TO2H Throwback- Gordon Banks: An ode to England’s goalkeeper

gordon banks

This article originally appeared in A Tale Of Two Halves in February 2019

It was immensely sad news to wake up to. During the night, probably the most legendary English goalkeeper of all time, Gordon Banks, had passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was 81 years of age, which in itself was actually a surprise to me, given how agile and youthful the man had appeared the last time I’d seen him on the television. Mind you, that had been several years, but nonetheless, the image of a warm, engaging personality had endured.

It endured because that’s exactly the sort of man “Banksy” was: a welcoming, friendly man, who seemed almost embarrassed by all the ‘hype’ and adulation which inevitably came his way in the years following his, and his country’s, greatest triumph during the summer of 1966. Gordon Banks was England’s goalkeeper. He’s still the only English keeper to lay his gloves on a major International trophy.

Gordon Banks was born in Sheffield on 30 December 1937, and despite playing in goal for Sheffield Schoolboys, he did not impress any of the local clubs, league or non-league, enough to be brought onto their panels. Instead, whilst working for a local coal merchant (where heaving heavy bags of the black fuel onto lorries built up his upper body strength), Banks spent a season playing for amateur side Millspaugh.

It was whilst at Millspaugh, and still only 16-years-old, that Banks was eventually scouted by Chesterfield, for whom he was offered a six-game trial in the youth team in March 1953. He impressed enough to be offered a part-time contract the following summer, but was then placed in the Spireites’ reserve team, who unfortunately were easily the weakest side in their league. Banks and his defence conceded 122 goals in his first full season, predictably finishing at the bottom of the Central League table.

After a posting to Germany with the Royal Signals Corp on national service, Banks returned to Chesterfield, where he helped the youth team reach the final of the 1956 FA Youth Cup, which they lost 4-3 on aggregate to a Manchester United side that had several “Busby Babes” such as Bobby Charlton and Wilf McGuinness in it.

Banks made his first-team debut against Colchester United in November 1958, and managed to retain his place for the remainder of the season, missing only three games due to injury. It was a difficult time to be a goalkeeper in the professional game. Not only was there virtually no ‘protection’ given to the custodians- unlike the manner in which they are almost overly shielded by officials in the modern game- but many clubs (including Chesterfield) did not even have a dedicated goalkeeping coach! Banks had to pretty much learn from his own on-field mistakes and “teach” himself.

One aspect of that self-education that Banks brought into his game was vocal communication with his defenders in front of him. Gordon wasn’t afraid of making himself heard on the pitch, and that may have played a part in his getting noticed by scouts from Leicester City, because in the summer of 1959 the First Division club gave Chesterfield £7,000 for his signature!

At Filbert Street, Banks very quickly realised he would have to impress the management staff in a big way to break into the Foxes’ first team, because they had FIVE other goalkeepers already on the club’s books. He started the 1959-60 season as the reserve team keeper, second in line behind automatic Leicester number one Dave MacLaren.

However, good fortune was very much with Banks. Just four games into the First Division season, MacLaren picked up an injury and manager Matt Gillies gave Banks his debut at home against Blackpool on 9 September- the game ended 1-1. He played in the next game, a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle United at St. James’ Park, but was then dropped back to the reserve team when MacLaren recovered from his knock.

The Foxes conceded 14 goals in the next five games, so Gillies reinstated Banks, and he remained first choice for the remainder of the season, improving his performance with every passing week. That was due in no small part to Gordon putting in extra hours on the training pitch, improving on any weaknesses he perceived in his own game, because he still didn’t have a dedicated coach to work with…frankly an unbelievable situation for a top professional club like Leicester City to have allowed, even in those days.

In the summer, two of Banks’ competitors for the keeper’s shirt at Filbert Street, including MacLaren, left the club, and Banks was now firmly first choice. He remained ever-present during 1960-61 as the Foxes enjoyed a very good season. They finished in 6th place in the league table, and reached the FA Cup Final at Wembley, where Banks was powerless to prevent goals from Bobby Smith and Terry Dyson giving Tottenham Hotspur a deserved 2-0 victory. That win made Spurs the first team in the 20th century to win the fabled League and Cup ‘double’. For Banks, it was his first visit to a stadium that would host his greatest achievement.

Gordon was also making progress with the England set-up, capped twice during the year for the U-23 side against Scotland and Wales.

Season 1961-62 was hugely disappointing at Filbert Street, the club finishing a lowly 14th in the league; they did compete in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup competition, though, and performed commendably before losing 3-1 on aggregate to a strong Atletico Madrid team. Banks even saved a penalty in Madrid, but later couldn’t save a second spot-kick from the same player.

The vast improvements Gordon had made in his game were very evident the following season. Not only did Leicester City become one of the strongest sides in England, sitting on top of Division One as April 1963 arrived, but he helped the Foxes reach yet another FA Cup Final as well. That road to Wembley included a 1-0 victory over a very strong Liverpool side at Hillsborough, Sheffield that Banks would later recall as the greatest club performance of his entire career. By the final whistle, the Merseysiders had peppered Banks’ goal with 34 attempts, all of which he kept out of his net…. Leicester had ONE shot on Liverpool’s goal, which they scored with!

However, the season would end in bitter disappointment for everyone at Filbert Street. Their league title challenge faded after Gordon sustained a broken finger in a 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, and he missed their final three Division One games, all of which ended in defeat. The Foxes finished a poor fourth after being in pole position just a couple of weeks earlier.

Worse was to follow in the Cup Final, where the Foxes, despite being the heavily-fancied favourites, were outplayed on the day by Matt Busby’s Manchester United side, and lost 3-1.

Despite all this, Banks won his first full England cap in a 2-1 defeat against Scotland at Wembley on 6 April, under new boss Alf Ramsey, who had dropped regular custodian Ron Springett after a poor performance. It would be the start of a glorious career ‘between the sticks’ for his country.

The following season was one of inconsistency in the league for Leicester City, but by the end of the campaign Gordon had claimed his first winners’ medal. That came in the League Cup, where the Foxes battled through to a two-legged Final showdown with Stoke City. In the first leg, played on a mud-bath at the Victoria Ground, Banks was at fault for the Potters’ goal in a 1-1 draw, spilling a shot which Keith Bebbington pounced at close range to convert. However, the Foxes won 3-2 back at Filbert Street to claim the silverware.

That summer of 1964, Banks was part of the England entourage that travelled to play in the “Little World Cup” in Brazil, a one-off four-team tournament played to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Brazilian Football Federation. There, he played for England in a 1-1 draw with Portugal and a 1-0 defeat to Argentina.

Back in Leicester, Banks endured a fairly miserable 1964-65 season as the Foxes, reeling from the sale of commanding centre-half Frank McLintock (the big Scot had demanded a transfer, unhappy at the meagre new contract the club board had offered him, and was sold to Arsenal for £80,000), struggled to a poor 18th placed finish in the league. They lost out to Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup, but once again made it through to the League Cup Final, only to lose 3-2 on aggregate to Chelsea.

The summer of 1965 brought another tour with England, who were in preparation mode for hosting the World Cup in 1966. They played Hungary, Yugoslavia, West Germany and Sweden; Banks conceded only two goals in the four games and built up a good understanding with his defenders- George Cohen, Jack CharltonBobby Moore and Ray Wilson.

Gordon Banks missed the first nine games of Leicester City’s season in 1965-66 after breaking his wrist in a pre-season friendly with Northampton Town. When he returned, the Foxes enjoyed a much better year, finishing seventh in Division One, although they were knocked out of both cup competitions by Manchester City.

Of course, the summer of 1966 will forever be what Gordon Banks and his England team-mates are best remembered for. The team had only lost ONE out of 21 games since the “Little World Cup” tournament in 1964, and Banks had missed that defeat with injury, so their performances during the World Cup tournament itself were perhaps not as big a surprise as may have sometimes been reported.

The opening 0-0 draw with a highly defensive Uruguay side left Banks a virtual spectator, and that was pretty much repeated in both the following games, 2-0 wins over Mexico and France. The quarter-final game with a highly physical Argentina side on 23 July will best be remembered for the sending-off of Antonio Rattin, who refused to leave the pitch after receiving the red card. England eventually won 1-0 with a late Geoff Hurst goal, Banks largely untroubled throughout.

So, England were into the semi-finals without conceding a goal. There, they met a free-scoring Portugal side for whom the explosive Eusebio was ‘on fire’. Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton gave England what seemed a commanding 2-0 lead with ten minutes remaining, but then his older brother Jack handled in the penalty area, with Eusebio sending Banks the wrong way from the spot. It was the first goal Gordon had conceded in 721 minutes of play, which remains an all-time record for an England goalkeeper. England hung on against severe late Portuguese pressure to win 2-1.

On 30 July 1966, Gordon Banks achieved the greatest achievement possible in football- he became a World Champion. England defeated the old enemy, West Germany, 4-2 after extra-time, despite having gone down 0-1 to an early German goal by Helmut Haller. Banks had been unsighted by Jack Charlton and couldn’t react in time to prevent the weak effort from Haller finding the net.

He was beaten again seconds before the end of normal time, Wolfgang Weber firing past him, but stood strong during the extra-time period, including making a fine save from a fierce shot by Sigfried Held. At the other end of the pitch, West Ham’s Hurst wrote his name in the history books with a hat-trick to seal a famous victory.

It was, obviously, the high point of Gordon’s football career. Ironically, his descent from this peak, if only at club level, was pretty rapid. By the end of the following league season, 1966-67, he found himself dropped at Leicester City in favour of a young man called Peter Shilton. Worse, the manager, Matt Gillies, told him bluntly that the club wanted to sell him as they thought his best days were now in the past! However, they stuck a hefty £50,000 price tag on his head, which deterred all the top clubs from coming in for him, since keepers were not ‘valued’ so highly in the late 1960s.

In the end, the only club willing to stump up the money for Banks was Stoke City, who were a solid, mid-table First Division side with little chance of being involved in league title races. However, before he would sign for the Potters, Gordon requested a loyalty bonus from Leicester City; when they refused to give him one, he in turn refused to sign-up to the transfer. Potters boss Tony Waddington seemingly negotiated a £2,000 bonus for Banks from the Foxes- it was only years later that Gordon found out that Stoke City had actually paid it, because Leicester steadfastly refused to do so.

Banks made his debut for Stoke City towards the end of that 1966-67 season, hugely ironically in a 3-1 win over his former employers, Leicester City! The Potters team was filled with veteran players, and Banks fitted in well there, although despite his best efforts the team often struggled near the foot of the league table.

However, Banks was still very much England’s first-choice keeper. He had gone to the European Championships in Italy in 1968, and was an experienced veteran by the time England travelled to World Cup Mexico 1970 as defending World Champions. There, in the sweltering conditions, he helped the side win 1-0 over Romania, before they met possibly the greatest Brazil team of all time in the second Group game. The day before the game Gordon received a call to inform him that Her Majesty The Queen had just awarded him an O.B.E.

On the day, in stifling heat, Banks pulled off what many people still believe to be the greatest save of all time. Winger Jairzinho crossed from the right, after leaving Leeds United full-back Terry Cooper beat all-ends-up. Pele climbed high to head the ball firmly down into the bottom right corner of the goal, apparently shouting “goal” loudly in Portuguese as he did so, so sure was he that that is what it would be. Somehow, defying physics, Banks got the fingers of his right hand to the ball, and rolled his wrist as he did so, to palm the ball over the crossbar. It would be the defining moment of Gordon Banks’ life for most people, even though he had helped England win the World Cup four years earlier.

Despite Banks’ heroics, England still lost the game 1-0 to a Jairzinho goal, but qualified for the quarter-finals by beating Czechoslovakia in the final Group game. There, they met the old enemy, West Germany in a rematch of the 1966 Final. However, Banks wouldn’t take part in it. Suspiciously, Gordon came down with severe food poisoning the day before the German game, and could only watch on from the team hotel as his stand-in, Peter Bonetti, conceded three goals as the reigning Champions crashed out 3-2, having led 2-0 earlier in the game.

Back home in England, Stoke City’s luck began to change somewhat in 1970-71, when despite a mid-table league finish, the Potters reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. There, they met an Arsenal team that contained Gordon’s former Leicester City team-mate Frank McLintock. Over two enthralling games, Stoke City lost a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 in the original match at Hillsborough, but lost the replay 2-0 at Villa Park.

The following year, 1971-72, witnessed Gordon Banks’ greatest heartbreak as a player. Stoke City again battled to a mid-table league finish, but also fought their way through to another FA Cup semi-final…against Arsenal! After another draw at Hillsborough (deja-vu anyone?!), the replay was staged at Goodison Park. There, the Potters felt they were blatantly cheated out of a victory after the Gunners were awarded a highly dubious penalty (converted by McLintock) and then won the game with a John Radford goal which was clearly shown to be off-side in television replays.

However, some comfort for that bitter defeat was found in the League Cup, which Stoke City won 2-1 in a Wembley victory over Chelsea, having battled through ELEVEN games to get there! As well as collecting his second club winners’ medal, Gordon Banks was named the Football Writers’ Association “Footballer of the Year”, the first goalkeeper to win the award since legendary Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann in 1956.

And then, in an instant, Gordon Banks’ career as a professional goalkeeper in England was over. On 22 October 1972, as he drove home from an appointment with the Stoke physiotherapist (who was working on a shoulder injury Banks had picked up), Gordon lost control of his car and collided with an oncoming van. He suffered very serious facial injuries, ending up with over 200 stitches. Worse, his right eye was badly damaged, and despite the doctors’ best efforts, his sight did not return.

Faced with seeing out of only one eye, Banks was left with no alternative but to announce his retirement. He had represented his country 73 times, keeping clean sheets in 35 of those games, losing only nine.

Ironically, despite having only one working eye, Banks played for two seasons, 1977 & 1978, in the ill-fated North American Soccer League for Fort Lauderdale Strikers, making 39 appearances and being named the NASL ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ in 1977.

Despite short stints coaching at Port Vale and Telford United, Banks never found a way into football management, which, given his vast experience at the top levels of the game, is staggering.

Gordon Banks and his wife Ursula had three children. He lost a substantial sum of money in a failed business venture during the 1980s, and sold his World Cup winners’ medal and his England cap from the Final at auction in 2001 for a total of over £150,000.

He was an inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2008, Pele unveiled a statue of Gordon making that 1970 World Cup save, outside the new Britannia Stadium, home of his beloved Stoke City.

At the end of 2015, it was announced that Banks was receiving treatment for kidney cancer.

He hadn’t been seen in public for some time, but the news this morning that Gordon had passed away in his sleep left me feeling a deep sadness. At 81 years of age, it can’t be said that he didn’t live a long, fulfilled life, and yet his death has reminded me yet again that the heroes from a golden age of football, the 1960s, are, in increasing numbers, reaching their final days on this earth.

Like many, I’m too young to have ever witnessed Gordon Banks keep a clean sheet. Yet, largely thanks to the enduring images from those heady days with England in 1966 and 1970, I have always felt like I had! Gordon Banks was a superb goalkeeper, a World Champion and a supreme athlete…but most of all, he was a warm character, a genuinely lovely man. He will be sorely missed.

My sincere condolences to Ursula and his family circle & friends.