A FOOTBALLING LOVE AFFAIR
Part I: Bowles & Taarabt
Identity is truly an unquantifiable commodity in football. How do you go about acquiring an identity, if that’s even possible? Is it organically grown or is it conceived in a boardroom, before trickling down onto the pitch and spilling over into the stands? Perhaps the question is rhetorical, or even unanswerable, but one thing we tend to do as football fans is overlook the importance of a strong, definitive club identity.
I could list you 10 detailed reasons as why maintaining a club culture is the perfect laboratory to create football success, or I could simply just tell you to look around.
Liverpool built their success in the 70’s and 80’s on the foundation of a fluid relationship between fans and players, passion, excitement and a little bit of charisma. After 25 years of trying everything else, Liverpool turned to Jurgen Klopp, who embodied all of those foundations built by Shankley and Paisley. Five years on, the club have a Champions League and a Premier League to show for it.
Not enough for you? How about the flipside; the late Johan Cruyff is credited for building Barcelona’s culture of tiki-taka football, coupled with the constant integration of La Masia graduates into the first team. Josep Bartomeu assumed the office of the club’s presidency in 2014, elected under the manifesto similar to the ‘Galacticos’ model of Real Madrid.
Six years and four managers later, the club has had little return from the players they’ve spent over £400m on, La Masia hasn’t produced a top player in years and the club’s best player and crowning jewel – Lionel Messi – wants to go.
Football is funny like that; often the things that you can’t see make just as much as a difference as the things you can. Clubs often turn away from what’s brought them continued success to chase the shiny new thing, only to realise what they had all along might have been the way to go after all.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?!
Our club is an interesting one to define; we do not have past successes to lean back on the way Liverpool could. QPR is the club of the also-rans and the what-ifs. What if we’d beaten Norwich in ’76, what if Venebles never left for Barcelona, what-if we gave Warnock ‘til the end of the season? QPR is the club of the bridesmaid, that knows she may never catch the bouquet, but still stands at the back of the crowd secretly hoping that it’ll fall into her hands anyway.
But, perhaps more than anything else at the club, is as synonymous as a specific type of player. That position, the hole in between the central midfield and the striker in front, floating into the half spaces to collect the ball and terrorise the opposition’s backline. Nothing evokes the spirit of familiarity at Loftus Road more than an advanced playmaker taking the game by the scruff of its neck and winning it single-handedly.
That ‘number 10’ role is difficult to define and is probably just as difficult to coach a player into. If the central midfielders are football’s oil painters, numbers 10’s are graffiti artists – unconventional, streetwise and yet beautiful in their own right. The world needs Banksy’s as much it needs Picasso’s.
Every story has a beginning and this love affair begins at the mercurial feet of Rodney Marsh. A League Cup winner and a QPR legend, Marsh scored 106 goals from 211 games, a total which is pretty phenomenal in any era. Without realising, Marsh’s mercurial and maverick ability would set the tone for a football club for nearly 60 years.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you want to look at it) I’ve only walked the earth for 21 of those 60, so my depth and authority on this topic doesn’t extend anywhere near far enough to be an interesting article. So, I enlisted the help of old, grainy (most probably unlicenced) footage from YouTube, as well as the expertise of my old man, a Rangers fan for longer than he’d like me to admit here, but who’s truly seen it all.
‘The first QPR game I ever went to was in 1976. Stan Bowles scored in that game, and as a kid, I kind of expected that’s what he would do.’
What can I say about Stan Bowles that hasn’t already been said? Ingrained in the psyche of Rangers’ fans young and old is the simple fact that Stan is the club’s greatest ever player. Helping the club to promotion in 74-75 was instantly followed up by being the centre-piece to the famed 75-76 First Division runners-up. Very few Rangers players have a resumè like Stan’s.
‘There was something so incredibly natural about his game’.
…Says my dad, as we took in some of his greatest moments via YouTube highlights. Twists, turns, the odd nutmeg followed by a defender being left flat on their backside; there was a real casual authority to which Bowles would dominate games. No overwhelming physical presence, no blistering pace, just raw technical ability.
‘In terms of him not being an athlete – there was a show called Superstars in the 70’s, where stars from different sports would compete in physical activities – I seem to remember Stan doing absolutely appalling in that!’
…recalls my dad with a smile on his face.
‘You can imagine that Stan probably just took the money and went straight down the bookies once it was all over!’
…he adds, highlighting another jewel in the crown of the Stanley Bowles folklore. Stan, as he even admits himself in his autobiography, would show up to games 15 or so minutes before kick-off, strolling in casually from a trip to bookies as if he didn’t have the weight of 18,000 fans on his shoulders.
Who in modern football could get away with that? Players can’t even wear coloured boots without Garth Crooks losing his mind these days. But that was Stan – undoubtedly ‘a maverick, in every sense of the word’ recalls my father with a smile on his face. Stan was not an athlete by any means, we’ve established that – watching back the old footage, it’s clear that he was far closer to an artist than a football player.
The grace of his touch, the elegance of his movement, the sheer precision of every kick of the ball – whether it be a pass or a shot – Bowles was a truly mesmerising footballer. Whenever I tell someone of that generation that I support QPR, the first name to come of their mouths is ‘Stan Bowles’. It’s no wonder that my dad speaks of him with such fondness.
The conversation switched to the present day, where Stan’s health is the only fixture left for him to play. Of course, there’s a conversation to be had about the link between football players of Stan’s era and brain conditions, but Dad would rather remember the good times. Dad recalls the Stand Up for Stan match three years ago, held in order to raise money for The Alzheimer’s Society following Stan’s diagnosis. It would be the last time Stan visited Loftus Road.
‘That [Stand-Up for Stan] and the game just after Ray Jones died were the most emotional games of football I’d been to in my life’ he says.
‘Even though you could see that he wasn’t well, it was great to see Don Shanks there and everyone that came out to support him. But when the crowd broke out into the old “Stanley! Stanley!”, it’s like something switched on and he was back to his usual self’
My dad is not a particularly emotional man – I can’t even recall a time I’ve seen him cry in my life. But as I watched talk about that game with watery eyes and a reminiscent smile, I could see he was mourning for more than the deteriorating health of one of his favourite players.
It was for his childhood, kind of akin to and old toy or holiday destination from the past. It was for a time in his life when football was new and exciting; before the game had hurt him to the point that he half-expects QPR to be losing whenever he checks the score. A time when his football club was the trailblazer, not the burning wheatfield. Stan was a representation of what made him fall in love with his football club.
I know exactly how he feels. Let me tell you.
‘That team was a good team that turned into a champions team – and he was that thing that made the difference.’
It’s quite fitting that Adel Taarabt is to me what Stan Bowles was to my dad. If I were to use Batman as an analogy, Taarabt is essentially Christian Bale to Stan Bowles’ Michael Keaton; simply an updated version of a classic character. Mavericks who did whatever they wanted, but was excused simply for just how unfathomable their talent was.
It was interesting during lockdown to hear Jamie Mackie talk about how frustrating it was to watch Adel get, what seemed like, preferential treatment from Warnock. One story that stands out is Uncle Neil telling Adel not train because it was too cold, and that their was a bath ran for him in the other room. Stories like that are funny to look back on now, but it’s understandable why guys like Jamie Mackie initially struggled to accept Taarabt’s role in the dressing room.
And then you’d watch him and completely understand. Moments like that infamous goal against Swansea on Boxing Day, the dramatic winner against Cardiff at home, that unbelievable outside of the boot pass to find Routledge against Coventry. Talent like that is so rare and so precious, the ability to take a game by the scruff of its neck and win it all by yourself. To this the day, the Championship is yet to see a better player.
‘I felt like a kid at Christmas who’d been given a toy he didn’t deserve!’
…laughs my dad, when I ask him how it felt watching Taarabt, and he has a point. My QPR life to that point had been supporting the hard-workers and the grafters – ‘functional players’ as my dad calls them. Nothing wrong with it of course, but chasing down loose balls and thunderous challenges just aren’t quite as romantic as nutmegs and stepovers. Caviar and chips.
Taarabt is a staple in my pre-teen life, a moment in my personal history. 10 years on, my football-supporting life undoubtedly reached it’s peak the year that Taarabt was too good for everyone. For a brief period, it really felt like we had someone who could be one of the best players in the world in our squad; which is why my heart sinks when I think about what became of Adel, as oppose to what could’ve been.
‘He has the kind of talent that every kid in the world dreamed of having.’ Smiling like he did as he spoke about Stan; but there’s no sadness in his eyes, no nostalgic presence on his face this time. Just disappointment – not overwhelmingly so, but an accepted frustration that things could’ve been so different.
‘When we came up to Premier League we saw bits of it [his talent] here and there, but to be consistent you’ve gotta be fit and you’ve gotta be training. I can’t help but wonder what we could’ve been in that division had he been fit and firing the whole time’
To see Adel do well at Benfica last season brought some satisfaction that perhaps his career won’t be a total waste, but the simple fact is that he was destined for so much greater. I’ve never seen a player like Adel, either in a blue and white shirt or for another team and, to be quite honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever see one again. But what a privilege it was to have seen him.
In Part 2, Micah will cover Simon Stainrod, Roy Wegerle and the recently departed Ebere Eze.