Saving grace during troubled times


 Interview Gordon Banks: Keith Duggan talks to an England legend who was in town to launch a book borne out of a Derry man's reverence of the goalkeeper

The letters arrive for Gordon Banks some 40 years on, landing out of the blue on the secretary's desk at Chesterfield or Leicester or Stoke City. Nothing like the sack loads prompted by the events at Wembley in the summer of 1966, still the shimmering date that casts a mighty shadow across England's horizon. And not as frequently as they came pouring in after 1970, when Banks' acrobatic save against Pele became an unforgettable part of that romanticised World Cup tournament.

Long after Banks retired - a terrible car crash in the autumn of 1972 cost him an eye and the final years of a noble career - ordinary people sought him out. It was Ted Williams, the glowering Boston baseball slugger, that John Updike had in mind when he wrote that gods do not answer letters. But that is not always so. Banks answered every one. Most were pleas for help, from parents whose kids had damaged eyesight or from apprentices whose goalkeeping dreams had been dashed. And Banks would reply, formal and courteous, "trying to give them a lift".

But last weekend, sitting in the pleasant conservatory of a south Dublin house, Banks confessed he had never encountered a fan whose faith in him seemed so unshakeable and necessary. When Don Mullan met Banks in 2005 he (Mullan) cried.

And it was not as if Mullan was a sentimentalist: this was a tenacious investigative journalist whose working life was intrinsically linked to the events and enquiry into Bloody Sunday in Derry. He was no stranger to fame and his ferocious work as a human rights campaigner took him into the company of global figures like Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, even the Dalai Lama. But with Banks it was different. This was the person to whom Mullan had attached all his childhood ambition and fears growing up as a child in the Creggan, just as the nationalist movement in Derry was about to combust.

When the Mullan home was subject to a random night raid by the British army, a soldier burst into the teenager's bedroom and was amazed to discover a shrine to Banks, the most English of heroes.

More than that, the soldier and his senior officer were intrigued and distracted when the teenager produced a scrapbook dedicated to Banks. It was a hefty document that had originally been a sample book for wallpaper. Mullan pasted photographs and newspaper clippings over the patterns - many of which have come back into fashion twice over since they were examined by British army flashlight all those years ago. Banks first held that scrapbook in August, 1970, when Stoke City played a pre-season friendly game against Finn Harps in Ballybofey. Charles Mullan brought his son to see the match and afterwards secreted the scrapbook into the lobby of Jackson's Hotel and asked the England goalkeeper if he would mind having a look at it.

Three decades later, the book is sitting on the kitchen table in the Mullan house in Dublin, where Banks stayed last weekend. He was in Ireland to launch Mullan's tribute book, Gordon Banks: A Hero Who Could Fly. It is an unusual and touching book, part childhood memoir and part eulogy to the man who remains England's most famous goalkeeper.

"When I learned of his story, I couldn't quite believe that anybody like myself could have the influence that I had on Don's life," Banks admitted, his huge, long hands moving as he speaks. "So I was intrigued to meet him in the flesh. I felt quite proud in a roundabout way that I had helped someone through a situation that could have turned out badly.

"And I am virtually finished Don's book now and it has really struck me. The Troubles in Ireland being what they were at the time and Don's escaping that through the football story, that combination is very clever and interesting. And different."

It is the steadfast nature of Don Mullan's faith in Gordon Banks that has transformed what might have been an awkward relationship between a football hero and a fan into an unusual friendship. When Mullan told his friend, the actor Gabriel Byrne, about how he first presented Banks with his scrapbook in 1970, Byrne was adamant that he had to write about it.

Mullan is dyslexic, a condition that caused him severe difficulty as a child but was not diagnosed until the 1990s. His reverence of Banks - he adopted the goalkeeper as an alter ego and played in goals for Derry Athletic - had helped him maintain his self-esteem. When he decided to write the book, he decided that royalties would go to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland.

"That old saying about never meeting your heroes did cross my mind," said Mullan as he made tea in the family kitchen. "But I remember someone saying to me that Gordon was a humble fella and that reassured me. And he is just one of those people you warm to immediately."

Although approaching 70, Banks is still instantly recognisable as the raven-haired, avuncular figure with the big smile whose face adorned the Shoot! and Match annuals of the 1970s. He still has an athletic gait and it was disconcerting to see him appear in the livingroom doorway of this suburban home, immaculately turned out in a blue blazer, grey slacks and black loafers. As he began talking about the 40th anniversary of England's most famous sporting hour, it was the enduring sense of privilege Banks felt that rang most clearly.

"See, my first job at 15 years of age was bagging coal in Sheffield. So I would shove the coal into hundredweight bags and drop it into cellars for people. Then I went to work on a building site. To go from that to playing for England in a World Cup was like a dream. And walking through the Wembley tunnel for the first game against Uruguay, I felt so fortunate at that moment."

Banks was born in Tinsley, Sheffield, in 1937, a decade when England's northern cities were thoroughly polluted and definitively grim. His values were of the time, respectful of work, family and besotted with soccer. Although indisputably England's finest goalkeeper for over a decade, Banks never did play for any of the Lancashire giants or the glittering clubs of London, instead staying relatively close to the environment of his childhood.

"There was a big difference, we did know that because we would have gone out to the nightclubs and that after games in London. And we knew about the Chelsea lads, with all the suave gear going out of an evening and all that. Yeah, the bright lights of London and the shows were attractive. But none of it altered the fact that you were a professional player and as long as you were in the first division, you were just pleased to be there. Choice didn't really come into it."

Banks has lived in Stoke for most of his adult life - he met his German wife, Ursula, while on national service there. He says the places of his youth are all but unrecognisable now: the streets of Tinsley are physically the same but the skies are clear and the buildings pristine. But then, England itself is hardly recognisable as the country he grew up in.

"You are born where you are born. And whether it is nice or not, you remember your early days. Sheffield had this smoke funnelling out night and day and it was very grimy then. People worked very hard and generally treated one another with respect.

"Most of the cities look a lot better now but I would say a lot of people my age believe England has changed for the worst. It is the nature of the human being. Things like schooling. And I know a lot of people agree with this but nobody listens to the guy on the street. We are adamant and sure that because they took the punishment away from the teachers when the child is at school and is at an age when it doesn't really know right and wrong. The parents don't see the child as much as the teacher.

"And now we have groups of teenagers hanging around street corners, bored, doing damage, answering back, laughing when they are caught. And all sorts of problems arise from it. And so much in our society seems to have gone wrong from that one small difference."

Banks is talking about the erosion of a system of respect that governed his own time in English soccer. It was the respect that Alf Ramsey commanded -"forget Bobby Moore or Bobby Charlton, if you didn't listen to Alf you were gone".

Banks always liked the story about Brian Clough taking his Nottingham Forest stars down a local mine shaft one morning just to remind them how lucky they were. It makes sense to him. All the boys of 1966 felt knighted just by wearing those red shirts. It did not matter until decades afterwards that the FA short-changed them for their endeavours, tossing them £20,000 to share between them.

Banks sold his medal and cap a few years ago after finally realising that the FA were never going to hold a testimonial for his team. And he knows that Ramsey retreated into the dark cave of Alzheimer's embittered by the casual way the FA disregarded him. "He never did get over that. He was so disappointed. And none of us could understand how little the FA seemed to think of him."

Ramsey stayed silent and dignified. It was the attitude of that generation: you got on with things. Banks refused to let the loss of his eye afflict his mood. In his 50s, he had a massive tumour removed from his stomach, probably a consequence of endless afternoons shipping belts from the old wet, heavy footballs.

He refused to complain when Port Vale asked him to come in and manage the senior team and save them from relegation, and then sacked him even though he did just that. Banks had the goalkeeper's temperament: cool, reliable, and implacable. He stayed optimistic.

When Banks was in his pomp, preparing for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Don Mullan was among a bunch of Derry kids brought on adventure courses given by the British army outside Derry city, a public relations exercise. Mullan remembers that the day Banks visited Ballybofey with Stoke City - August 2nd, 1970 - marked the occasion when the British army fired the first rubber bullet of the Troubles.

In January 1972, he was standing just two feet away from 17-year-old Michael Kelly ("neighbouring Dunmore Gardens goalkeeper") at the Civil Rights march in Derry when shots were fired and the boy gasped and fell. The strange relevance of this is that throughout the anger and paranoia of that period, it was the values of Gordon Banks, an English hero, which kept Mullan sane while Derry and all of Northern Ireland went up in flames.

So it has all come full circle. There is something odd and affecting about a figure as supreme as Banks drinking tea and stretching out on the settee belonging to a man who now officially ranks as his number one fan. But it is an easy, natural alliance.

This summer, 1966 nostalgia will return in earnest. Banks cannot believe it is 40 years, cannot believe that Bobby Moore, the beautiful one, is gone. And like many of his generation, he is astonished and uncomfortable at the vast torrents of money that have flooded the football clubs he used to grace.

He is not resentful but worries sometimes the game he loves is in danger of suffocating itself. Still he admits the Premiership still absorbs him and he catches all the big matches. In fact, as we talk, he keeps glancing into the livingroom where Mullan is relaxing. Newcastle are live on television and Banks cannot speak highly enough of Shay Given.

"That's not because I am over here. I have watched his form for a long time," he says, leaning forward, the wonder hands splayed wide.

"Shay seldom makes mistakes and that's how you rate 'em. He is a good lad."

Don Mullan reckons that Given is his favourite goalkeeper too.

Well, nowadays.

Gordon Banks: A Hero Who Could Fly. Publisher: A little book company (€9.99). Royalties to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland.