The spring of 1984 was not the best of times in Great Britain. The miners were at loggerheads with Maggie Thatcher’s government over pit closures, leading to violence between striking miners and the police at picket lines, WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot and killed during a siege at the Libyan Embassy and unemployment reached a record of 3,260,000.
By contrast, things couldn’t be much better for fans of Queen’s Park Rangers as we were coming off one of the most successful three-year periods in the club’s history. After the 1975/76 season we had suffered a barren period which ultimately led to relegation to the Second Division in 1978/79.
The appointment of former R’s midfielder Terry Venables as manager from Crystal Place in October 1980, followed swiftly by a large number of leading players from the South London club that had been dubbed, “the team of the 80’s” just a few years previously, helped to rapidly change the club’s fortunes.
In his first full season at the helm, Venables led the club to our first and only FA Cup Final appearance in May 1982. He followed this by gaining promotion to the old First Division as Second Division Champions the following season. Our first season back in the top flight in 1983/84 then saw us achieve a final league table placing of 5th which qualified Rangers for entry into the UEFA Cup for the 1984/85 season.
This success all came at a price though with Venables, along with his assistant Allan Harris, being tempted away by the challenge of becoming the management team at Spanish giants Barcelona. Following a few years of stability under Venables, anarchy then returned to Loftus Road with former boss Gordon Jago being appointed team manager, then being sacked after a week due to player power led by captain, Terry Fenwick, who had threatened to leave the club.
On the back of this, leading striker and England international Clive Allen, who had scored 83 goals in 147 appearances during his two spells with the club, announced he wanted to leave. Allen had refused to sign a contract extension under Venables the previous season, stating that he wanted to play abroad and broaden his outlook – so he moved across London to Spurs for £750,000 !
All of a sudden everything in the Loftus Road garden was not so rosy. How often have we seen similar rapid declines in fortune ? The stability of the Venables era was over, the captain wasn’t happy and our leading scorer had been sold. It seemed as if life for fans of the Superhoops had become as turbulent as the events happening all around the country.
In June 1984, former England captain Alan Mullery, a Notting Hill born R’s fan, took over as manager having previously managed Charlton Athletic, Brighton & Hove Albion and then Crystal Palace where he had been disliked due to the Eagles rivalry with the Seagulls. Mullery’s first action as R’s manager was to try and find a replacement for Clive Allen, an England international striker who had scored better than a goal every other game on average for the club. His search saw him make an approach to West Bromwich Albion for Cyrille Regis, but this bid was rejected.
Mullery then agreed a fee with Birmingham City for striker Mick Harford, a familiar name to modern day R’s fans. A fee of £300,000 was agreed and Harford was even flown back from the Blues tour of Holland, but personal terms could not be agreed.
So Mullery then turned his attention to South Yorkshire where Sheffield Wednesday had just achieved promotion to the top flight, aided by the goals of Gary Bannister. The diminutive striker had scored 55 goals in his three seasons with the Owls and to this day remains a legendary figure at the club, although at the time his departure did not sit well with Wednesday’s fans. Bannister was highly sought after by both Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Sunderland but, on his 24th Birthday (22/7/1984), Gary Bannister signed for Queens’s Park Rangers.
Bannister stated that he felt more welcome at Loftus Road than he did at the other clubs. In fact he was two minutes away from signing for Sunderland until Rangers stepped in. Another factor was the style of play. Wednesday at the time were known for their long ball style which Bannister had grown weary of under the management of Howard Wilkinson. So a legendary Loftus Road career was born with a fee of £200,000 being agreed.
Gary Bannister’s first game for the club was against West Bromwich Albion on a 90 degree day in West London. Rangers won 3-1, with Bannister hitting it off straight away with strike partner Simon Stainrod who scored twice. Bannister had been substituted after 74 minutes due to tiredness in the extreme heat, having run himself into the ground in a manner we would become accustomed to. Stainrod in fact admitted after the game with regards to former partner Clive Allen: “We never really hit it off as a partnership and I think I already have a better understanding with Gary Bannister”.
Three days later we were to witness the first of his 72 goals for the club in a 1-1 draw at Watford, an effort described by manager Alan Mullery as “having a hint of Puskas” in reference to the legendary Hungarian. He then hit a rich vein of form, especially in cup competitions. Bannister hit two goals in each of the two legs of the Milk Cup against York City.
Rangers started their first European adventure in eight seasons against KR Reykjavik FC of Iceland, with Bannister scoring in a 3-0 first-leg away win. For the second-leg Rangers had to play at Highbury, the home of Arsenal, due to UEFA’S ban on artificial pitches. This didn’t affect “Banno” as he carried on in the fine tradition of Stanley Bowles in our 1976/77 UEFA Cup campaign by scoring a hat-trick in a 4-0 win.
In the Second Round of the competition, Rangers beat Partizan Belgrade on a rainy, but memorable night at Highbury. Despite being down to ten men after Warren Neill’s sending off, we came back from 2-1 down to win 6-2 with Bannister scoring twice. The second came after a 60-yard run from his own half by Bannister that Carl Lewis, the American sprinter who had won the Olympic gold in Los Angeles that year, would have been proud of, to meet Steve Burke’s cross from the left-wing.
The second-leg would see Rangers become the first English team to lose a four-goal lead in Europe, losing 4-0 in Yugoslavia and being knocked out on away goals. Yugoslavia was not a lucky country for Mullery, as it was playing against their national side in 1968 when he became the first England player ever to be sent off in a full international. The Partizan game effectively was the death knell for his managerial reign at the club with players and fans campaigning to Chairman Jim Gregory for him to be sacked.
The biggest success story of Mullery’s reign was undoubtedly the signing of Bannister who up until the first-leg of the Partizan game had scored 14 goals in his first 15 games for the club. Included in this were goals against the then league leaders Nottingham Forest and a goal in the remarkable 5-5 game against Newcastle United when the R’s had been 0-4 down at half-time. That still ranks as the most incredible game I’ve seen at Loftus Road.
You can say what you like about Mullery, but there were certainly some very entertaining games in his few months at the helm. Bust-ups with certain players, namely Terry Fenwick and Simon Stainrod, sealed his fate and after a 2-0 WIN against Stoke City (only at QPR could this happen !), with the goals scored by Bannister and Gregory, Mullery was sacked.
Following Mullery’s sacking, Frank Sibley was given the job for the rest of the season. Sibley was a loyal servant to Rangers. He was the youngest ever Rangers first team player when he made his debut at the age of 15 years and 9 months in 1963 and sadly had to retire at the age of 25 due to injury. He later managed the team during the 1977/78 season (Dave Sexton was a very tough act to follow) and was dismissed at the end of that season after narrowly avoiding relegation. He went on to manage Walsall briefly and would spend an amazing total of 34 years at Rangers in his various spells as player, coach, assistant-manager and manager.
During the rest of the 1984/85 season, Gary Bannister would score some more vital goals for the club, in particular one against Chelsea on Boxing Day and two against league leaders Spurs, the second of which was a trademark header. Remarkably, Bannister had one leg two inches shorter than the other after breaking his leg aged 11. Gary in fact took offence to TV pundit Jimmy Hill who made reference to this fact to millions of viewers during a live televised match against Liverpool as Gary considered this to be a private matter. Hill had been Chairman of Coventry City during Bannister’s spell there early in his career.
By the end of the season Bannister had scored 28 goals in 55 games in a struggling team that had only stayed up by one point. He seemed to really suit the plastic pitch with his low centre of gravity – in fact only 6 of his goals came in away games.
In the summer of 1985, Jim Smith was appointed manager of the club after arriving from Oxford United. Gary was asked about the managerial merry-go-round at Loftus Road and said: “I’m paid to play football, not to make political observations about the management side of things”.
Gary was to have a new strike partner in the 1985/86 season, a combination that was much loved and was also inspirational for the young fans of that era – people like Marc Bircham and Kevin Gallen. John Byrne, who had signed for the club following our Milk Cup meetings with York City the previous October, paired up with Gary.
Bannister started the new season as he had ended the previous one, with two goals in a 2-1 win at Aston Villa. He followed this up with a goal against Nottingham Forest and was brought down for what proved to be the winning penalty in the 2-1 win which took us to third in the table, with manager Jim Smith later bemoaning the fact we had a crowd of only 10,748 that day.
It seemed that Bannister had his favourite opposing teams – Forest being one as he scored against them in the Milk Cup 4th Round after the original game had been postponed due to a pre-match floodlight failure with the stadium full. Champions Everton were another team he loved to play against. He scored twice against them in both games that season.
After the second of those games, a 4-3 defeat at Goodison Park in January, he then went 12 games without scoring, but Gary came back in style in the game that would send him into Loftus Road folklore.
The date was Easter Monday, March 31st 1986. London rivals Chelsea were the visitors to Loftus Road. Rangers, having disposed of the South West Londoners in the Milk Cup Quarter-Finals the month before on the Stamford Bridge beach (and they moaned about our plastic pitch !), had just beaten Liverpool to reach the Milk Cup Final after a two-legged Semi-Final, Chelsea, under manager John Hollins, were front runners for the League Championship and were full of themselves heading into the Easter weekend. However, they had just been humiliated 0-4 at home by West Ham United on the Saturday and more humiliation was to follow less than 48 hours later.
So it was an Easter Monday 11.30am kick-off in W12 and this didn’t seem to suit Chelsea who played like a bunch of their famous pensioners. It certainly suited Gary Bannister though. Having nearly been left out of the game by manager Jim Smith due to his goal-less spell, he netted twice early on after 9 and 25 minutes, then completed a memorable hat-trick after 58 minutes. It was such a walk in the park that Bannister and John Byrne spent the last ten minutes or so playing on either wing so that Chelsea hard man Dough Rougvie couldn’t injure them before the upcoming Milk Cup Final !
What an amazing way for Bannister to end the worst goal scoring drought of his career !
(Thanks to Martin Percival for the use of the above pics. Part two will follow in the near future)