England’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks dies aged 81

Former Stoke City ’keeper once famously defied Pelé with ‘the greatest save ever made’

Gordon Banks, who has died aged 81, was the best goalkeeper England have ever had and is widely regarded as one of the finest to have played for any side in any era. A World Cup winner in 1966, he also appeared in the 1970 World Cup finals, where, against Brazil, he was responsible for what is often cited as “the greatest save ever made” – a supremely agile effort from a close-range header by Pelé.

The scene of Banks’s famous save was Guadalajara in Mexico, where England were playing Brazil in the group stage. Jairzinho, the fast and powerful Brazilian outside-right, crossed the ball after beating the England left-back, Terry Cooper.

Pelé, Brazil’s most lauded player, met the ball with a downward, bouncing header, and was already shouting “Goal!” when Banks miraculously hurled himself across his goal, reached the ball with a flailing right arm, and turned it over his crossbar.

“As soon as I got my hand to it, I thought it was going in the top corner,” recalled Banks later. “But after I’d landed on the hard floor, I looked up and saw the ball bounce behind the net and that’s when I said to myself: ‘Banksy, you lucky prat’.” For his part, Pelé was always slightly miffed, in an amused way, that Banks’s save remained such a talking point for so many years afterwards. “I have scored more than a thousand goals in my life and the thing people always talk to me about is the one I didn’t score,” he said.


Food poisoning

How far might England have gone in that World Cup had Banks been able to play at Léon in the quarter-final against West Germany? Another image emerges: the morning of that match, the lawn in front of the motel where the England team were staying. A pale, unhappy Banks is being helped across the grass on the arm of the England team’s doctor, Neil Phillips. Suffering from food poisoning, Banks was unable to play, and England arguably would have won had he done so. His deputy, Peter Bonetti, was manifestly short of match practice and had a disastrous day. England lost 3-2 and were eliminated.

In later years Banks wondered why it should have been him and no other member of the England squad who contracted a bug. They all, as he said, had eaten exactly the same food. Dark tales have been told of how it may have happened, but the source of the poisoning has never been properly explained.

In the 1966 World Cup, when all England’s games were at Wembley, Banks had played a major part in his country’s success. He kept three clean sheets in the group stage and another against Argentina in the quarter-final, and was only prevented from making it five shut-outs in a row by Eusébio, who thumped home a penalty for Portugal in the semi-final.

World’s top keeper

Two goals went past him during the final against West Germany, but he had a highly successful tournament, and his understudies, Ron Springett and Bonetti, never got a look in. Such was his unassailable position as the world’s top keeper that he was declared Fifa’s Goalkeeper of the Year not only in 1966, but in each of the next five years.

Born in Sheffield, one of four children of Thomas, a bookmaker, and Nellie, Gordon was at first a coal-bagger and then a hod carrier after he left Tinsley County secondary modern school in 1952. Strongly built at 6ft 1in and weighing more than 13 stone, he had shown great promise as a goalkeeper with local sides, as well as for Sheffield Schoolboys, but had somehow escaped the notice of the big local clubs, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday.

Chesterfield, then well known as a home of gifted keepers, would profit, signing him on and giving him his debut in the 1958-59 season. He played another 22 league games in his only season with the club before Leicester City snapped him up.

FA Cup finals

For Leicester he would appear in 293 league games and play a crucial role in their reaching the FA Cup finals of 1961 and 1963, both of which were lost, respectively to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. In 1964 he helped his side to their first major competition win – a League Cup final victory against Stoke City.

By April 1967, however, Leicester had uncovered another fine goalkeeper in the locally born Peter Shilton, and felt able to sell Banks to Stoke for £52,500. At the age of 34 he featured in Stoke’s 1972 League Cup final win against Chelsea – still the club’s only major honour – and in the same season he was voted Player of the Year in England. It appeared as if Banks, by now appointed OBE, had many years left at the top, and he was looking forward to wearing the keeper’s jersey for England in the qualifying campaign for the 1974 World Cup.

But in October 1972, as he drove home from a session on the treatment table at Stoke’s Victoria Ground, Banks overtook a lorry and collided with a vehicle coming the other way. He suffered serious head injuries and was blinded in his right eye. Although he eventually made a good recovery, Banks could no longer catch a ball properly, and the accident put an end to his top-flight career. In all he had appeared 73 times for England since making his debut at Wembley in 1963 against Brazil, keeping a clean sheet in 35 international matches. He had also made 510 league appearances in all competitions for his three club sides.

One good eye

Stoke subsequently gave Banks a coaching job with their youth team, and after some time on the training ground he discovered that his one good eye was gradually beginning to compensate for the loss of sight in the other. In 1977, nearly five years after the accident, he made a comeback in the then fashionable North American Soccer League with Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Banks helped Fort Lauderdale to win the title in his first season there – conceding only 29 goals in 26 games – and was voted the league’s goalkeeper of the season. He was joined in Florida by George Best the following year, and played another 11 games in the 1978 season before retiring.

After a largely unhappy year in 1979-80 as manager at non-league Telford United, Banks left frontline football to become a successful after-dinner speaker. He also spent more than 30 years on the pools panel, adjudicating on results when large numbers of football matches were postponed, and he was president of Stoke City from 2000 until his death.

In 2008 Pelé unveiled a statue of Banks outside Stoke’s new Britannia Stadium, showing him making his famous 1970 World Cup save.

Banks is survived by his wife, Ursula, whom he met while on national service in Germany in 1955, and by their three children, Robert, Wendy and Julia. Gordon Banks, footballer, born December 30th, 1937; died February 12th, 2019

– Guardian