1972. Thereafter he continued as general manager and club secretary until 1985, before a spell as a director preceded retirement.

As if not busy enough at Northampton between 1964 and 1974, Bowen was also part-time manager of Wales, struggling to make an impact with his tiny pool of players and winning only eight games out of 40 played.

Bowen, whose son Keith played for Northampton, Brentford and Colchester United, later went into business as a bookmaker and reported on football for the People newspaper. Various contemporary pundits reckoned he possessed the potential to become a top-rank manager; some even said he should have been offered the Arsenal job that went to Billy Wright in 1962. Such an opportunity never fell his way, but Dave Bowen could look back proudly on a distinguished and varied contribution to the game he loved.

David Lloyd Bowen, footballer, manager and administrator: born Natyffyllon, near Maesteg, South Wales 7 June 1928; played for Northampton Town 1947- 50, 1959-60, for Arsenal 1950-59; capped 19 times for Wales 1954-59; manager, Northampton Town 1959-67, 1969-72; manager, Wales 1964-74; died Northampton 25 September 1995.