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Calm, alert and brave, Gordon Banks was the ideal goalkeeper for any age | Richard Williams | Football


Not all of the 11 players who won the World Cup for England in 1966 would claim he was the best in his position the country has ever produced. Two or three might have a good shout, but the one over whom there could be no dissent was Gordon Banks.

He was, in short, the ideal goalkeeper for any age. Calm but ever alert, organising his defenders, watching his angles, plucking the ball out of the air, anticipating what a forward with the ball at his feet might do next, as brave as a lion in an era when strikers had a licence to intimidate, his qualities were beyond dispute.

For a while, as the 60s bled into the 70s, he was accepted as the finest goalkeeper in the world. He took over that distinction from Lev Yashin, the Russian giant, and handed it on to Dino Zoff, the eternal Italian. Each of them attracted an admiration that transcended national loyalties.

Unlike Yashin, who retired at 40, and Zoff, who played in a World Cup final at 40 and a European Cup final at 41, Banks suffered the premature end of his career when a car accident cost him the sight of one eye at 34. Some who saw him could be forgiven for believing that a one-eyed Banks might have been better than most fully sighted goalkeepers.

There was another difference, too. Yashin played for Dynamo Moscow, Zoff for Juventus. Banks played for Leicester City and Stoke City, and was thus never in line for the kind of club honours that were virtually guaranteed to the other two. He belonged to a time when clubs from medium-sized provincial cities could sometimes hang on to their star internationals; a time, too, when the real value of even the finest goalkeepers was not reflected in their market price.

He had some fine rivals in the old First Division. In his time Manchester United had Alex Stepney, Tottenham had Pat Jennings, Liverpool had Tommy Lawrence, Chelsea had Peter Bonetti, Arsenal had Bob Wilson and Everton had Gordon West. But it was Banks whose presence in the opposing goal made it much less likely your team was going to score that day.

In his time at Filbert Street, Matt Gillies supervised a team good enough to win the League Cup. Their opponents in 1964, beaten 4-3 over a two-leg final, were Tony Waddington’s Stoke, whom Banks was to join three years later. He won a second League Cup in 1972, beating Dave Sexton’s star-studded Chelsea as part of a side also including George Eastham, Peter Dobing and Jimmy Greenhoff, a lineup assembled by Waddington with loving care and cherished by aesthetes far beyond the Potteries.


Gordon Banks on ‘the greatest save ever made’ – video obituary

If his contribution to the 1966 World Cup finals was not unduly conspicuous, it was because he was a member of a six-man defensive unit that functioned so effectively. By temperament he seemed perfectly suited to the regime instituted by Alf Ramsey, who believed firmly that his players were the best but never allowed them to become tainted by a sense of entitlement, individual or national.

A couple of saves from the 19-year-old Oscar Más of Argentina – one of them after the expulsion of Antonio Rattín had reduced the South Americans to 10 men – allowed England to progress to the semi-final by the game’s only goal.

Facing Portugal for a place in the final, Banks made a rare mistake, coming for a cross that he could not reach and inducing Jack Charlton to stop the ball with his hand. Trying to second-guess Eusébio, who had scored all his penalties by sending the ball to the goalkeeper’s right, he dived left – and saw, to his dismay, that the great forward had stuck to his routine. But it was late in the game, and England won 2-1.



Gordon Banks enjoys the moment with Bobby Moore (left), Roger Hunt and Martin Peters (right) after England’s 1966 World Cup win at Wembley. Photograph: John Varley/Rex/Shutterstock

In the final he conceded twice, thanks first to Ray Wilson’s poor headed clearance and then to a disintegrating defensive wall. But there were saves – notably from a 25-yard snap shot by Uwe Seeler just before half-time – that preserved the platform on which England could construct their victory.

In Mexico four years later it was his absence that made the crucial difference. An upset stomach kept him out of the quarter-final against West Germany, in which a nervous Bonetti’s misjudgments contributed to England’s elimination.

Off the field Banks was pleasant and approachable in a manner that belonged to his time but may finally, after years of hubris and gilded excess, be making a comeback among England’s international squad. Although modest, he was aware of his worth; the transfer to Stoke came after Leicester had refused him a loyalty payment of £2,000 and put a fee of £50,000 on his head. He refused to move until the bonus had been paid, which it eventually was – almost certainly by Stoke.

He was also not unaware of the disparity between what he had given the nation and what he received in return; like several of his teammates, late in life he sold his medals and caps.

Coming at a time when not one of the six English clubs competing for the four Champions League places has an Englishman as its No 1 or No 2 goalkeeper, Banks’s death reminds us of a time when he could be followed into the England jersey by Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and David Seaman. But mostly it encourages us to remember the afternoon when he and the greatest player of all time brought the best out of each other in the Mexican sunshine, two men from the working classes of different continents sharing a moment in which they played the game like angels, and in which Gordon Banks achieved immortality.



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