Nostalgia, it occurs to me as I nurse a pint of bitter in a shabby pub on a shabby street in Spitalfields, in the East End of London, is fundamentally delusional. England's footballers have just qualified for the 2006 World Cup, yet here I am waiting to meet a man who, more than most, symbolises a decade in which England failed to reach successive World Cups, who walked out on his national team over a perceived slight, who openly consorted with gangsters, who once accepted a bribe to throw a game, who makes some of the most poorly behaved players in modern football look like paragons of virtue.
Yet to most football lovers of my generation, me included, the name Stan Bowles evokes a golden age. It's rather odd.
Time passes. My pint glass is almost empty, our 1pm rendezvous is long gone, and still there is no sign of Bowles. He has agreed to meet me to publicise a new book based on a regular item on the BBC's Football Focus programme, called Cult Heroes. The book contains one so-called cult hero for every League club in England and Scotland, and Bowles, not surprisingly, is the Queen's Park Rangers pick. He also features in the book's Cult Heroes XI, along with George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier, as well as lesser luminaries such as "Vodka" Vic Kasule of Albion Rovers and Torquay United's Derek "the dude" Dawkins.
Finally, he arrives. "What's a cult hero?" he asks me. Whatever it is, he does not look like one. The blue eyes are as keen as ever, but he has the broken veins of a heavy smoker and the dirty blond locks are now white. He is lean enough, but has a dissolute, nervy air. He sits underneath a collage of great West Ham players through the ages.
"The aristocrats of ******* football, West Ham used to be called," he says, with a throaty, nicotine-laced chuckle. Just to save on asterisks, incidentally, I will refrain throughout from quoting him verbatim. "I remember playing against Trevor Brooking. He'd go on the wing, drop a shoulder, cross the ball to the near post, and that was it. I said, 'Is that all he's got?' Didn't rate him at all."
Bowles has never been one to venerate sacred cows. When he left QPR he signed for Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, but Clough did not impress him.
"He couldn't coach. Him and Peter Taylor just used to walk their dogs down the Trent, where we trained in a park. Jimmy Gordon, a little Scots fella, he took the training. Cloughie must have had something, but I haven't a clue what it was. I never saw it."
I have a silent bet with myself that Bowles will not rate Sven Goran Eriksson either, and silently I clear up. Which is more than he generally does. To calculate how much money he has gambled away would take him the rest of today and all day tomorrow, he says.
"I fell asleep at half-time in that Austria game. That Eriksson doesn't know what he's doing. I heard him on the news saying the team played well; he must be the only person in England who thought that. Mind you, he's always at bloody football matches. Someone said he was at Rochdale the other day. I prefer my lifestyle, I can tell you that."
I do not think Sven would swap. The Bowles lifestyle includes a bit of repping for a Brentford-based tile company - "not that I know anything about tiles, only that they're square" - and the odd question-and-answer session in pubs and clubs, for which he gets paid up to £600 a time. He used to do a bit of match-day hospitality at QPR, until they told him they were halving his wages. So the only money he makes from football now is from the Q&As; fortunately for him there are enough of us out there who remember him as one of football's great entertainers, which is why his 1996 autobiography continues to tick over.
He got a decent advance for the book, he says, although of course it didn't last long. "I'm not too worried about that, though. The art of the game is getting it, what you do with it afterwards doesn't make no difference, do you know what I mean? You get immune to losing."
His mobile rings. "My broker," he says, with a grin. "Your pawnbroker?" I say. A big, smoker's laugh. "Very good. I like that."
I ask whether, to fund his gambling habit, he was ever invited to throw a football match. After all, some of his closest boyhood friends were members of Manchester's Quality Street Gang, and they didn't earn that name by having soft centres.
"It may have cropped up," he says, almost coyly. "But the only time I done it was a five-a-side. Do you remember the national five-a-side tournament? I was playing for QPR and we reached the final against Leyton Orient. I had a good mate who was an Orient supporter - Jewish Dennis he was called, he's dead now - and he'd backed them to win the thing, £1,000 at 8-1.
"He said to me, 'If you go boss-eyed in the final, you've got a grand'. Well, I only stood to get £200 if we won the final, so I said, 'Certainly'. I scored a goal but we lost 6-1, and our manager, Gerry Francis, said to me afterwards, 'You looked a bit tired in the second half'." Bowles' laughter rings round the pub. "But it was only five-a-side. It didn't matter."
Playing for England never mattered to him, either. "I was happy playing for QPR, that was all. I played five times for England, for three different managers. Some say I got them all the sack."
I tell him what Alan Hudson, another whose talent and trickery illuminated the 1970s, once said to me, that the trio of him, Bowles and the similarly blessed Frank Worthington did not collectively get as many England caps as Carlton Palmer. "Yeah," says Bowles. "I even had less than Ralph Coates. I played with him at Orient, when I went there after Forest. And I thought, 'How did you get any caps?' I just used him as a decoy."
But if he didn't care about playing for England himself, why should it bother him who did? Maybe, in his own way, he cared too much. When the caretaker manager Joe Mercer pulled him off just after half-time in the home international against Northern Ireland on 15 May 1974, he decided he had had enough of the England set-up.
"I left the hotel the next day, before the game against Scotland. Mick Channon was my room-mate, and he said, 'You can't do this to England'. I said, 'Watch me. You see that car outside, that's the one I'm jumping in.' I went to White City dogs that night, and there were a load of reporters following me round. Unfortunately one of them, a Daily Mirror reporter, got knocked out by one of my ... associates. He fell down the stairs and hit his head on the concrete. The next day it looked as if about eight people had beaten him up, but it wasn't like that."
"That's OK, then," I say, and he obliges me with a chuckle.
Bowles lights up another Benson & Hedges, which he smokes in the time-honoured way of a 60-a-day man, cupped in his hand with the tip all but brushing against his palm. I ask if he has heard the latest health bulletin on his mate George Best, perhaps the only footballer who emerged from the 1970s with a reputation for unreliability to match his own.
"No, I haven't seen him since he was taken ill. I had to give up drinking with George, you know. He never seemed to get pissed. He could drink from 10 in the morning to 12 at night, and I couldn't do that. I tried it a few times, but I left him once in Chelsea and I wound up on one of them bridges, walking completely the wrong way. I didn't know where I was."
Bowles laughs, then looks rather wistfully into the middle distance. "As a footballer, there's nobody to touch George. Best player I ever saw by a mile. Rooney's a good player, but he hasn't got it all like George had. And George was a good-looking kid. Poor young Wayne's got a face only a mother could love.
"Anyway, I don't watch much football now. That Thierry Henry, he's the only player I'd pay to watch now. Tricky, knows what he's doing, I like that.
"Of course, I could have stayed in the game, could have had a couple of jobs managing lower-league clubs, but once it's over it's over. I could handle that. My old QPR team-mate Dave Clement couldn't, that's why he killed himself. But I could handle it. I was lucky."
It is rather gratifying to hear that Bowles feels lucky. His own mother once said that if he invested in a cemetery, people would stop dying. "Yeah," he says, "but I've had a blinding time."
The life and times of Stan Bowles
Born: 24 December 1948, in Manchester.
Clubs: Manchester City, Bury, Crewe, Carlisle, Queen's Park Rangers, Nottingham Forest, Leyton Orient, Brentford.
Club career: 505 appearances, 127 goals.
International career: Five caps, one goal for England.
Debut: Friendly, 0-0 v Portugal in Lisbon, 3 April 1974.
Last game: Friendly, 0-2 v the Netherlands at Wembley, 9 February 1977.
* A footballing maverick? Was possibly the most naturally gifted Englishman, but Bowles' off-field activities dominated as many headlines as those he created on it. After brief and unsuccessful spells at Manchester City and Bury, Bowles arrived at Crewe and became an instant hero. By far the best player in the Fourth Division, Bowles remained prone to the lure of the horses.
* His manager's verdict: Manager Ernie Tagg once said: "If Stan could pass a betting shop like he can pass a football, he would be all right." Tagg even used to give Bowles' wages directly to his wife.
* Carlisle hero: In October 1971 Bowles was sold to Second Division Carlisle United for £12,000. Becoming their hero almost as quickly, the midfielder was sold to QPR in September 1972 for £110,000.
* Loftus Road legend: It was at Loftus Road that he achieved the greatest acclaim, helping QPR to finish second in the First Division in 1976 and being capped by England between 1974 and 1977.
* Always a gambler, Bowles moved to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1979. However, after only six months at the club he was sold to Leyton Orient and began dropping down the leagues, finally settling at Brentford, where he enjoyed the twilight of his career. In 2004, QPR supporters voted him their greatest-ever player, in recognition for his exploits during the 1970s. He is now an after-dinner speaker and has his own betting column.
'Cult Heroes' is published by BBC Books, priced £9.99.
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