It is inevitable that a personal history of Queens Park Rangers in the late 1960s, told from the point of view of a pre-teenage boy, will often come across as little more than a thinly-veiled love letter to Rodney Marsh. So what are we to make of the man four decades on? Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and everyone’s got one when it comes to our former Clown Prince. Take your pick from the following:
Rodney Marsh is God.
Rodney Marsh is a prat.
QPR’s greatest-ever player.
Not fit to lace Stan Bowles’s boots.
One of the most intelligent and articulate footballers ever.
Talks utter cobblers.
True working class hero.
A poseur, who only drinks champagne - and don’t bother offering him a glass if it’s not Cristal from a suitable year.
Top QPR man.
An artist and a free spirit.
A big-head and a lazy sod.
Should be eternally grateful to QPR for resurrecting a career that was going nowhere.
Single-handedly transformed a struggling, impoverished football club that no-one had really heard of into one of the most exciting teams in the country.
I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture. After all, the man himself is never short of his own rather eccentric take on any number of subjects, the majority of which he is spectacularly uninformed about - Queens Park Rangers Football Club post-1972, being a prime example.
Of course your own point of view will depend greatly on whether you were around when he was playing, or whether you just know what you’ve read and what you see of the man on television. I personally am not a great lover of televised football, and I certainly have little interest in watching people talk about football, but it has to be said that a lot of people do.
The advent of satellite television transformed English football dramatically. It also provided an unexpected and extremely welcome earner for a bunch of ex-players. The usual suspects include quite a few of whom have played for the R’s at some time. Rodney Marsh would no doubt be considerably poorer if this had never happened. He would also be a lot more popular with Queens Park Rangers supporters. I get the feeling this doesn’t exactly bother him too much. Marsh is also largely unforgiven with QPR supporters for his involvement in the 1994 debacle which led to the resignation of Gerry Francis.
To help research my articles, I recently read Rodney’s autobiography. I found it to be self-serving to say the least. So someone you knew in the Cosmos team told you that Pele gave the team talk and told them that no.10 was the player to look out for. “His name’s Marsh. He’s English but plays like a Brazilian” Well, maybe we can let you get away with that - and I think the great man is a good judge. But recounting how you met Franz Beckenbauer at Bobby Moore’s funeral and the Kaiser remarking on what a good player you were seems unnecessary and shows a lack of class, to be honest.
A read of the great Tom Finney’s autobiography might be in order to get some idea of what humility is. It is also strewn with factual errors. If I can pay the limited readership of this magazine the respect of checking my facts before I send things in for publication, it shouldn’t be too much to ask Rodney Marsh to get names and dates right; and if it is, then surely it becomes the ghostwriter’s job. It doesn’t really matter that his great friend Bobby Keetch was not already at QPR when Rodney signed for Rangers in March 1966, as he now thinks and tells us on more than one occasion - but it is irritating when you know that he wasn’t, and is one of many similar mistakes.
Many things are glossed over or not mentioned at all. England played West Germany in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1972 in a massive game. This was without a doubt the biggest England game in which Rodney, just a few weeks after his move to Manchester City, actually started. This was about the time when people really started to think that Alf Ramsey had lost the plot. The game was the second-leg of a two-legged affair to reach the finals of the European Championship, which then consisted of just four teams. Gerd Muller had destroyed us at Wembley, Rodney replacing Geoff Hurst for the last 15 minutes. So England, 3-1 down, needed to be bold for the away tie.
Instead Sir Alf played Rodney on his own up front and Arsenal defender Peter Storey, who couldn’t beat an egg with the ball, in midfield. The result was a predictable, in some ways creditable, and completely useless goalless draw. You have to rely on me to give you this information as Rodders doesn’t mention it at all. Coming up to date, he does have some constructive things to say about the FA and the England management set-up - but, all in all, it’s a bit of a shame, especially when his first volume of autobiography, Shooting to the Top, published when he was all of 23, is short and sweet and altogether one of the finest examples of the genre up to that point.
So, Uncle Brian, I hear you say, you were there, what’s your verdict on Rodney Marsh? Well, children, allow me to finish my glass of port and I shall tell you.
For starters, nobody anywhere has ever had greater skill with a football. His first touch, juggling skills and ability to go past defenders were all absolutely sublime. He didn’t have the vision of a Les Allen - but when he did see other players in good positions, his passing was pretty damn spot on as well. Physically strong, he was as brave as they come, which surprised a lot of people. He was good in the air and, of course, he knew where the goal was.
With another yard of pace Rodney would have been one of the World’s great players. He was quick enough to run rings around defenders in Divisions Two and Three, but got found out slightly at the highest level. He couldn’t tackle to save his life, and when he did try to defend from the front, it usually led to a booking. The greatest players I ever saw were Pele - and Rodney’s contemporary and great friend George Best. George could do everything Rodney could do but he could do it at pace and he also knew how to defend. He could also do everything Stan could do but equally well with both feet.
So was Rodney a team player, or did he just play for himself? This is when the debate gets interesting. Rodney would surely say that 44 goals in a season, which was his haul in 1966/67, is doing rather a good job for the team - and, of course, he would be right. Ultimately though, when the team was struggling as it was in 1968/69 - and indeed as Manchester City were for a period in the mid-70s - Rodney was found wanting. Compare with Stan Bowles, who was brilliant in the team of all talents of the mid-70s but also produced some heroic performances for Rangers in a struggling team a couple of seasons later. I remember one game against Arsenal which Stan won practically by himself.
Close examination also leads me to believe that Rodney had his best spells when the pressure was off. He was outstanding in the Venables-inspired team of 1969/71, which led to him becoming QPR’s first full England international for 63 years. In reality, Rangers were still shellshocked from the nightmare season they had spent in the First Division and no-one was keen to get back too soon. At City, Rodney joined when they were top of the league with six weeks to go, a position they then proceeded to blow spectacularly. Marsh was blamed for this in some quarters - although, in fairness, I can’t really see how you can blame a striker for that, especially as he did manage a few goals in this time.
For the next three seasons they were in mid-table, excellent at home, where Rodney scored some fantastic goals and soon became almost as much of a hero to the City supporters as he had been to R’s fans, but with an appalling away record which gained them a reputation as a team seriously lacking in bottle, and Rodney as a maverick who played only when he was in the mood - i.e. at home, rather similar to the way Paolo Di Canio is looked on now.
Stan loved being part of a team and harnessed his talents accordingly. Rodney? Well, at the end of the day... yes, Rodney did really play for himself.
So what of Rodney the bloke? Let me put it this way. Imagine that when you were a kid you had a favourite uncle. Indeed you may not need to imagine. Maybe your Mum or Dad’s younger brother, not yet weighed down with any responsibilities himself. The kind of uncle who gave you presents when it wasn’t your birthday, turned up out of the blue and told you to leave your homework because he had tickets for an England game, could do really good card tricks, let you have a sip of his light ale at Christmas when no-one was looking - that sort of thing.
As you got a little older you realised that not everyone in the family liked him as much as you did, and when you got a little older still you realised why you had liked him so much. Which was because he was like a child himself in lots of ways: feckless, a little irresponsible - having a laugh always more important than the daily grind. Still, you would always defend him because you had a resolute belief that his heart was in the right place, and it was an undeniable fact that, although your parents had done all the hard work and made all the sacrifices, Uncle had without doubt made your childhood better than it would have been if he hadn’t been around. Well, that is how I feel about Rodney Marsh.
One of the many contradictions about Rod, and one which many may find surprising, given his supreme ability with a football, is that he lacked confidence in many ways. This showed itself particularly during his brief international career. He never really looked as if he felt that he should be out there when we all knew that he had the talent to take any team apart. Sadly, he never did. One statistic that he shares with Stan is that his only international goal was against Wales, which hardly counts really. Off the pitch, he was very shy in the early days, and extremely nervous on the odd occasion he was asked to do an interview. All very different to his latter day media persona. It’s my belief that the brash, motormouth, always-speak-before-engaging-brain character that most of you will be familiar with was largely created to hide an inherent shyness and insecurity.
I’m not a great lover of Sky television and I think football was better before they were on the scene. The never-ending self-promotion, the way they would have us believe that there was no football worth mentioning in this country before 1992, the elitism, the ridiculous kick-off times, the generation of armchair experts it has spawned - I would get rid of all of it tomorrow if it was up to me. Yes, I do enjoy being able to watch a Spanish game occasionally - but I didn’t exactly miss it all the years when I couldn’t.
Having said that, I certainly don’t blame Rodney Marsh, Frank McLintock and the rest of them for taking their shilling. Like most players from that age, Rodney came from a background where money was tight, and started in football in an age when players were still exploited and underpaid. Consequently he has always had an eye for an earner - and who can blame him? In all fairness, who amongst us would turn down the chance to meet up with the lads on a Saturday lunchtime, down a few lagers, talk a load of shite and get handsomely paid for it?
So Rodney Marsh spouts rubbish on television. Well, there’s no argument against that really - but he is hardly the only one, and anyone who watches it just encourages it.
The more serious charge and cause of lingering resentment among R’s fans is that Marsh seriously damaged the club in 1994, with his failed attempt to become Chief Executive. My own view is that Rodney was ever-so-slightly used on this occasion. The Thompson family may not have known much about football, but they had immaculate breeding in the art of pulling people’s strings for their own ends. Two of the clubs three greatest-ever players, the ego-driven Marsh, so flattered that his opinion was seemingly highly valued, and the dour and uncommunicative Francis, so positive when he graced the Loftus Road pitch and so negative in everything else, both played their pre-written roles to perfection in the Thompson’s script, giving them their desired result.
Gerry left without the expense of being sacked - and our favourite son was cast as the villain. Marsh swears to this day that he wasn’t going to agree to anything until he’d had a chance to discuss it with Francis to see if the arrangement would work. He says Francis wouldn’t talk to him. Sounds like Gerry. Nevertheless it is proof of Rodney’s vanity that he jumped at the bait in the first place after spending the previous 16 years in the United States. After all, he had played alongside Gerry Francis for three years and must have had a fair idea of how he would react.
So thanks for the happy childhood, Rodney, and for the memories that will never fade. You are probably the reason that I am a QPR supporter - and though we may joke about it, I don’t regret a single day. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, you are our second greatest-ever player, ahead of Gerry Francis, Dave Thomas and Les Ferdinand. None of us are perfect, least of all me, and I salute you.
So who among us would turn down the chance to meet up with the lads on a Saturday lunchtime, down a few lagers, talk a load of nonsense and get well paid for it? Well, there is someone who did a couple of games for Sky, decided he didn’t like being dictated to by Andy Gray about what he could or couldn’t say, and told them to stuff it. Who was he? Well, he was Stanley Bowles - and as you may have guessed, he is my true all-time football hero.
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