It is now almost forty years since Bristol Rovers ran up one of the most remarkable unbeaten runs in the entire history of the Football League, and their attack at the time was one of the most feared around. Here’s Paul Caulfield on a team that is fondly remembered by its supporters, and the strikers that took them to promotion from the Third Division.

The 1973-74 season belonged to Leeds United. Their twenty-nine match unbeaten run eclipsed all others in the top flight and finally brought the title to football’s nearly men. But bubbling under were Bristol Rovers, on a record-breaking thirty-two game run of their own, thanks to two of the League’s sharpest strikers; Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister. Their goals made Rovers early promotion favourites in Division Three and by November they were second in the table behind Oldham Athletic. Their next fixture was an awkward trip to Brighton, under the newly-installed Brian Clough, on the first of December. The following day, Clough chatted with Brian Moore on The Big Match in calm, measured tones – his slightly forced smile only hinting at the atmosphere in the Brighton dressing room the day before, after a disastrous 8-2 defeat.

Seven goals from the ‘Smash and Grab’ duo of Warboys and Bannister produced a perfect storm that blew Albion away. Shortly before, Bristol Rovers’ marketing team had used the slogan in a ‘Wanted’ poster featuring the pair, and the nickname stuck. They were also photographed for the Football League Review – a regular insert in all League programmes at the time – and stared from the pages in full Wild West gear. “We couldn’t have timed it better” says Bannister, now 65 and a successful Bradford businessman. “Cloughie came in the dressing room afterwards and said that Alan’s injury (Warboys had suffered a cut eye) must have been self-inflicted, as the Brighton defence got nowhere near him.” Worse for Clough, half the nation’s hacks were there to witness Albion’s record-equalling home defeat. Brighton had lost their first two matches under Clough’s tutelage, and with the weather wiping out London’s big games, Fleet Street’s press corps and a healthy pre-Xmas crowd of 10,000, descended on the Goldstone Ground.

The scene was very much of the seventies; copious terracing, no segregation and a welcome lack of shirt sponsorship giving a real period air to proceedings. In one of the stories of the season, Rovers fast accurate passing and faultless finishing had them out of sight by half-time, as Warboys’ first half hat-trick and three more from Bannister and Gordon Fearnley brought a 6-1 interval lead. TV highlights showed Clough in the dugout, resigned to his fate, smiling weakly and nudging young son Nigel after Rovers’ sixth goal.

Things jump out at you from this story. First, there’s Clough himself, manager of League Champions Derby just six weeks earlier, before a feud with the County board prompted his and Peter Taylor’s departure from The Baseball Ground. Clough had sought refuge on the south coast, in what Richard Keys would doubtless describe as the ‘third tier’ of English football – biding his time before a bigger move to Leeds and a better one to Forest. Then there’s the choice of match – highlights and analysis of a division three game. And finally there’s the aftermath; the Brighton boss a model of composure in front of the cameras, albeit twenty-four hours on; an unlikely scenario these days.

Warboys and Bannister ended the season with forty goals between them as Rovers finished runners-up to Oldham, with both featuring in the Division Three Team of the Year. The Eastville duo had taken a roundabout route to Rovers. Goldthorpe-born Warboys, now sixty-three years old, started at his local club Doncaster Rovers. He got a taste of the miner’s life aged sixteen while playing as an amateur; “I would train on Tuesdays and Thursday nights while working at Goldthorpe pit. In the mid-sixties, mining was all there was, and Doncaster’s offer came out of the blue.” Warboys’ made his full debut as a seventeen year old apprentice in 1967, the 4-1 defeat at Orient givng no indication of his potential. Bannister, meanwhile, began as a junior at Revie-era Leeds, joining Bradford City in 1965. “I was studying for my A Levels,” he says, “and spent two years in the reserves.”

Bannister played for England under-18s alongside Leicester’s David Nish, and recalls facing a young Kevin Hector in Bradford derbies with Park Avenue. He also locked horns with fearsome York(centre-half Barry Swallow (“my toughest opponent”) and Sam Allardyce, then of Blackburn. “On one occasion, Big Sam flattened Alan Warboys, so I tried to elbow him in the nose but couldn’t reach.” Bannister was well-prepared for the pitch battles of the day, thanks to influential Bradford coach Maurice Conroy, “an ex-army man who set standards on and off the field.” The highlight of his Valley Parade days was undoubtedly a third round FA Cup tie with Spurs in January 1970. The game attracted Match of the Day and a crowd of 23,000, and Bannister was told to ‘mark’ Alan Mullery. City emerged with a creditable draw; Greaves and Morgan scored for Spurs with England (og) and Stowell replying for Bradford before half-time.”Greaves was my mother’s favourite player, and autographed a £5 note for her,” a valuable momento when the average weekly wage was £34.

With 208 appearances and 60 goals to his name, Bannister left Valley Parade in 1971 for a club record £23,000 after a long contract dispute. He headed for Eastville “to see what went on”, and Pirates’ boss Bill Dodgin talked him into a move. A year later, he linked up with fellow Yorkshireman Warboys, and the goals flowed immediately. The on-pitch ensemble proved irresistable; the rugged Warboys roughing up the defence. Bannister cashing in on the chaos. Warboys’ spells at Doncaster topped and tailed a career spanning 16 years. He went to Sheffield Wednesday before joining Cardiff in 1970 as a replacement for Anfield-bound John Toshack His prolific record for the Blluebirds attracted Bristol Rovers, and the big centre-forward remained at Eastville (53 goals in 144 games) until his form dipped in 1976..

When Rovers decided to sell, Warboys was drawn to Craven Cottage, and Fulham’s mid-seventies lineup of Best, Moore and Marsh. “Just watching Best train was special, and Bobby Moore’s vision was unbelievable.” Despite a short spell in SW6, Warboys has fond memories of Fulham boss Bobby Campbell: “…a fantastic coach and manager. He got the best out of the players and had that special something about him.” Another move in 1977 took ‘Smash’ to Hull City (49 games, 9 goals) before a final fling back at Belle Vue. From being the young amateur, Warboys was now the senior pro, and won Supporters’ Player of the Year in his first season back. He switched to centre half two years later, guiding youngsters like the Snodin brothers through the ranks, before retiring with a back injury. Striking partner Bannister had two more seasons at Eastville as Rovers battled relegation, before signing off in ’76; his 80 goals a healthy return for a modest transfer fee.

After a season at Plymouth, Bannister was back in Yorkshire, at Hull City, and reacquainted with Warboys. The partnership was less productive second time round, and in three unstable seasons, Bannister worked for four managers, including former Leeds team-mate Billy Bremner, before finishing his career with a season at Dunkerque. As a PFA Executive Member for 16 years, Bannister was a busy man, working with the likes of Derek Dougan, Terry Venables and Gordon Taylor. Across the table were FA heavyweights Alan Hardaker and Matt Busby. “Negotiating with senior FA officials was helpful in every way and good training for business.” Very good as it turned out. Formed in 1982 to cash in on the jogging boom, Bannister’s sportswear outlet Sportshoes on Bradford’s Hall Ings “the largest sportshoe retailer in the world” is a rare success in a down-at-heal city centre.

Alan Warboys scored his last, and most memorable career goal in 1981 against Cambridge Utd in his final Doncaster game, but drifted out of football thereafter: “I lost interest after I finished but I go to reunions, and went to Doncaster a couple of times last season. They always make me welcome.” Post-football, Warboys drove a lorry for a living, ran the Ring O’Bells pub in Swinton for nine years and worked for a scaffolding company before retiring 18 months ago. He meets Bannister a couple of times a year, but doubts how their on-field partnership would work today; “You can’t get away with much these days.” As an opportunist goalscorer, Bannister feels differently; “I would have had no problem playing behind the front two strikers. I was versatile and would have adapted.”

Since that day at the Goldstone, the Seagulls and the Pirates have suffered relegation, relocation and near oblivion, though recent events at both clubs suggest the worst is over. There is unlikely to be another double-act like Smash and Grab or Brighton manager with Clough’s presence or personality, though results-wise Gus Poyet is outdoing his lauded predecessor, and on the field, Craig Mackail-Smith has cult potential. With the Seagulls established in the Championship, and Rovers’ stadium plans in progress, it could be time for a Seventies revival.”

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