The Magnificent Mavericks

QPR seems ready to rise again from the depths of the so called championship to regain a place in the premier division. Should they do so, much will be owed to the 21-year-old Moroccan, Adel Taarabt. Over to Brian Glanville.

At Queens Park Rangers in West London there is a new, sometimes magnificent, maverick. The word “sometimes” is relevant because the classical thing about mavericks, however magnificent when on song is that they can also be so inconsistent, frustrating and irrelevant. But QPR's Moroccan international, born as it happens, in France and signed from Spurs who got him from Lens, is squarely in the grand maverick tradition at the Shepherds Bush Club of Rodney Marsh and Stanley Bowles, heroes of the past, when QPR were a power in the land, though now they do seem ready to rise again from the depths of the so called championship to regain a place in the premier division.

Should they do so, much will be owed to the 21-year-old Moroccan, Adel Taarabt and Tottenham Hotspur may already be regretting that they let him go, initially on loan, across London having offered him so few chances in their first team. Not that Taarabt, whom one might best describe as inside forward, rather than under the imprecise category of a midfielder, is everybody's cup of tea. Not even for his teammates or his own manager, Neil Warnock, at times an explosive enough fellow himself. Taarabt with his manifold skills can do the supremely unexpected, make goals out of nothing for himself or a teammate: yet at the same time madden his team and his manager with his sheer self indulgence. The more so that when his teammates express their exasperation, he can go sulkily into his shell and virtually disappear from a game for a subsequent period.

This season, however, he has been scoring goals frequently, by contrast with the recent past and making them too in moments of altruism and inspiration for his fellows. Warnock himself will smilingly admit at post match conferences that Taarabt, who stands 5 foot 11 inches tall and has the physique to resist tackles, can frustrate and baffle him too. It's something, he plainly feels, which he himself simply has to live with. In the meantime, Taarabt is one of the salient reasons why Rangers should at long last return to a Championship which once they so nearly won.

It was in season 1975-6, they, an unfashionable club with an unusually gifted team, came within an ace of pipping then mighty Liverpool to the title. Only a most untypical slip by their usually reliable goalkeeper, Phil Parkes, in their last league match at Norwich enabled Liverpool to pip them on the post by a single, agonising point. QPR have never come so close again.

The star of that QPR team was another splendid maverick, Stan Bowles, briefly with Manchester City, a northerner who would emphatically make his name in London. Bowles, taking over, where that other, supreme maverick Rodney Marsh had left off, had a glorious left foot, where Marsh had succeeded with his right. Bowles was endlessly elusive. A superb ball player, as indeed was Marsh, capable of scoring spectacular solo goals, but always ready to create them for his colleagues. He played only five times for England and alas it never really worked out. There was a notorious occasion when he was substituted at half time in a match at Wembley and walked straight out of the stadium, making for the old greyhound stadium at White City, just across the way from QPR's Loftus Road Stadium. There he was followed by a press photographer who was duly punched by one of Bowles's less reputable friends. For Bowles, betting was in the blood: he was constantly in and out of the betting shops around the QPR stadium in Shepherd's Bush. One of his teammates once told me that sooner or later, he expected he'd be found dead in a doorway. Fortunately, however, this hasn't happened.

Marsh by contrast was and is a Londoner though born a small distance away in Hatfield. Powerfully built, standing six foot and weighing over twelve stone, he had the strength to go with his exceptional ball skills. He'd begun at Fulham where those skills were evident enough but Fulham rashly let him move a few miles away to Shepherd's Bush where he truly flourished. He was another player who could conjure goals out of nowhere, had a fierce right footed shot and was a no mean competitor in the air. He made nine appearances for England, first when at QPR, then when he went to Manchester City. An ill-judged transfer effected by City's flamboyant ultra Londoner manager, Malcolm Allison. In enlisting Marsh he broke up the pattern of the team, excluding the popular and influential skipper and right half Mike Doyle. So Rodney never showed his best in Manchester, ironically enough Bowles' city of birth, where City had been his original club. Somehow or other, though, Marsh never showed his true talents with England.

Talking of Manchester City, they now have the last word in mavericks in the shape of Mario Balotelli, a superb natural talent and a perpetual rebel, 20-years-old, imperviously conceited, utterly convinced of his own talents, yet a perpetual rebel. He cost City GBP24 million when he arrived last summer from Inter with a reputation for mutinous behaviour as well as for exceptional abilities. His Ghanaian parents settled in Palermo, where he was born but he was adopted by parents in the north of Italy.

His present manager is Roberto Mancini, who nurtured his precocious talents when managing Inter, not least in decreeing that Balotelli be allowed to take all the free kicks within range of the opposing goal, with his dynamic right foot. But when Jose Mourinho arrived, things would change. Balotelli was no longer indulged in his various moods and sulks. And when it came to the World Cup, Marcello Lippi didn't pick Balotelli for South Africa.

A serious mistake, in my view, a want of the courage to take a chance, for the Azzurri were miserably lacking in the flair and surprise Balotelli on his day might have given them. At Manchester City, his form has been erratic, his relations with Mancini not always peaceful. One moment he seems to want to go back to Italy, maybe to AC Milan, the next he seems happy to stay. But that's how mavericks tend to be. You can only hope that when it counts, they'll deliver. Balotelli still has much about him of the spoilt adolescent. But note that under new management, Italy are picking him. His recent hat-trick, two absolutely from the penalty spot, at Aston Villa showed what he can do for a team.