By Vince Cooper

IT is often said that the strength of any great football team starts right at the back. A great goalkeeper not only pulls off wonder saves, he also intimidates opponents along with instilling confidence in his defenders and throughout the side.

England is renowned for producing top goalkeepers and this never more the case than in the early 60s when almost every top team seemed to have a standout man in goal who was capable of playing for the national team. But to get an England cap they had to get past one man – and that man, of course was Gordon Banks.

Unlike many who seem to end up as goalkeepers after aspirations of being a top player in another position Gordon, born in 1937, always wanted to be between the posts. He was chosen to play for Sheffield boys but never even made it to the match after being dropped because of a poor performance in a Yorkshire Schools cup-tie.

In senior football things didn’t start too auspiciously. After starting out his working life as a coalbagger Gordon had moved on to a job as an apprentice bricklayer when he went to watch local club Millspaugh Steel Works and was asked to go in goal when their regular ‘keeper failed to show up.

He moved on to another, stronger, local club Romarsh Welfare and his debut there would definitely feature among the lowlights, a 12-2 defeat. After the match, he was approached by the manager ‘Are you on the phone Banks’ he recalls the boss asking. When he replied that he wasn’t he was told ‘Good, we’ll give you a call if we want you again’.

But Gordon kept at it, his perseverance paying off when he was offered a trial, and then a part-time contract, at a princely £2 per match, with Chesterfield, a club that has forged a reputation over the years as a breeding ground for top-class custodians and whose manager Teddy Davison was himself a former shotstopper..

In the season after he joined, 1955-56, Chesterfield reached the FA Youth Cup final where Banks faced Bobby Charlton and Manchester United. A 3-2 defeat – with Charlton among the scorers – in front of almost 25,000 fans at Old Trafford gave Gordon some big-time exposure and his team a chance in the second-leg. In return at Saltergate Chesterfield levelled things after 66 minutes but United, then the only team to have won the competition since its inception in 1953 equalised with seven seconds remaining to secure a fourth successive win. It seemed Gordon was on his way to the top but there was a delay when he was called up for National Service and sent out to Germany   serving his two years with the Royal Signals and winning the Rhine Cup with his regimental team.

Whilst serving there he met future wife Ursula. They would go on to have three children, Robert, Julia and Wendy and separated for a while in the 70s when he went to play in America but reunited on his return.

Back in civilian life Gordon signed a full-time deal with Chesterfield, at £17-a-week but he didn’t spend too much time with the Spirerites as Leicester City manager Matt Gillies, after sending the club’s former cup final ‘keeper Jimmy Harrison to scout him, snapped him up in May 1959 for £7,000 after just 23 games with his first pro’ club. The move boosted his salary to £15 per-week.

In fact Banks could have left Chesterfield even earlier. When he signed for City, Chesterfield manager Dugald Livingstone revealed that Arsenal had made a bid four months earlier but the club wouldn’t release him as they were hit by injuries at the time.

With Dave MacLaren the Foxes first choice it took a while for Gordon to establish himself with the Filbert Street club and he spent some time finding his feet with the reserves. An injury to MacLaren gave him his debut in September 1959 but after two games he was sent back to the second team. Soon recalled he ended the season with 36 first team appearances.

Gordon quickly came to the fore and made rapid advances, for which he would later credit his teammates. “I couldn’t help but improve because I was playing in such a successful side”, he later said. “Never before had I played in a team that based everything on togetherness and teamwork”.

After another three seasons of regular first-team football, his form earned Gordon a call-up to the England Under-23 team and when Alf Ramsey took over as England manager he would soon get his full international chance.

One club match more than any other highlighted that he was approaching the highest level. “My best performance was undoubtedly against Liverpool in the 1963 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough”, he would later say.

”We won 1-0 with a goal from Mike Stringfellow but it was the ultimate backs-to-the-wall job. We were up against it for 95 minutes but kept them out.

”I had the game of my life and made about five or six saves that I’ve probably never bettered”.

Shortly after and following England’s 5-2 defeat in France, Ramsey dropped Ron Springett and promoted Gordon for the April 1963 home international match against Scotland. It certainly wasn’t the debut he might have hoped for as the Scots, spurred on by Jim Baxter’s brace, ran out 2-1 victors. Next up was World champions Brazil where a 1-1 draw was a creditable outcome. It soon became clear that he was England’s first-choice and he went on to keep all of those other top ‘keepers at bay in holding on to his position until 1972.

On the club scene, Gordon reached two FA Cup finals while at Leicester, losing to Manchester United and Spurs, and added a League Cup winners medal, where City overcame Stoke 4-3 on aggregate, to his haul.

As the national team’s number one, Gordon carved out a remarkable record for his country. Playing a total of 73 games for England – of which they lost just nine, he conceded only 57 times and during his country’s run to the 1966 World Cup final, he kept clean sheets in the first four matches before conceding from the penalty spot when Eusebio scored for Portugal in the semi-final, a game he would later recall as his ‘No. 1 England classic’.

Before that pulsating semi, England had faced an Argentina side who did their best to turn the quarter-final into a real battle. But the England manager and his men knew what to expect. Before the game, recalls the keeper, Ramsey said to Nobby Stiles ‘you’re marking Rattin today’ to which Nobby replied ‘just today boss? Not for life?’. England won 1-0 with Rattin, a man Gordon claimed ‘would kick his own father… If he knew who he was’, sent off.

Then onto the Portugal classic, and then to that memorable day when Ramsey’s men claimed the World Cup for the first, and still only, time. And their reward? ‘We got £1,000 each’ recalls Gordon. “The Germans got £7,000 and a Mercedes each for finishing runners-up”.

In the match itself England were 2-1 up with the 90 minutes coming to an end when West Germany were awarded a free-kick. The ball was fizzed into the box and, Banks insists, would have gone out of play were it not slowed down by a German arm. Wolfgang Weber was left clear and although the England ‘keeper got close the ball got past him and into the net. Banks and Bobby Moore complained to the referee and appealed for handball but the goal was allowed to stand.

And so to extra time. As the players gathered near the halfway line Alf Ramsey noticed some players were standing and some sitting while the opposition were all sitting. He quickly called those sitting to their feet, saying; ‘let’s not show them we’re as tired as them’. Of course it was England who proved stronger in the extra period.

What came next shocked football. Within ten months of that World Cup triumph, Leicester City, confident a promising Peter Shilton could hold down the first-team job, decided to put Gordon on the transfer list. Despite interest from Liverpool, Wolves, West Ham and others, he decided to stay in the Midlands, moving to Stoke for £52,500. Potters manager Tony Waddington called the arrival: “My greatest signing” and added. “I could never hope to get another bargain like him. He was a steal, an absolute gift”.

When 1970 came around England still relied on the core of the ’66 team. The second group game saw the holders take on favourites Brazil in a match which is remembered to this day for the ‘Save of the Century’. Having been told before the match by Ramsey that he had been awarded the OBE, Gordon went out and put on a masterclass of goalkeeping highlighted by that incredible save from a Pele header.

An inch perfect cross from Jairzinho saw Pele rise and power a bullet header towards the bottom corner. In his autobiography ‘Banks of England’ Gordon takes up the story: “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”.

Somehow, as Pele shouted ‘Goal’ the strength of Gordon’s ‘flick’ managed to get the ball up and over the crossbar. Speaking shortly before he sadly passed away the great Brazilian, referring to the save, said “I scored over 1,000 goals in my career but I get asked more about one I didn’t score than all of those I did’. Skipper Bobby Moore is reported to have said to Banks at the time; “You’re getting old Banksy, you used to hold on to them”.

But England’s defence of their World crown came to an end a week later in Leon when, without their first-choice goalkeeper who was suffering from food poisoning, they slumped to defeat against West Germany with replacement Peter Bonetti struggling. Gordon became ill the night before the game, but was hopeful of recovering enough to take his place. However he suffered again on the way to the stadium and Alf Ramsey’s team, despite racing into an early lead, were undone by poor tactical decisions and a reserve goalkeeper who was clearly under-prepared.  

Gordon, awarded an O.B.E in 1970, continued to perform at the peak of his powers and in 1972 played a major role in Stoke’s first major success, in the League Cup, his second win in the competition and still the club’s only major trophy, and he finished that season with the Footballer of the Year award (only the second goalkeeper to take the trophy after Bert Trautmann).

But a career that seemed far from over came to an abrupt end, shortly after the 72-73 season got underway. Returning from the training ground after treatment for an injury following a match with Liverpool, Gordon was involved in a serious car accident which cost him the sight in his right eye. 

He tried in vain to return to first-team action but eventually realised he was fighting a losing battle and, despite a comeback with Fort Lauderdale Strikers in NASL, the accident effectively brought an amazing career to an end.

Looking back on his time between the sticks, Gordon admitted that being a ‘keeper got a lot more difficult during his later years. “It is a lot harder now than it was 10 years ago” he said in 1970. “Then wingers were orthodox and you could expect the same type of ball from every cross. Today you find one may be driven hard and low towards the near post, the next is a high one for the big men in the middle. It is impossible to sit back and say you know it all”.

Tributes to Gordon’s upon his retirement came from all quarters. His national team boss Sir Alf Ramsey called him; ‘The finest goalkeeper I’ve ever seen’ whilst fellow World Cup winning goalkeeper Dino Zoff said; “Gordon Banks was the one goalkeeper in the world I always tried to equal. I never succeeded”.

Attempts at coaching never really worked out and an unhappy spell as boss of Alliance Premier League club Telford United brought an end to his efforts in this area.

Gordon’s later years were beset by ill-health. Having had a tumour removed from his stomach during his Leicester days, and having had numerous other surgeries, he lost one kidney to cancer and was then informed that he was suffering from it in the other kidney. “Obviously they couldn’t take the other one away so I’ve been having chemotherapy” he said. Sadly the illness eventually got the better of him and Gordon passed away in February 2019.

Speaking after Gordon had passed away Pele said he was ‘glad’ that the ‘keeper made that famous save; “It was the start of a lifetime friendship” the Brazilian said.

It was Pele who, in 2011, unveiled a statue outside Stoke’s Britannia Stadium of Banks marking that unforgettable 1970 save.

An unforgettable save by an unforgettable goalkeeper. There is little doubt that when discussions about England’s, and even the football’s, greatest ever ‘keeper happen they mostly start and often end, with Gordon Banks