The less said about “Black Sunday” at Wembley in the Milk Cup Final against Oxford United the better ! Rangers had done all the hard work in beating Hull City, Watford, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea and Liverpool on the way to the Twin Towers, but didn’t show up on the day. Bannister was totally ineffective, disillusioned upfront and given no service.
The chance of a lifetime for many of those players to win a winners medal at Wembley was wasted. As fans, will we ever get a chance as good as that again to win a trophy at Wembley ? Twenty seven years on it still grates with me and most R’s fans that saw the game. Bannister still ended the 1985/86 season as top scorer again though with a creditable 18 goals in 46 appearances.
The 1986/87 season was one of the poorest in recent memory as the likes of Clive Walker and Gary Chivers donned the Hoops. Personally, I would have got rid of Jim Smith after the Milk Cup Final debacle, where he admitted that the team were beaten in the dressing room beforehand due to suffering from nerves. He had enough experience to know how to motivate or relax players, maybe he was the one who really froze against the club he had managed less than one year before ?
The new season started badly with a 5-1 defeat at Southampton, with Bannister being substituted for the footballing genius and future talkSPORT presenter Alan Brazil. Bannister then struck back with 3 goals in 3 games, including his only penalty for the club in a midweek win at Newcastle.
The Cup competitions were not to be our saviour in this season with defeats at Charlton Athletic in the re-branded Littlewoods Cup and at Second Division Leeds United where Rangers fans did their best to avoid the coins being thrown by the Leeds fans during the pitch invasion after their 2-1 win. We arrived back in London to read the early editions of the Sunday newspapers with their exclusives regarding our proposed merger with Fulham. I’ve had better days !!!
Gary showed his outspoken side after the Leeds game criticising Jim Smith’s tactics, stating: “We should have gone for the win after getting the equaliser, we just settled for the replay”.
After the merger fiasco ended, the season turned into a damp squib, much as the previous season had after Wembley. There were even reports of a transfer request from Bannister who wanted assurances of his future from the club. Jim Smith commented: “There has been no written transfer request from Bannister”.
One high point was the visit to Vicarage Road on a Monday night in April where Rangers won 3-0 with a hat-trick from who else but…Gary Bannister. He would end the season with a commendable 16 goals.
The 1987/88 season would be the final season in which Gary would wear the Hoops and he started it as he had done pretty much throughout his Rangers career, he scored in a 3-0 away win v West Ham United on the opening day at Upton Park and again four days later against Peter Shilton and Derby County.
There was then a four-game barren spell for Bannister until it ended, in style, against a familiar opponent, our rivals Chelsea. If Gary hadn’t already achieved his place in the hearts and history of our great club then he cemented it on a sunny September afternoon as he scored another hat-trick to take us 5 points clear at the top of the league. Gary managed to get the match ball from that game after trying to get hold of it for an hour as the ref had it locked in his dressing room.
He added: “I didn’t get the ball signed, I did get one signature but it smudged. I’ve now got two from playing Chelsea. I keep them on top of a cupboard in the kitchen so that my son can’t play with them”. Two hat-trick match balls from games against Chelsea ! Blimey, how much would they go for on ebay ?!!!
After that game there were also reports of an international call-up for Gary, but not with England who he had one U21 cap for, but Wales, due to his great-grandparents. The FA said no because of this one U21 cap. “I would have said yes to Wales”, said Gary. “I feel England have written me off, the U21 game was a miserable experience, they played me in midfield and I was taken off”.
There is a history of international sport in Gary’s family though as his sister Julie represented England at hockey. Gary can consider himself unlucky to have been playing in that era with the likes of Gary Lineker around. In this day and age nearly 20+ league goals every season would get you a certain call-up, especially as he was a more all-round player than someone like Clive Allen who he had replaced at Rangers and who was purely a goalscorer.
The 1987/88 team managed to keep the run going at the top of the league for a while, only coming unstuck with a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool in October in front of a sell out crowd and the largest ever Rangers travelling support to Anfield for a league game – bettered only by the Milk Cup semi-final crowd of the previous year.
That defeat knocked us off the top spot and ten days after the game Gary was to sustain a knee injury in a Littlewoods Cup game at Bury which ruled him out for a month. Who is to know whether this injury was to curtail his Rangers career early ? He certainly seemed to struggle after it unfortunately, only scoring one goal for the rest of the year. During this period the club had signed another forward, the ex-Spurs striker Mark Falco from Glasgow Rangers for £350,000.
In the New Year, Gary put aside reports of a £300,000 bid by former club Coventry City, to score against West Ham in the FA Cup 4th Round. He said after the game: “I have two years left on my contract, they can sell me if they like, if they don’t there’s nothing I can do about it”.
Within two months the deal to Highfield Road was done and one of the most treasured and respected players in our history, was on his way. Coventry City manager John Sillett had been keen to bring Gary back to Coventry and the deal was done for £300,000. Rangers’ manager Jim Smith said on conclusion of the deal: “Gary and his family were keen to return to the Midlands, we’ll miss his goals but he wanted a move”. It would be interesting to find out whether this was indeed the truth, or maybe Smith forced Bannister out after the injury and the Falco signing ?
There can be no doubt about the place that Gary Bannister holds in the hearts of Queen’s Park Rangers fans. This was underlined on the final day of that 1987/88 season when the opponents were Coventry City at Highfield Road, with Gary facing us for the first time since his move. Gary was cheered from the moment he stepped out of the tunnel in the pre-match warm-up and had his every touch cheered throughout the 0-0 draw. He genuinely looked delighted at the reception he received and it remains one of my fondest memories in supporting the R’s.
In 1992/93, Gary was to come back for one more visit to Loftus Road with, ironically enough, Nottingham Forest, the club he turned down to join Rangers back in the summer of 1984. He scored (of course) after 8 minutes of the game at the Loftus Road End. Fortunately, we came back to win the game 4-3, the ironic thing being, the scorer of a hat-trick for us that day was Les Ferdinand – his first for the club. As one legend departs, another one carried on with their fine goalscoring traditions.
Gary played for a further eight clubs after leaving the Bush, but it was in W12 where he is remembered the most fondly, not only for the two hat-tricks against our biggest rivals, but for all the effort he put in for the club. Both on and off the pitch, the quietly spoken Gary was always personable with fans and always willing to stop for a photograph or sign an autograph.
I feel when legends of the club are mentioned, Gary Bannister doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, probably because he was not part of the 1967 League Cup winning era or the 1975/76 First Division runners-up and UEFA Cup quarter-finalists sides.
It’s quite easy when producing these “legend” items in the Club Shop, or in books on the history of the club, to use Stan, Rodney, Les and Gerry etc. Gary Bannister should be up there with these icons – 72 goals in 172 appearances and all of them in the top flight, is truly a great record.
Surely a player of his stature should be invited back to a game as a guest of the club and given the appreciation by everybody for what he did for the club ? How many players have scored a hat-trick against our biggest rivals Chelsea – let alone two ?!
Gary Bannister should be cherished by all Queen’s Park Rangers fans, old and new. Let’s play the clips of his hat-tricks in those two famous games on the screen before a match or at half-time and let this true Rangers legend stand in the middle of Loftus Road again and receive the adulation that he so richly deserves.
(Thanks to Martin Percival for the use of the above pics)