RIP: Banks of England, the original, inimitable Banksy
Gordon Banks was much more than the goalkeeping linchpin of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup side
Gordon Banks, who has died aged 81, won the World Cup with England in 1966, and in his heyday was acknowledged to be the finest goalkeeper in the world.
Banks was perhaps the only player in that victorious England side who was actually better known for something he did in the World Cup four years later, in Mexico, where he made what is commonly described as “the greatest save ever seen”, one that demonstrated to the full his agility, strength and reflexes.
His moment came during England’s group game against Brazil, played in 37°C heat. In the 10th minute, Jairzinho picked up the ball near the halfway line, ripped up the wing past Terry Cooper and whipped over an arcing cross. The ball reached Pele, who noticed that Banks was guarding the far post and so decided to head it downward inside the near upright. He was only a few yards from goal, and so sure was he that he had scored that he began to turn away in celebration as soon as he had made contact with the ball.
For his part, Banks remembered afterwards that he was sure that the cross was too high for anyone to reach, and so was startled when Pele soared above his marker to head it. As Pele described it later, “the next moment – no, in that same moment”, Banks sprinted to his right and threw himself at the far post, reaching the ball as it bounced and scooping it with his wrist up and over the crossbar. The save was all the more astonishing for the fact that Pele’s header was travelling especially quickly through the thin mountain air of Guadalajara.
The great Brazilian was the first of many to assure Banks (who had been inspired by hearing just before the match that he had been appointed OBE) that it was the most phenomenal piece of goalkeeping he had ever seen.
The save from Pele showed the quality of England’s last line of defence, and his merits were unhappily further underlined during the team’s subsequent quarterfinal against West Germany. By then Banks had been incapacitated by an upset stomach and was replaced by Peter Bonetti. England established a two-goal lead, only to lose 3-2, with Bonetti at fault for two of the scores.
Despite his absence from all but the early matches, Banks was voted the best goalkeeper at the 1970 tournament, as he had been in 1966. On that occasion, it was largely England’s solid defence that brought them to the final, with the team conceding just one goal prior to that game, from the penalty spot against Portugal in the semifinal.
All the while, Banks reinforced the reputation for consistency and safe handling which had brought him the nickname “Banks of England”; for all the drama of his save against Pele, he in fact rarely needed to draw on his athleticism, since his game was built on astute anticipation and exceptional positional sense.
In the final itself, there was little that Banks could do about either of West Germany’s goals, and he distinguished himself mainly by a double save from Wolfgang Overath and Lothar Emmerich during the first half. He described the German equaliser just before full-time as “like being pushed off Mount Everest with just a stride to go to the top”.
Thirty minutes later he, and every England fan, were joyously celebrating the greatest moment in the nation's footballing history.
Gordon Banks was born in Sheffield on December 30 1937. Although an able schoolboy goalkeeper, he at first had no thoughts of making the game his living, and after leaving Tilney County Secondary Modern in the town he worked first as a coalman’s mate, bagging and delivering coal, and then as an apprentice bricklayer.
At weekends he kept goal for an amateur side, Millspaugh Steelworks. His performances attracted the notice of another team, Rawmarsh Welfare, who played in the Yorkshire League, but after two games for them in which he conceded 15 goals he was sent packing back to Millspaugh.
Eventually he came to the attention of a scout for Chesterfield United, then well known as an academy of goalkeeping, and in 1955 he signed forms with the Third Division North side. The following season Banks and Chesterfield reached the final of the FA Youth Cup, going down 4-3 to a Manchester United team that contained the nucleus of the Busby Babes side.
After two years’ national service with the Royal Signals in Germany, where Banks met his wife, Ursula, he returned to Chesterfield, for whom he made 23 league appearances before moving to Leicester City in 1959 for £6,000.
This was to prove the turning point of Banks’s career. The Filbert Street side had few household names in their ranks aside from the emerging Frank McLintock, but under Matt Gillies’s management they were to become a formidably competitive unit in the 1960s, especially in cup games. With Banks progressively more influential between the posts, the team reached the FA Cup final in 1961, losing at Wembley to a Spurs team who thus completed the League and Cup double, and in 1963, where they went down to Manchester United – although it was only Banks’s heroics that had seen them through the semifinal against Liverpool.
In 1964, however, they did win a trophy, beating Stoke over two legs in the League Cup final. The following year they narrowly failed to retain the Cup when they lost to Chelsea in the final.
By this time Banks was already an international, having made his debut against Scotland in 1963, promising to be the best England goalkeeper in a generation. Given England’s victory in 1966, it came as even more of a surprise when Leicester agreed to sell him to Stoke in 1967 for £52,000, a record price for a goalkeeper and one that put off bigger clubs such as Liverpool. The reason for the sale was straightforward enough, however. Leicester wanted to realise Banks’s increased market value, and Gillies was sure he had a ready replacement in his deputy, a 17-year-old Peter Shilton (who would win 125 England caps).
Banks had made 293 league appearances for Leicester, and was to make 194 more for Stoke. The highlight of his time at the Victoria Ground came in 1972, when Stoke beat Chelsea to lift the League Cup – the first trophy in the club's history – and Banks (who had saved a penalty in the last minute of the semifinal) was voted Footballer of the Year, the first time a goalkeeper had taken the prize since Bert Trautmann in 1956.
A few matches into the next season, on October 22 1972, Banks was returning home from the club when his car collided with a van. Among the injuries he received was one that caused him to lose the sight of his right eye. Although he battled valiantly to return to the standards that he had set himself, he quickly realised that he would never be able to reach these and decided to retire from playing. He had played 73 times for England, keeping 35 clean sheets and losing only nine (and winning 49) of the matches in which he played.
For the next few years he coached Stoke’s youth team, but then in 1977 he was tempted to the nascent US football league (NASL) to resume his playing career with Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A reserved man, Banks did not take naturally to the razzmatazz that was judged necessary to promote soccer to the US public, and understandably resented publicity that described him as “the world’s greatest one-eyed goalkeeper”, but he was later grateful to have had another two years in the game (including a season playing with George Best) and to have acquitted himself well enough to be voted the best goalkeeper in the NASL in 1977.
After retiring for a second time in 1978, Banks had coaching spells with Port Vale, Telford United and back at Stoke before moving into corporate hospitality and promotional work. He also published two autobiographies – Banks of England (1980) and Banksy (2002).
Banks was always modest about his achievements, and he never begrudged modern players the vast wages they earned, even though he had made comparatively little from football. In 2001 he sold his World Cup medal for £125,000, and the cap he won for the final for £27,000, to provide for his children.
His own legacy is more secure. Not only was Banks a World Cup winner and the best goalkeeper of his era, but his example also did much to raise the standing of goalkeepers in the game. Before Banks they had tended to be regarded in England at best as an extra defender; after Banks, they came to be seen as game-winners in their own right.
In 2008, Pele unveiled a statue outside Stoke City’s stadium of Banks making his famous save in 1970.
Gordon Banks is survived by his wife and by their son and two daughters.
Gordon Banks, born December 30 1937, died February 12 2019.