Gordon Banks, 1937-2019

Please forgive me if this fails to do the man justice, as it inevitably will.

It is a black morning for English football. We have lost a giant. Not only did one of the game’s greatest players leave us, we also lost a kind, gentle, humble and thoroughly decent man. A greater ambassador for Stoke City Football Club you will never find.

I briefly got the chance to interview Gordon last year. He’d been out walking in Trentham Gardens with some of the great Stoke side from the seventies and Terry Conroy had generously allowed me the opportunity for a few minutes interviewing England’s greatest ever goalkeeper one-on-one. As I nervously explained who I was and what a podcast is, Banksy took a seat, smiled, and put me right at ease. It’s not the best interview you’ll ever here, but my overwhelming memory of it is the big, daft grin that appeared on his face as he recounted playing in that 1972 League Cup winning Stoke side. He must have told these stories hundreds, thousands of times, but so special are those memories that telling them to a nervous 24-year-old with a microphone still gave him joy.

I will leave more words on Gordon the man to people who knew him better. Having read so much of it already this sad morning, it’s fantastic to know the football world is in full agreement about the content of his character.

There’s a reason he was invited to do the last world cup draw (in a Stoke City tie, thank you very much), there’s a reason there’s a statue of him at the bet365 stadium, there’s a  reason he was Stoke City club president. There’s no reason he shouldn’t have been a knight, but we shouldn’t complain about that, because Gordon wouldn’t.

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As for his footballing accomplishments, here’s the story of his career:

Steel City Steel

Born in Sheffield on the 30th December 1937, Banks’ origins were humble and difficult, his brother dying of injuries sustained whilst being mugged for the takings of his father’s illegal betting shop. He left school at fifteen, to work as a bagger for a coal merchant and it was whilst he was working here that his career in football began. He joined amateur side Millspaugh Steelers, having been pulled from the crowd when their first-choice ‘keeper had failed to show up.

His performances for the Steelers earned him a couple of games for Yorkshire League side Rawmarsh Welfare, but conceding 12 on his debut didn’t help matters and he returned to Millspaugh after just two games. Now working as a hod carrier, (basically lugging stuff about) his performances at his amateur side were impressive, and they caught the eye of scouts for Chesterfield, who offered him a trial, and then a £3 a week part-time contract in July 1953. Due to behind the scenes dealings rather than them being any good, Chesterfield’s reserves played in the Central League, and finished bottom, Banks conceding 122 goals in a season.

Returning to Chesterfield, Banks helped Chesterfield reach the FA Youth Cup final, where they were beaten by a side who would go on to be known as the Busby Babes. In 1958, he played made his Third Division debut for Chesterfield in a 2-2 draw with Colchester, and from there he became a fixture for the Saltergate side, despite having never had real goalkeeper coaching. After just 23 games for the Spireites, he suddenly found himself moving to the First Division.

Filbert’s Finest

Leicester City bought him for £7,000 in July 1959, his wages rocketing up to £15 a week. Initially playing in the reserves, injury to first-choice Dave Maclaren meant his first-team debut was a 1-1 draw with Blackpool in September, and the poor form of Maclaren when he returned meant Banks got a serious run of games for Leicester, during which he gradually improved his form to become the club’s number one. It was remarkable that Banks found himself here. Rags-to-riches stories in football are fairly common, but Banks lived in age where there was no such thing as a ‘Goalkeeping coach’. He had to learn on the job, working on what were his weaker aspects (such as coming for crosses) in match situations.

Banks would play 293 games for Leicester, helping them reach sixth place in the 1960-61 season and an FA Cup Final, where they fell at the final hurdle to Spurs, the first double winners of the twentieth century. In 1962 came one of the bizarre moments of the career when, not wanting to disappoint the England bosses, who invited him to watch their match against Portugal as a non-playing squad member, Gordon raced from Wembley to his first appearance in the Cup Winners’ Cup, a 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at Filbert Street, Banks arriving in Leicester 30 minutes prior to kick-off. He would reach another FA Cup Final with Leicester, which again ended in defeat, but in 1964, Banks picked up silverware, winning the League Cup at Filbert Street after a 4-3 aggregate win over Stoke City.

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Banks of England

His ever-improving performances for his club side meant an International cap wouldn’t be long coming, and Alf Ramsey picked him in goal for a 2-1 defeat to Scotland at Wembley in 1963. Not at fault for the goals, Banks continued as England’s Number One, and in 1965 he’d built a great understanding with his formidable defence of George Cohen, Jack Charlton Bobby Moore and Ray Wilson. This defensive resilience was obviously a massive advantage for England going in to the 1966 World Cup.

Unquestionably England’s first-choice at this stage, Banks was establishing himself as one of the world’s best, his stellar performances keeping Peter Bonetti and Ron Springett out of the team. He mixed outstanding reflexes with a strength forged from the hard graft of his Yorkshire youth, making him a formidable opponent for centre-forwards in a period where Goalkeepers aren’t the ‘protected species’ (forgive the cliché) they are now.  At the World Cup, Banks kept clean sheets in all of England’s group games and their last eight tie against Argentina. Shortly before the semi-final against Portugal, there was panic as it emerged that the trainer Harold Shepherdson had forgot to buy chewing gum, which Banks used to make his hands stickier – giving him a better grip on the ball, the trainer dashed from Wembley Stadium to the newsagents and back, England’s goalkeeper being handed the gum in the tunnel before coming out for kick-off.

Eusebio’s 82nd-minute penalty consolation was the first goal Banks conceded in the tournament, and in the final Banks become an England immortal, pulling off some fine saves in a pulsating 4-2 win over West Germany. England had won the World Cup. The coal bagger from South Yorkshire had his hands on the Jules Rimet trophy.

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Pele and the Potteries

Despite having a World Cup win under his belt, his place in the Leicester XI was by no means certain, with the highly promising Peter Shilton coming through the ranks at Filbert Street. His manager told him “we think your best days are behind you, and you should move on”, although there are indications Shilton had issued a ‘play me or sell me’ ultimatum. Despite strong interest from Ron Greenwood at West Ham and Bill Shankly at Liverpool, it was Tony Waddington’s Stoke City who were prepared to part with the sizeable fee demanded by Leicester.

Waddington had a knack for signing veteran pros, he had re-signed Sir Stanley Matthews a few years previously and despite criticism, he thought experience was the way to go. Banks made his Stoke debut in a 3-1 victory over Leicester City in 1967, and continued as Stoke’s obvious number one for two seasons despite the club languishing around the bottom of Division One. He also made appearances for Stoke’s American sister side The Cleveland Stokers.

Another World Cup was on the horizon in 1970 (England had crashed out of a 4-team European Championships in 1968), and Banks was again the country’s first choice, ahead of Peter Bonetti and Alex Stepney. England’s group in Mexico was Czechoslovakia, Romania and of course Brazil, but preparation had been hampered with Bobby Moore accused of stealing a bracelet in Bogota. Having beaten Czechoslavakia 1-0, the stage was set for a showdown between the World Champions and the World Champions Elect in Guadalajara, and Banks, aged 32, had the moment of his career.

In the sweltering Mexico heat, England were under the cosh from the sublime Brazil attack of Jairzinho, Pele, Tostao, Rivelino and Paulo Cesar. Banks and his defence were in fine form. It was a spirited defensive performance epitomised by “that tackle by Moore”, but although England would go on to finally concede a Jairzinho goal, Banks created one of the standout moments of English football history. Jairzinho had surged down the right and crossed, Pele leapt and headed what should have been a certain goal. It was an immensely powerful header that would have beaten almost every goalkeeper, yet Banks, with amazing agility, leapt to meet the ball at the bottom right-hand corner and tip it up and past his right hand post.

Reportedly, Pele had shouted ‘Golo!’ whilst watching his header sailing toward the net, but Banks denied him with what many consider to be the best save of all-time. The Brazilian number ten came over to him. “I thought it was a goal” said Pele, to which Banks replied “You and me both”, before Bobby Moore brought him down to earth with “You’re getting old, Banksy, you used to hold on to them”.

Back at the Victoria Ground, Banks continued the form that made him the best goalkeeper in the World, Stoke ended the 1970-71 season in mid-table, reaching the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. The Potters had gone 2-0 ahead at Hillsborough, but The Gunners got themselves back into it, Peter Storey pulled one back, and late in the game Banks leapt to claim a cross. “I thought our goalkeeper had possession and would take his time to clear. George Graham had other ideas.”, writes then Stoke captain Denis Smith, “The Scottish forward, who’d done nothing all game, ran in and threw himself into the back of Banksy as our keeper was still in mid-air.It was a blatant foul for everyone to see. But incredibly referee Pat Partridge waved play on. That should never have been allowed. As plain as the nose on your face it should have been a free-kick”. Storey scored from the goalmouth scramble to force a replay, which the Gunners won.

In 1971-72, Tony Waddington had assembled a superb side with Irish winger Terry Conroy, the aforementioned Denis Smith, Mike Pejic, Peter Dobing, John Ritchie, Jimmy Greenhoff. Names which don’t mean much to the average football fan but mean everything to Stokies. Waddington would later go on to add one of England’s most criminally under-capped players, Alan Hudson, but there’s another story for another time. Stoke were gunning for some silverware, and after a marathon semi-final against West Ham, in which Banks saved a Geoff Hurst penalty in the second replay, and fourth fixture of the tie, Stoke were going to Wembley for the first time ever. Banks was in fine form as The Potters claimed a 2-1 victory over the favourites Chelsea, giving Stoke their first and only major honour. Disappointment followed at the FA Cup semi-final stage again, as Stoke lost 2-1 in a replay to Arsenal again, Arsenal scoring a blatantly offside goal, aided by a Linesman who mistook the white of a pitch side ice-cream seller with the white of Stoke’s change shirts.

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In October of 1972, Banks’ career ended in horrible circumstances. Banks lost control of his car, and crashed with another vehicle. Such was Banks’ standing (he had recently been voted the FWA Footballer of the Year – no mean feat for a 34-year old goalkeeper), that television programmes were interrupted by newsflashes delivering the latest on his condition.  He required 200 stitches in his face and 100 micro-stitches in his right eye, and he soon lost the ability to see out of that eye, forcing his retirement from the top level of the game. It really was a horrible way for the goalkeeping giant to leave the game. Four years later, despite only having sight in one eye, Gordon Banks went to play in NASL and, believe it or not, played 37 games for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and was named NASL Goalkeeper of the Year after the Strikers kept the best defensive record in the league. He later went on to have a short spell as manager of Telford United.

A hero who could fly

I know I’m biased, but I believe Banks was England’s greatest goalkeeper. Despite playing for what were essentially unglamorous mid-table First Division sides, he was voted FIFA Goalkeeper of the year 6 times and received an OBE in 1970. He was voted Daily Express Sportsman of the year two years running and FWA Player of the Year in 1972. Following the death of Sir Stanley Matthews, he was made President of Stoke City Football Club and was inducted to the English Football Hall of Fame (EFHOF) in 2002, and made Pele’s “FIFA 100” in 2004.

Banks remains an absolute saint off the pitch. He is a patron of the Alzheimer’s Society, having had a brother suffer from the disease. In 2008, a charity match was held at the Britannia Stadium, in which a Banks XI played a Pele XI to raise money for sick children in North Staffordshire. The match starred the likes of John Barnes and  Matt Le Tissier, and featured a speech from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Pele and the Archbishop unveiled a statue of Banks holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft.

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Tributes to Banks are many, but one of my all-time favourite books is “Gordon Banks: A Hero who could fly”, which documents an Irish schoolboy growing up in the troubles and his escapism through his hero, Gordon Banks. I’ll leave you with the words of the author, Don Mullan:

“At the age of 15 I witnessed Bloody Sunday and, like many of my age group, I considered joining the IRA. I understood why many did but there were a number of reasons why I never made that choice.

My parents were one reason, my football manager and a best friend another. But one important reason was my sporting idol, Gordon Banks. I loved that man.

As a youth I instinctively knew him to be an ordinary, decent and down-to-earth human being whom I wanted to model my life on. Banksy was like a friend who lived in my mind and who filled me with hope.”

Rest in Peace, Banksy.

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