They played for Chelsea, Arsenal, QPR, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and a host of other teams and they are legends. True legends.
You know it’s set to be a bad week when you wake up on a Monday morning and the first thing you hear is a 1970s football legend threatening to drill through your knee-caps with a Black & Decker.
It’s June 1995. Before I’m halfway through my first Woodbine and mug of coffee, I’ve got Charlie George on the phone and he’s not a happy man.
“Here,” he says in a the sort of accent you rarely hear outside of low-budget British gangster films, “is that Jon Wilde?”
Against my better judgment, I confirm it is so.
“Listen up, you cunt, I’m gonna fucking knee-cap you. Understand?”
Quite honestly, I didn’t understand. A month previous I’d met up with the former Arsenal striker at Scribes West, a West London bar then part-owned by Terry “El Tel” Venables. Joining us at the table were another couple of ex-pros, Chelsea's Ron “Chopper” Harris and QPR's Stan “The Man” Bowles, both as colourful and controversial in their time as Charlie George himself.
The evening had gone swimmingly. The drinks flowed like the Ganges in full spate, the trio regaled me with salty tales about what being a footballer entailed in the 70s, and I staggered home to write the piece up for Loaded. The piece was published and that, seemingly, was that.
Unbeknownst to me and to the publishers of Loaded, the story had been nicked by the Sunday Mirror and published without credits.
“I’m not a happy man,” Charlie George confirms, most unhappily. You’ve never heard a man so unhappy. “If I’d sold my story to a fucking tabloid, they’d have given me a million quid. Understood? So I’m expecting this matter to be settled. Otherwise…knee-caps...”
The saga dragged on for weeks. George would call me up two or three times a day. Depending on his mood, he could either be threatening (“I’m not fucking messing about here”) or vaguely conciliatory (“Listen, we need to fucking sort this out, pronto.”)
Eventually, the calls stopped coming. Maybe Charlie George simply lost interest in the cause. Maybe someone had a word in his ear and enlightened him to the fact that I hadn’t ripped him off for a million oncers. Either way, it did little to spoil the memory of a rip-roaring night out with the two Fancy Dans and the ruthless hatchet man…
Opening the video box I find that the movie inside has only the faintest connection with Frank Darabont’s prison epic. Instead I find myself in possession of a hard-core jazz flick entitled Prison Sluts Go Cock Crazy Vol. 12.
There was Charlie George, lighting up the first of many ciggies and holding forth with tales of his stormy run-ins with the football authorities of the 70s. A bona fide Cockney rebel, King Charlie was always destined to be remembered as much for his frequent squabbles with the FA bigwigs as for his achievements on the pitch. He became a household name overnight when he collapsed on the Wembley turf in 1971 after slamming the winning goal past Ray Clemence for Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. George celebrated by laying flat on his back with arms aloft, seemingly admiring a sudden erection that turned his shorts into a scout tent. Over the next four years he would delight the Highbury faithful with his swashbuckling skills and enrage the establishment with his bad boys antics. He swore at linesmen, saluted rival supporters with V-signs and petulantly kicked balls out of stadiums. After trading in his shoulder-length hair for a bubble perm, he left Arsenal in 1975 and found a new lease of life under Tommy “The Doc” Docherty at Derby County.
It was during this period that George won his one and only England cap, playing sixty minutes against the Republic Of Ireland. A promising England career was cut short when he rudely declined Ron Greenwood’s invitation to join England’s B squad on tour. He left Derby County for Southampton, before moving on to Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth. A brief excursion in Hong Kong brought down the curtain on his playing career. After a failed attempt at pub management, he worked as a clerk in a King’s Cross garage. At the time of our meeting, he had just begun working at the Arsenal Museum in Finsbury Park and talked up the possibility of having a stab at football management. In recent years he has been employed by Arsenal as part of their Legends stadium tour.
Through the 70s, Stan Bowles was second only to Georgie Best in terms of notoriety and back page controversy. As QPR’s undisputed golden boy, his breathtaking talent was constantly imperilled by his tendency to self-destruct. Stan was never far from the headlines, if not for his awesome goalscoring feats ( Bowles was more a scorer of great goals than a great goalscorer) then for his bust-ups with players and managers. Or for his hectic social life which revolved exclusively around booze, bookies and birding it up. “If Stan could pass a betting shop like he could pass a ball,” one manager opined, “he’d be the richest man in England.” Never popular with the football establishment, Bowles won just five England caps, his only international goal coming against Wales in 1974. True to form, he ambushed his chances of further England glory when, famously, he went AWOL from an England training session, turning up later the same day at the White City dog track. After spells with Nottingham Forest, Orient and Brentford, Bowles drifted out of the game, claiming to spend his time, “ducking and diving, living from day to day, having a laugh.”
During our interview, he demonstrated that he had lost none of his roguish charm by offering to flog me a “moody” copy of The Shawshank Redemption for a tenner. Opening the video box I find that the movie inside has only the faintest connection with Frank Darabont’s prison epic. Instead I find myself in possession of a hard-core jazz flick entitled Prison Sluts Go Cock Crazy Vol. 12. “Must have got them mixed up at the warehouse,” the QPR legend chuckles. “I’ve got plenty more where that came from if you’re interested.” Since our meeting, Bowles has earned a crust writing betting columns for newspapers and also appears on the after-dinner speaker circuit.
Ron “Chopper” Harris was the most feared defender of his generation, a man capable of making fellow hatchet men like Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter and Tommy Smith look like Angels Of Mercy by comparison. Delicate wing-halves, so it is said, would tremble at the mere sight of Chopper’s name on the Chelsea team-sheet. Entire stadiums would quake in anticipation as football’s hardest hard man jumped in for another rib-caving tackle. Chopper might have lacked the glamorous appeal of flair merchants like Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson but, in a 20-year career with Chelsea, he was always a firm favourite among the terrace boot-boys.
But I have to go along with it ‘cos some of these blokes are built like brick shithouses and they’d whale the tar out of me if they thought I was taking the piss. Truth is I hardly remember any of it. If I’m completely honest I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday.
After captaining Chelsea to an extremely brutal FA Cup final win over Leeds in 1970, he lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year and went on to make over 800 appearances for the club before becoming Brentford’s player-coach in the early 80s. After being sacked by Brentford in 1983 he decided he’d had his fill of the game and devoted his formidable energies to earning a tidy fortune in property investment. He recently published an autobiography, Chopper: A Chelsea Legend.
Charlie: It’s good to know that as long as I live there’s always going to be someone coming up wanting to talk about something that happened during my playing days. Usually it’s the same old things that come up. They’ll ask me about flicking the V-sign to supporters or telling some linesman to stick his flag up his arse. Most of the time though it’s that cup final goal against Liverpool. They’ll ask me why I collapsed on the ground after I scored it. My answer is always the same. I fell down because I didn’t have another drop of energy left in me. I wasn’t thinking that I ought to do something that people will remember. I was just fucking knackered. As for that rumour about me having an erection while I was laying there, that’s bollocks. I never got an erection after scoring a goal.
Chopper: I didn’t score too many goals in my time so I’m mainly remembered for my tackles. I still get people coming up and saying, “Remember that time you crunched into George Best at Old Trafford?” But that’s twenty years ago. I don’t sit around thinking about tackles I made back then. I’d be stark raving bonkers if I did.
Stan: I’m the same as Chopper in that respect. I’ll be having a quiet beer somewhere and some bloke will come up and say, “Remember that volley you scored against Stoke in ’74? Remember when you nutmegged Micky Droy at Stamford Bridge?” And I’m going, “Yeah, yeah, remember it well.” Meanwhile I’m thinking I haven’t got a fucking clue what this geezer is going on about. But I have to go along with it ‘cos some of these blokes are built like brick shithouses and they’d whale the tar out of me if they thought I was taking the piss. Truth is I hardly remember any of it. If I’m completely honest I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday.
Chopper: I don’t really mind that I’m only remembered as a bloke who went in hard. It’s better than not being remembered at all. I’m hardly going to be fondly remembered for my silky ball skills, am I? ‘Cos I didn’t have any of those. I was never what you’d call a gifted footballer so I had to play to my strengths. Mostly that involved stopping the other team playing at all costs. One of my early managers said to me, “I want you to stick to that forward like shit to a blanket. When he tries to get past you, kick seven shades out of him. Do whatever’s necessary.” It just went on from there. They’d say to me, “If Bestie goes off for a shit, you stay with him.” I was hard but I never saw myself as a dirty player. I’d always go for the ball. Quite often I’d take the man as well. But that was more a case of bad timing than, er, malice aforethought.
When Chopper took your legs from under you, at least he’d be upfront about it. I’d see him for a beer after the match and say, “Fuck me, Chopper, you were a right cunt today.” But there was no hard feelings about it. It was part and parcel of the game.
Stan: I had some proper run-ins with Chopper over the years. He used to get booked every time we played against each other. I always knew I’d get a bruising time from him. Being tackled by Chopper was like being hit by a fucking great lorry. Funnily enough though, I never saw him as a dirty player. Now Johnny Giles from Leeds, he was a sly bastard. He’d wait ‘til the ball had gone and the ref had turned his back. Then he’d kick you one. Everyone would be following the ball so he usually got away with it. When Chopper took your legs from under you, at least he’d be upfront about it. I’d see him for a beer after the match and say, “Fuck me, Chopper, you were a right cunt today.” But there was no hard feelings about it. It was part and parcel of the game.
Charlie: Every time I played against Chopper I took a right hammering. But I gave as good as I got. He whacked me really hard one time at Highbury so I jumped up and down on his chest. He was coughing up blood according to the papers. All the other Chelsea players piled in and it was a mass brawl. Didn’t bother me. I liked a fight. And I always stood up for myself. That’s how I was brought up. Coming from Holloway you learn from the pram to nut people who pick on you.
Charlie: I always got on fine with the Arsenal supporters because they saw me as one of their own. I liked a drink and a bet and they could either find me down the local or down the bookies. I was on first-name terms with half of them. I’d see them down the pub after a game and they knew they could come over and have a chat. I wasn’t one of them footballers that hid behind the velvet rope. I didn’t ponce it up like some superstar. There was no chance of me getting an ego because the supporters would keep me in check. If they thought I was talking bollocks they’d tell me so. If I’d had a bad game they’d say, “Fuck me, Charlie, you were useless today. You couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.” And I’d say, “Fair point. Now get the beers in.”
Stan: I was like Charlie in a way, just a working-class bloke who liked to live it up a bit. So the supporters always stuck by me. If the game was a bit quiet I’d hang around the touchline and say to them, “What about the 3.30 at Haydock Park then?” And they’d shout out the winner. If I’d backed the winner it did wonders for my game. During the game I’d talk to the crowd about all sorts of things. Someone would shout out, “What you reckon to the new Slade single?” And I’d go, “It’s not as good as the last one.”
Click here to read part two of Stan, Chopper and Charlie on the 70s glory days
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook