For 10 years, Gordon Banks wasn’t just England’s goalkeeper. He was indisputably the best in the world. Perhaps the finest there has ever been.
Yet this was the keeper who, as a young man, was sent packing by Romarsh Welfare of the Yorkshire League after only two games – for letting in FIFTEEN goals!
Despite playing for Sheffield Boys, Banks had given no thought to playing the game for a living when he left school. As he said himself: “I was noted more for the alacrity with which I picked balls out of the back of my net than for any stopping ability.”
Instead he became a coalman’s mate, bagging and delivering coal, and later an apprentice bricklayer.
In fact, he started playing again only by complete chance. He had gone to watch a local amateur side, Millspaugh, one Saturday afternoon when he was asked if he would help out because the side’s goalkeeper hadn’t turned up. Had that player not gone missing, England may have had a different keeper in the nets when they won the World Cup.
Within a year Banks had graduated to Romarsh – a much tougher, competitve local league side. The first match they went down 12-2 and the second 3-1. Romarsh sacked him and he went back, crestfallen, to Millspaugh.
So much for the man who was to become Banks of England, the player they said was as safe between the sticks as money in the Bank of England!
Banks, born in Sheffield in 1933, did not have long to despair. He was spotted by a scout from Chesterfield and joined the Third Division North side as a part-time pro in 1955 for £2 a match.
The following year, Chesterfield reached the Final of the FA Youth Cup, then a prestigious tournament. The match was against Manchester United, Busby Babes and all. Bobby Charlton was in the United team as Banks and the Chesterfield youngsters went down fighting 4-3 before 32,000 fans at Old Trafford.
His career was interrupted by two years National Service, spent in Germany with the Royal Signals. It was here that he met his wife, Ursula. On demob, Banks turned full-time pro with Chesterfield, on £17-a-week, and played 23 League games before joining Leicester City in 1959 in a £7,000 transfer.
Leicester reached the FA Cup Final in his second season, 1961. But they were up against the great Spurs side captained by Danny Blanchflower. Spurs not only won the Cup, they did the double that year.
There was more disappointment in 1963 when Leicester got to Wembley again, and were beaten this time by Manchester United. However, Banks’s first major club honours were not far away and Leicester won the League Cup the following season.
By now, Banks was in the England team. It was a tough beginning. His debut was against Scotland at Wembley in April 1963 – Alf Ramsey’s second game as England manager. The first under Ramsey had been a 5-2 mauling by France in Paris and Sheffield Wednesday’s Ron Springett was the man who made way for Banks.
It was the first game played under the new Wembley roof and it more or less fell right in on the new keeper. Scotland’s Jim Baxter ran the match scoring twice, once with a penalty, as England lost 2-1
The next international, just a few weeks later, could hardly have been more difficult – Brazil at Wembley. England did well to hold the World Champions to a 1-1 draw, but Banks got it in the neck from the manager.
Banks calls it the most perplexing moment he ever had in football. Pepe, the Brazilain outside left, took a free kick from 30 yards. He curled it over the England wall to Banks’s left. As Banks moved to cover it, the ball swerved again, this time changing direction to his right, leaving the hapless keeper stranded.
Banks believes that no goalkeeper in the world could have saved it. Ramsey had other ideas and gave him a roasting!
It was not until his third international appearance that he was on a winning side, a 4-2 victory over Czechoslovakia. The legend of the impregnable Banks was about to be born.
England lost only nine of their 73 matches with Banks in goal. What’s more he let in just 57 goals, a miserly average of just 0.78 goals per game, keeping 35 clean sheets.
The pinnacle, of course, was England’s World Cup victory in 1966. They had reached the semi-finals without Banks conceding a goal. That match, against Portugal, sticks more in his memory even more than the Final.
Banks wrote in his autobiography, Banks of England: “If I had to select a match from the seventy-three I played in for England as the No. 1 classic, it would have to be this. The football played at Wembley that evening has never in my experience been surpassed.”
Bobby Charlton scored both England’s goals, one of them a 25-yard screamer into the top of the net. And Banks let in his first goal – a penalty by Eusebio – in 443 minutes of World Cup football.
Not many people would have worried about that goal, especially one that was a penalty. But Banks did. As he wrote: “At that level, every goal is like a knife in the ribs.”
The euphoria of victory in the Final was matched for Banks only by the despair he felt when the West Germans equalised near the end of normal time. England were leading 2-1 and the Jules Rimet Trophy had seemed as good as won>
Banks said of that goal: “It was like being pushed off Mount Everest with just a stride to go to the top.”
However, England triumphed in extra time, winning 4-2. England were World Champions and Banks was a hero.
All of which made the next development in his career all the more sensational. Banks, the greatest keeper in the world, was put on the transfer list by his club, Leicester City.
Four years earlier, Banks had been watching a schoolboy coaching session after training at Filbert Street. One 13-year-old boy caught his eye. “This lad’s a good ‘un,” he had remarked to the club’s trainer George Dewis.
“Aye,” replied Dewis. “He’ll be having you out of the team, too.” In 1967, within 10 months of World Cup victory, that prophetic statement came true. The boy’s name was Peter Shilton and Leicester now considered him good enough to let Banks go.
Liverpool were desperate to sign him, but Banks joined Stoke for £50,000 in April of that year, having played 293 League games for Leicester and won 37 international caps.
His career with England continued to prosper as England reached the finals of the European Nations Cup in Italy in 1968. They were beaten 1-0 by Yugoslavia in the semi-finals, a match Banks considers worthy of the chamber of horrors.
He wrote: “The Yugoslavs were kicking everything and anything that moved and the referee was letting them get away with it.”
Alan Mullery became the first England player to be sent off in an international, having retaliated with a punch at a player who had kicked him when the ball was nowhere near him.
England’s defence of the their world crown in 1970 got off to a bad start with captain Bobby Moore falsely arrested and accused of stealing a bracelet by the Colombian police in Bogota.
They won their opening match in Mexico with a 1-0 defeat of Romania before heading for a showdown with Brazil. That game has rightly been hailed as a classic. It is remembered for the marvellous personal contest between Moore and Pele – and for what has become known as the Save of the Century.
England were keyed up for that game and perhaps none more so than Banks. He had been pulled to one side by Alf Ramsey before kick-off and told that Buckingham Palace wished to honour the England keeper with the OBE.
Banks played the game of his life – and needed to. The dramatic moment came as the Brazilian winger Jairzinho lofted a high, dipping centre towards Bank’s far post.
In Banks of England, the goalie wrote: “Pele got above the ball and powered it low and hard towards the corner of the net. It was the perfect header. I was now into a dive to my right and as the ball hit the ground just in front of my goal-line I flicked it with my outstretched right hand as it came up.”
The ball, miraculously, rose and cleared the bar for a corner. No one, least of all Pele, could take it in. The Brazilian ace shouted “Goal!” as the ball left his head, so certain was he of scoring. Later, he was to tell everyone that it was the greatest save he had ever seen.
Pictures show Banks outstretched, his body extended and frozen horizontally, as he made crucial contact with the ball. An athlete captured at the supreme moment of his skill.
Banks’s heroics, however, were not enough. Brazil scored the only goal through Jairzinho. While Moore and Pele afterwards exchanged shirts and hugged each other on the pitch in recognition of one the great games of football, Banks was first back in the dressing room. “I remember just sitting there like somebody in a state of shock,” he said.
England won their final group game against Czechoslovakia 1-0 to set up a quarter-final clash with old foes West Germany. Banks, however, became ill on the night before the game, convulsed with nausea in the searing heat and suffering from vomiting fits.
He felt ill again on the coach journey to Leon where the game was taking place and Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti played instead of him. England took a two goal lead and manager Ramsey then substituted Bobby Charlton, seeking to rest him for the semi-finals which looked comfortably within their grasp.
Then disaster struck. England lost their grip, conceding two goals. The game went into extra-time when the Germans completed an astonishing comeback by getting the winner.
To make matters worse, Bonetti had a nightmare game and it gave rise to wild allegations that Banks, in some way, had been nobbled. It made no difference. The holders were out of the World Cup.
More honours came Banks’s way in 1972. He helped Stoke to win the first trophy in their history, the League Cup against Chelsea, and he was voted Footballer of the Year – the first goalkeeper to receive the award since his schoolboy hero Bert Trautman won it in 1956.
Within five months, however, Bank’s professional life was in ruins – shattered by a road accident in which he lost the sight in his right eye. He had been to Stoke’s Victoria Ground on a Sunday for treatment after the 2-1 defeat at Liverpool the day before when his Ford Granada was in collision with a van.
Banks fought hard to regain fitness but, perfectionist that he is, realised he could not maintain the high standards he had set himself in League football. Not only was his career over but, to rub salt in the wounds, he was fined £250 for dangerous driving.
He had played 510 League games, 194 of them for Stoke. He had won 36 caps for England while at Stoke, one fewer than when he was at Leicester.
For a time he coached the Stoke youth team, then signed for Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the North American Soccer League. Despite his handicap, Banks was voted the League’s most valuable goalkeeper in his first season.
The Barnum and Bailey showmanship of the American game, however, wasn’t quite to his taste. Publicity stunts and gimmicks were the order of the day and Banks was quoted as saying: “I felt like a circus act . . . Roll up, roll up, to see the greatest one-eyed goalkeeper in the world.”
On one occasion, Banks found himself being driven on to the pitch in a hearse. He then helped to carry a coffin to the centre circle where the team’s manager, dressed as Dracula, jumped out as the public announcer told fans: “Lauderdale Strikers are coming back from the dead.”
The reason for this bizarre ritual? The Strikers had lost two games in a row!
It was an extraordinary climax to one of the most illustrious careers in the game. But then Banks himself acknowledged how much it had changed.
In Banks of England he wrote: “In my early days, a goal against us was shrugged off. Nobody liked conceding a goal, but once the ball had gone into the net it was accepted as ‘one of those things’ and everybody in the team would concentrate on trying to get the goal back.
“But once the maximum wage had been lifted and win bonuses became all-important, it was suddenly considered a crime to concede a goal.”
Perhaps somewhere in those words of Gordon Banks, goalkeeper supreme, is the difference between football as a sport and football as a hard-nosed business.