Banks of England: The story of England’s greatest ever goalkeeper

Gordon Banks
Gordon Banks
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Gordon Banks is considered as one of the finest goalkeepers of his, or any other, generation; and his 15-year career culminated in England’s one - and, so far, only - World Cup win, back in 1966.

At the peak of his powers, he was hailed as the best in the world - but the man that became ‘Banks of England’ almost didn’t make the grade at all, after letting in TWELVE goals on his debut in a trial game for Yorkshire League side Rawmarsh Welfare.

The goalkeeping bug caught him as a teenager at Tinsley School, where he impressed enough to be offered a trial for Sheffield Boys.

“I was over the moon,” he remembers. “Sheffield’s such a big city, so it was a great honour. I had a hell of a run with Sheffield Boys, though - I was dropped after two games!”

Perseverance was to become a key attribute in Banks’s career, which ground to a standstill as he took a job shifting coal with a friend before leaving for a “better job”, on a building site.

Every weekend, he’d work until 12pm - “for double time,” he smiles - and then catch the bus into Sheffield to watch either United or Wednesday, depending who was at home.

“I’d stand behind the goal and watch the goalkeepers, their movements and how they acted,” Banks added. “I just loved football.”

One Saturday, he missed his regular bus - and wouldn’t get to Bramall Lane until after half time. So instead, he took a walk to the local rec where an amateur game was close to kick off.

“I remember leaning against the fence, and realising that one team only had seven or eight men warming up. Out of nowhere, a bloke came up to me and said, ‘you used to play in goal at school, didn’t you son’. Heaven knows how he knew, but I told him that I did and he asked if I fancied a game.

“I couldn’t believe that a men’s team had asked me to play in goal, so I skipped home, grabbed some gear and took it from there.”

The local team was Millspaugh, and he impressed enough to be invited to trial for Rawmarsh Welfare, in the then-Yorkshire League - which became the Northern Counties East League in 1982 after merging with the Midlands League. Banks, still just 16 years old, was offered two trial games to prove himself.

“Rawmarsh Welfare sounds like a pub team, and we played like we were half-p*ssed most of the time,” Banks smiled.

“But I walked in at half time of my first game, and I’d already let five goals in.

“A bloke in the corner asked what Brian London, the former heavyweight boxer, and I had in common. Apparently it was that we both wore gloves for no apparent reason. I put my head in my hands, and nearly dropped it!”

Banks, and Rawmarsh, eventually lost 12-2. And after another defeat in the second game - albeit, only by a 3-1 margin - Banks’s dreams of a contract were dashed.

“I knew there was no future for me there,” he admitted, “when the manager came up to me after the game and asked if we had a telephone at home.

“I told him we didn’t, and he said ‘good - we’ll give you a ring if we want you again’.”

With his pride in tatters but his determination unwavering, Banks returned to Millspaugh but, just a couple of weeks later, he was spotted by a Chesterfield scout and signed on the spot.

A £7,000 move to Leicester followed, and his first England cap came in 1963, in a 2-1 loss to Scotland at Wembley.

And in his second game, Banks was heavily criticised by manager Alf Ramsey after letting in a free-kick from Pepe, the Brazilain outside left. But England lost only nine of their 73 matches with Banks in goal, conceding just 57 times with 35 clean sheets.

The pinnacle, without doubt, of a stunning career was England’s World Cup victory in 1966, built on a bedrock of defensive solidarity.

In fact, England reached the semi-finals without Banks conceding a goal. But it was his ‘save of the century’ four years later for which he is still perhaps best remembered.

After a good move involving Brazil captain Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho, Pelé connected with a fierce downward header that was destined for the bottom corner - until Banks somehow scrambled across his line and pushed the ball over the bar.

That image - of the great Brazilian poised to celebrate, shouting ‘gola’ while his adversary dives to save, as if frozen in time - has become infamous; one of the truly great World Cup moments.

“Everybody talks about that one and only save, as if it was the only one I ever made in my career,” Banks smiles.

“Wherever I go, people bring it up. After I got my hand to it, I thought it was going in. I had no idea where the ball was going and to be honest, after all these years, I can’t still believe people are talking about it. But I’m happy they are!”

Banks’s career in England was cut short when he lost the sight in his right eye, after a road accident which saw his Ford Granada collide with a van. But he couldn’t give up the game completely, and signed for North American Soccer League side Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

Despite his visual impairment, Banks was voted as the League’s most valuable goalkeeper, but is quoted as saying: “I felt like a circus act... ‘Roll up, roll up, to see the greatest one-eyed goalkeeper in the world’.”

Life at the Strikers was far from ordinary; after two successive defeats, Banks was once driven onto the pitch in a hearse, before helping to carry a coffin which the team’s manager jumped out of, dressed as Dracula.

It was something of a fitting end to a career less ordinary.