They Had The Time Of Their Lives - Part 1
Who remembers that team of 1975/76, managed so ably and expertly by Dave Sexton? Remember Parkes in goal? And the likes of Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, Dave Webb and Frank McLintock in defence? A midfield led by captain Gerry Francis and including the likes of John Hollins, Mick Leach, Don Masson and tricky winger Dave Thomas? What about Don Givens? And who can forget the inimitable Stanley Bowles? And that`s just the names I have picked out of my memory banks without giving any serious thought to the team line-up!
Dave Sexton had come to Rangers from Chelsea, where he had had several Cup successes with our West London rivals. It was only his second season with us yet the impossible seemed possible - QPR were on course for the First Division title! Rangers were relative newcomers to this division having only been promoted from Division Two in 1973. We all know how the story went: QPR won their final game of the season, at home to Leeds, to top the league but Liverpool still had one more game to come, away to Wolves, ten days later. For ten heady days, Rangers` fans dared to dream - but Liverpool won their final game - heartbreakingly in the last 10-15 minutes of the 90 to rub salt into the wound - and the league title went to Merseyside. Rangers had done themselves proud and knew that European football beckoned the next year for the first time in Rangers' history - but there was no silverware for us, disappointingly - not even runners` up medals!
And yet, Rs fans who were involved, in whatever fashion, with the club back in the day, have never forgotten their heroes, or the season, of 1975/76 - my tag line is even "75/76 - What a Year!" I even drink my tea from a 75/76 mug bought a couple of years ago from the Club shop! I know exactly where I was and what I was doing the night Liverpool played their final league match! I will never forget . . . So it was with great joy and much interest that I tuned in to Sky Sports "The Time Of Our Lives" programme recently, where Jeff Stelling played host to Dave Thomas, Gerry Francis and, yes, the inimitable Stanley Bowles - looking older but, in all honesty, not that much different from 33 years ago! Well, ok, Bowles` hair is completely grey and short now! And I couldn`t tell for sure, but I`m betting that Dave Thomas` socks stayed up underneath his smart black trousers the whole of the programme! Gerry Francis is no different today from probably the day he was born - I`m convinced that man hasn`t changed his hairstyle since it first grew when he was a kid! What a distinctive barnet!!
The opening few minutes of the show alone where enough to make one feel nostalgic: turn back the clock, grow my hair long and find those flared jeans and bright floral print shirts that I know are around here somewhere! Images were flashed onto the screen of the lads back in '75/76 - McLintock hugging a long-haired Bowles after he`d scored yet another cracker for us! Givens, haring down the pitch after scoring for us, chased by Dave Clement and John Hollins, then being bundled to the ground by more team-mates, led by Dave Webb, all with looks of pure joy on their young faces. Gerry Francis receiving a "well-done" pat on the top of his flowing locks by a very young and baby-faced Dave Thomas, after a Francis goal had given us yet another win. What scenes - what memories!
Dave Thomas joined QPR from Burnley for a record fee - he played in all but one game during 75/76, scoring 9 goals himself but making many, many more with his precision crosses as he tore down the wing. Jeff Stelling described Stan Bowles as "a genuine crowd-pleaser, a goal-scorer and a creator, an entertainer, a skilful maverick and undoubtedly one of the most gifted players of his generation." Bowles had 8 seasons with QPR - all of which, I think, memorable. He had a unique relationship with Don Shanks - both on and off the pitch, which he spoke about often during the programme. And Gerry Francis, midfield maestro and the only QPR player ever to captain England, who was the captain of that wonderful team back in the day.
The three men, together with Jeff Stelling, spent the best part of an hour chatting about the achievement of the team. Francis admitted that it was only with hindsight that he, and others, realised just what the team had achieved during that season - particularly as, when Sexton joined the Club in `74, we were flirting with relegation at the time! "We put together a very, very good side that really, we felt, certainly that year, played some fantastic, flamboyant football and deserved to win it that year. Looking back, after that, you could see what a fantastic side we had," Francis admitted to Stelling.
Dave Thomas expounded the virtues of the man who turned everything around - manager Dave Sexton: "He was probably one of the best mentors of the game certainly that I`ve experienced. He was a football man through and through. He thought about the game all the time," he offered.
"He used to go abroad a lot. Then gradually Dave worked on the system from our point of view - he developed our play, get the ball out from the back, and we played very much a continental way of football, and he believed in that way," he continued.
Stan Bowles put a very different view on the manager: "Dave was a little bit strait-laced. Originally his tactics, cones and things like that, baffled me a little bit. I did have me fall-outs with Dave, but I came round to him! He proved to be our best manager" he confessed.
Continuing the theme of Dave Sexton, Thomas admitted that Sexton would pay for himself so he could go abroad, that`s how much the game meant to him. He also confessed a little-known secret - that Sexton had the players vote for a "player of the month" every month with a prize paid for by the manager himself.
"The unique thing that we used to have was that Dave, out of his own pocket, created a player of the month amongst the players and we used to vote for ourselves.
"If Stan didn`t like anyone he`d never pick them!"Dave Thomas admitted, which encouraged Stan to admit that Don Masson never won it! That sparked raucous laughter in the studio and brought a wry smile to my face! Then Thomas became serious again and explained that Sexton paid for paraphernalia, like cigarette lighters, engraved with the winner`s name on it, and the players still have that memorabilia to this very day!
At a training camp in Germany, so Thomas reminisced after prompting from Gerry Francis about Sexton developing the "wall" so that players could practice their free-kicks: "Dave saw these dummies, these big yellow dummies, and Dave asked if he could purchase them. Literally, he purchased them and all the players brought them back through customs!" Now there`s a thought!! And all the time, Thomas was waving his hands up and down enthusiastically, getting very excited as he sat in the brown, leather armchair that was placed in front of the glass table and fire-place that the four gentlemen all sat around; and he was grinning like a Cheshire cat, as he remembered "those good old days"!
Bowles, in his brown suit and blue, open-topped shirt, slouched in his armchair listening to Francis and Thomas reminisce, and would occasionally interject with some of the funniest anecdotes. He needed to warm up, but once Bowles got going he had some fantastic stories to tell! Whilst Francis and Thomas enthused about Sexton, Bowles remembered how he had to change the manager`s mind-set about him, work on him to give him some lee-way (bearing in mind the type of guy Bowles was - is!!), turn a "blind eye":
"He did about my timing!" to which Francis interjected: "He let you come in at ten to three!" So Bowles explained:
"He let me come in at ten to three eventually (on match days). Don Shanks used to cover up for me! Coz I`d be in a betting shop which is right next to the ground! He`d say I`d popped out there - (waving his hand in the air vaguely to indicate that being "out there" was nowhere in particular) took some tickets out to somebody, anything like that!
"When it all came out I said, well listen Dave it`s like a Sunday league match to me! You put your kit on and away we go! The crowds don`t bother me! By the way, what are the tactics today?!" The hysterics in the studio were loud and genuine and you could tell that the other players were as fond of Stan, in their way, even today, as we fans all were/are in our way!
"When you look at Stan, it didn`t make any difference. That`s the best way for him to do it!" said Francis, "I think that, sitting in there, would drive him mad! He was better out the way, doing his bits and pieces.
"I can remember a time, that season, we were playing Arsenal that evening. We trained in the morning and went back to Stan`s place to have a bit of lunch. His first wife was cooking for us and we were just about to start eating when there was a knock at the door. It was the bailiffs! They took the television, the table we were eating on and the meals were just on the floor, on the carpet!
"Anyway, we went to Arsenal that evening, drew 2-2 and Stan scored two goals! It didn`t make no difference!"
Stanley admitted: "See that was a relief to me, the football, going on the pitch. I`d have bookmakers looking for me and that 90 minutes (and he snapped his fingers as if that would describe how he felt about the football) let`s get on with it, that`s what it was all about." You`ve just gotta love him, don`t you?
"I brought the entertainment part from Manchester," he continued. "It was drilled in to you by Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer that you had to entertain the crowd.
"I did pick one thing off Rodney Marsh (I don`t get on with him) and that was in getting a penalty. You used to trip yourself up! And I noticed it. I pick little things up. You can delete that!" he called over his right shoulder to the programme editor!
Of course, Stanley also got the Number 10 shirt from Marsh but that didn`t seem to impress Mr Bowles at all - no love lost there, I can tell you!
And so to the advert break . . . Part Two brings more anecdotes from Stan Bowles, including the time he was sponsored by two different boot firms, till they found him out!
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