Football: Stan Bowles remains a breath of fresh air even in a smoky club

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It was supposed to be a meeting of the QPR old boys; in the end, it was just the old boys. As is generally the way with footballers, ex- footballers, football managers (and ex-managers), those who were "confirmed" on the guest list never showed up. Gerry Francis, Rodney Marsh, Don Shanks, Ray Wilkins (and even Bernard Manning) obviously had better things to do with their Thursday afternoon than attend the launch of Stan Bowles' autobiography, Stan The Man, at (where else?) Terry Venables' West London club.

Venables was one of the ex-QPR contingent who did (eventually) turn up; ditto Dave Webb, still "minding" Bowles after all these years. Terry Hurlock and Alan Hudson propped up the bar, too. But, in Wilkins' case, well, you could hardly blame him. It was hugely ironic that on the day one of QPR's most gifted No 10's chose to launch his book, a more recent (albeit sporadic) incumbent of the famous shirt chose to relinquish both shirt and player-manager's role at Loftus Road "by mutual consent".

"Sad and shocked, but thinking of applying for the job," quipped Bowles on hearing the news, tongue firmly in cheek over the latter. "Er, maybe not," he added. "I've never planned for anything in my life, let alone being somewhere 24 hours a day like a manager must be."

The hair may be greyer, the slight frame marginally less slight, but Stanley Bowles still does a remarkably good impression of a man who never knows where he'll be from one hour to the next. His life has been one long rollercoaster ride from football pitch to gambling club, casino to greyhound track, pub to police cell. A former manager famously said of him: "If he could pass a betting shop like he could pass a ball, he wouldn't have had a problem."

As Bowles admits in the book: "Everywhere I went things seemed to end in chaos" - except on the football field. Like many players touched by genius, it was only with a ball at his feet that he appeared totally centred.

"Some of the other players couldn't believe I could go through so many traumas and still perform on the field," he says, "but I loved it. I had no worries out there, except trying to win the game." After that, it was always back to the dogs.

One of the down sides of football's growing popularity is that footballers - and football publishers - insist on churning out books which are often as uninspiring as watching a 0-0 draw on Teletext. You couldn't wish to meet a nicer bloke or a better footballer than Gary McAllister, but his book, Captain's Log, is as disappointing as Coventry's start to the season has been. I'd always pay to watch McAllister play, but I'd never pay to read his book.

So speaking as someone who has read more football books in her life than Jesus Gil has sacked managers, Stan The Man is "class among the dross" (as the player himself was once described); a breath of fresh air among football autobiographies, much as Bowles was among footballers less gifted than he was (which was most of them).

It's more than just a footballer's story. It's the story of a bloke who was as flighty off the pitch as he was fluid on it, who had as little respect for the football establishment as he did for his own talent. "If I'd had to work hard to achieve that level of skill, I would never have been a professional footballer. I sometimes wondered what all the fuss was about," Bowles admits. He reckons he'd be worth a cool pounds 10-15m at today's prices, and that "only the Arabs could afford George (Best)."

Some might feel resentful towards Bowles for wasting such an obvious talent, but he is honest enough to admit he couldn't have played it any other way. "I tried to tell it how it was and people will probably think I've made a lot of the stories up, but I can assure you they're all true.

"I've read lots of football books and found them boring so I tried to make this appeal to everyone. Mind you, I don't know how I've remembered anything because I usually couldn't remember a thing about the previous night when I woke up in the morning."

He does remember thinking Christmas had come early when he signed boot deals with both Gola and Adidas to wear their boots in an England international. When his team-mates asked him how he was going to get around it, Bowles replied: "For pounds 450, I'll wear one boot on each foot." Which he did, although the manufacturers weren't too chuffed when they found out. According to Webb, Trevor Brooking tells that story in his after-dinner speeches, and it's the only laugh he gets.

Bowles also recalls being so hung over during his appearance on Superstars that he couldn't complete a single length in the swimming, failed to clean and jerk the weights, lost 6-0, 6-0 to JPR Williams in the tennis, was engulfed by a wave in the canoeing and shot a table in half in the shooting. His was the kind of charmed and colourful existence that led Venables to remark recently that Bowles was more crackers than Gazza - and Bowles still doesn't know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult.

It was late afternoon when I left Scribes, by which time the place resembled one of Bowles' favourite gambling joints - air heavy with smoke, lights dimmed, racing on the big screen. The man of the moment was being dragged into the sunlight to have his picture taken on Kensington High Street, and there was a crowd watching, fascinated. But then Stan Bowles always had that effect on people.

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