BARRY PIKESLEY: The Gasman Cometh

The following article is reproduced from "The Robins' Review" of 16 August 2014.


During a talk held at Bristol Central Library on Friday, 23rd September 2011, the best-selling author; one-time Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party; former prisoner and self-confessed lifelong Bristol Rovers fan Jeffrey Archer, now Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare, entertained an audience with tales about his life and novels.

According to the report of the event published in the Bristol Post, Lord Archer disclosed: “I dreamed as a boy of being Bristol Rovers captain. Look where that would have got me.”

At which point, a man in the front row duly responded: “Division Two.”

Well, alas for all long-suffering Rovers supporters, such a heckle would now have to be updated to the exotic Vanarama Conference, as this afternoon we have the pleasure of hosting the first ever encounter between the Robins and the Gas.

Rovers recorded an impressive attendance of 7,019 for their opening home fixture in this division and they are indubitably the biggest club at this level. I hope that a healthy contingent of Gasheads have journeyed up to the J. Davidson Stadium today and I look forward to undertaking my first visit to The Memorial Stadium next February.

Connections between Alty and the Gas are a trifle sparse. At a push, I could claim a couple of tenuous personal links in that I possess recordings of the likes of Ry Cooder; Van Morrison and Tom Waits respectively performing the Bristol Rovers club song, Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter’s Goodnight, Irene, and I also have all of the albums released by Portishead, one of whose members, Geoff Barrow, is another famous long-standing Rovers supporter.

However, I categorically deny owning a copy of the 1974 7” single Bristol Rovers All The Way, which was recorded by Rod Hull and Emu along with the Rovers squad of that time (check that one out on YouTube - it‘s a classic of its genre).

In terms of individuals who have registered first team appearances for both clubs, the obvious example is Steven Gillespie, who joined the Robins in July 2014, having made 3 (+10 as sub) appearances for the Gas between February 2014 and the conclusion of the 2013/14 Football League Two season, scoring a single goal in the process.

The character who constitutes the most prominent link between the two clubs is Norman Sykes, a half-back/wing half/central defender who amassed a total of 214 league appearances (and scored five league goals) for Bristol Rovers between 1953 and 1964.

Having been spotted playing for a local boys' club, Sykes joined Rovers straight from school at the age of 15 and signed his first professional contract with his hometown club on his 17th birthday. As a schoolboy, he was capped for England against Scotland at Wembley in a home team captained by Duncan Edwards and he also proceeded to win a dozen England Youth International caps.

Whilst playing for the Gas, he incurred an injury which was initially diagnosed as being an arthritic hip. In the words of the man himself in the 6th November 1967 issue of the Robins' Review: “Fortunately, it turned out to be a disc in my back pressing on a nerve and though Rovers could see no future for me, I was lucky enough to meet Malcolm Allison.“

Having persuaded Sykes to go with him and play for Toronto City in Canada, Allison then became manager at Plymouth Argyle, on whose behalf he paid Bristol Rovers a transfer fee of £8,000 in order to sign Sykes in September 1964. Alas, injury restricted Sykes to the meagre sum of merely four appearances during his solitary campaign at Home Park.

Sykes subsequently accumulated a tally of 59 league and cup appearances for Stockport County between September 1965 and February 1967, prior to spending the remainder of the 1966/67 Football League Division Three season with Doncaster Rovers, for whom he clocked up a total of 15 league appearances.

Alty boss Freddie Pye enlisted the services of Sykes in October 1967 and his debut comprised a bizarre 5-5 draw versus Witton Albion in a Cheshire County League fixture staged at Moss Lane on Saturday, 14th October 1967. He went on to record 21 (+2 as sub) league and cup appearances and score a single goal during his lone season with the Robins.

The Wikipedia entry relating to Norman Sykes contains the following curious addendum: “After his footballing career, Sykes opened a teetotal nightclub in Manchester in 1975.” Alas, I have been unable to ascertain any further information which elaborates on this intriguing enterprise. On 9th December 2009, he died at the age of 73.

Other players to have featured for both clubs include left full back Steve Morgan (Rovers: 1995/96 and Alty: 2000/01); combative midfielder Matt Somner (Gas: 2005/06 and Robins: 2010/11) and central midfielder/prospective priest Kevin Street (Rovers: 2002-03 and Alty: 2008/09).

Then there was Robert Trees, an ex-Manchester United youth team midfielder who accumulated an aggregate of 46 (+10 as sub) league and cup appearances and contributed just the lone goal for the Gas between June 1998 and February 2001.

In September 1999, Alty’s manager Bernard Taylor signed Trees on a month’s loan from Rovers, then of the Football League Second Division, during which period he made 2 (+1 as a sub) appearances for the Robins. This latter episode would have remained eminently forgettable, except for one notably diverting incident which occurred during Trees’ Moss Lane debut for Alty in the guise of a Nationwide Conference fixture versus Rushden & Diamonds enacted on Saturday, 2nd October 1999. Having been substituted, Trees promptly trudged off the field of play only then to commit the faux pas of heading off to sit in the away team’s dugout.

Turning back to this afternoon’s contest (and to sign off on a theme inspired by the aforementioned Portishead), I can only hope that Alty’s wandering star Nicky Clee will sell at least one pivotal dummy to the Rovers’ defence, who will play like strangers and end up being uncomfortably numb as Damian Reeves takes the biscuit by rattling home a hat-trick to condemn the Gas to their second consecutive defeat. It could be sweet by the final whistle and the Robins’ Vanarama Conference sour times could be over.