Any other goalie as good as Gordon Banks? Don’t be daft
I never saw Banks play but I knew, as I will always know, that he was the greatest goalkeeper who will ever live
“Gordon Banks!” When you heard that shout in the house where I grew up, you knew what had happened: there was football on our black-and-white television, and the goalkeeper – whoever it was – had made a fine save.
Not that me or my older brother or any of his friends visiting from houses where there were no televisions would have needed anyone to tell us that. If there was football on the box, we were watching.
And not that anyone who ever shouted “Gordon Banks!” thought the ’keeper in question had made a save worthy of the compliment. As good as Gordon Banks? Don’t be stupid.
I never saw Banks play but I knew, as I will always know, that he was the greatest goalkeeper who will ever live. Now he has died – at 81, of kidney cancer, “peacefully overnight” it says on his Wikipedia page – and my faith in what I hold to be a fact is more unshakeable than ever.
In a world where people believe in all sorts of gods and prophets, often without any shred of evidence, never mind proof, elect knuckle-dragging monsters to the highest office, and vote to leave prosperous, peaceful collections of countries, who is anyone to tell me I’m wrong? Good thing, perhaps, that I didn’t see, until he had died, what is considered his greatest moment between the sticks. Otherwise I might have run away from home and joined the football equivalent of a cult. Become a Wimbledon supporter, probably.
It’s a neon sunshine day in Guadalajara in Mexico during the 1970 World Cup and Jairzinho is a golden streak down the right wing for Brazil. He crosses towards the far post, where a man just 1.73m tall rises to an outrageous height and unleashes the perfect header from the six-yard box. He has the entire goal to aim at and only Banks to beat. Then he … hang on, here’s the short bloke to take up the story himself.
“When you are a footballer you know straightaway how well you have hit the ball,” Pelé said. “I hit that header exactly as I had hoped, exactly where I wanted it to go. And I was ready to celebrate. But then this man, Banks, appeared in my sight. Like a kind of blue phantom is how I described him.
“He came from nowhere and he did something I didn’t feel was possible. He pushed my header, somehow, up and over. And I couldn’t believe what I saw. Even now, when I watch it, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how he moved so far, so fast.”
Banks has covered so much ground to his right so quickly that he is a blur the colour of his cobalt blue jersey. As Pelé heads Banks tumbles more than he dives, like a concertina falling off a chair, only less gracefully. The ball has left Pelé’s forehead at a wicked downward angle. It bounces 2m from Banks and spears upward, surely past him.
Then the impossible happens. Banks, still airborne, lays the fingers of an outstretched hand on the ball. From somewhere he finds the strength to not allow the missile to power through what looks like a feeble obstacle and into the net. So much strength that the ball is, like the short oke said, obliged to loop “up and over”.
Gordon bloody Banks!
“How he saved that even Gordon Banks won’t know,” the television commentator says.
Banks concurred, as he confirmed years later: “Honest to God, I thought it was a goal. I said to myself: ‘Banksy’, you lucky toss! As I got to my feet Pelé came up to me and patted me on the back. He said: ‘I thought that was in’, so I said: ‘You and me both’.”
One of the men Pelé beat to the ball, Alan Mullery, offered a different memory to the BBC: “It was an unbelievable save. I’ve seen very similar but nothing like it, because he had to go from one post to the other – which is eight yards wide – horizontally. And [with] Pelé shouting: ‘Goal!’ as he headed the ball into the net.
“Gordon Banks stuck out his arm. Fingers touched. Just over the crossbar. I walked up to him, patted him on the head, and said, ‘Why didn’t you catch it?’ And the abuse that came out of his mouth to me … I had to laugh, actually, when he started slagging me off.”
That’s a clue to where Banks came from. Geographically, Sheffield. Realistically, the working class. He was one of four sons born to a domestic worker and a steelworker, who also owned an illegal betting shop – where one of the Banks boys was brutally assaulted for the day’s takings. He lingered for weeks before his death.
Banks left school at 15 and took a job bagging coal, then worked as a hod carrier. A hod is a three-sided wooden box used on building sites to carry, over the shoulder, up to a dozen bricks at a time to where the bricklayers are working. It is a symbol of working class hardship, as Martin Simpson, an English folk singer, illustrates in his song, Never Any Good, when he reckons that his father was “not steady enough for the office, not hard enough for the hod”.
Beyond any singing of it, this tells us where Banks’s strength came from to keep Pelé’s header out that day in Mexico. And a lot more besides. Photographs of Banks in action in those bad old days look more like scenes from rugby matches. Here he is, diving into a volleying attacker’s thrust leg to punch clear. There he is, his back to the field, collecting a cross while another player crashes headlong over his shoulder. There he is again, gently but firmly tackling a dog, rugby-style, that had wandered onto the pitch. It’s all about as far from the non-contact profession that is modern goalkeeping as dentistry is from ditch-digging.
Four years before his moment of magic in Mexico, Banks kept a clean sheet against Uruguay, Mexico, France and Argentina. Then Portugal’s Eusébio put one past him, but England’s two earned victory. And so to the 1966 World Cup final in front of 96,924 at Wembley, where West Germany scored two and England four – unless you’re German, in which case means you don’t count the second goal in Geoff Hurst’s hat trick.
With that Banks’s greatness was confirmed. Or was it? Just more than a year after that shining day at Wembley, Leicester sold him to Stoke. A car accident in 1972 took the sight from his right eye, ending his serious career. He went to the US and had two seasons for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. In the first of them, one-eyed and all, he was the North American Soccer League’s “Goalkeeper of the Year”.
Even the story of the Pelé save doesn’t have an entirely happy ending, and that after Banks had learnt the day before that he had been awarded the Order of the British Empire. Despite Brazil’s 1-0 win England later booked a quarterfinal against West Germany – which Banks missed because of a stomach virus.
He watched the match at the team hotel. But the broadcast was delayed, and England were 2-0 up when he turned off the television and began thinking about what he had to do to make sure he was fit for the semifinals three days later. Then Bobby Moore knocked on the door with the news that West Germany had won 3-2 after extra time with Gerd Müller scoring the winner in the 108th minute.
Banks tried his hand at managing but struggled to be taken seriously by players, perhaps because goalkeepers rarely are. In November 1980 he left Telford United in the hands of an assistant while he underwent surgery and returned to work to discover that he had been sacked. He lost money on business deals, and in 2001 his World Cup winner’s medal and international cap from the final were sold at auction for £151,775.
But it isn’t all sad. Banks and his wife, Ursula, separated during his time in the US but were reunited in a relationship that lasted until his death, three children and all. One of his nephews, Nick Banks, was Pulp’s drummer.
Most importantly Banks made friends wherever he went and with whoever he stopped from scoring.
"I scored so many goals in my life but many people, when they meet me, always ask me about that save,” Pelé said. “While it was indeed phenomenal my memory of Gordon is not defined by that. It is defined by his friendship.
“He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people. So I am glad he saved my header because that act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure.”
Ray Clemence served as Banks’s England understudy for two years and counts among his most treasured possessions a photograph of the two, arm-in-arm after a match between Liverpool and Stoke at Anfield played the day before the car crash that all but ended Banks’s career.
“He made the difficult things look easy,” Clemence told the BBC. “He had that ability that all great goalkeepers have to make saves that look impossible. He was a wonderful man, a gentleman. He had a smile for everybody.”
Mullery ended his tribute with: “I don’t think we’ll ever lose his name.”
Gordon Banks? Don’t be stupid.