August 1970 – I’m a starry-eyed 7-year-old, who can barely believe he’s on his way with dad to watch an English First Division club play.
Back then it was the stuff of fantasy, only visible on black and white TV. Now I was going to see the real thing, not only in color, but within touching distance. And the star attraction was England’s peerless goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, who they all said was, “… the best in the World!”
Just weeks before, I was watching the great man play in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where he made that unbelievable save from Pele who, after which, patted Banks on the back and said, “I thought that was a goal.”
“You and me, both,” replied the England man.
Banks’ Stoke City had come to Ards Football Club, now the nomads of the semi-professional, Irish League to kick-off their pre-season preparations. At Ards’ little Castlereagh Park ground with its shallow terracing and grandstands resembling farmyard barns, I stood pressed against the white-washed pitch perimeter-wall staring in wonderment.
It was the first match I’d ever been too, and there was a game going on, but all I could do was stand motionless, wide-eyed and focus on the man in the green shirt stood 40 yards away.
I recall my dad, a lukewarm football man, at one point placing his hand upon my shoulder, leaning down and saying that’s the second mistake he’s made, as a shot squirmed from Banks’ grasp, only for him to claim the ball at the second attempt. I don’t recall what his first error was, but any slip (or moment of brilliance) from Banks that night would’ve been pounced upon and talked about for years in the little County Down town, such was the man’s stature.
He was from an era when you could be the best goalkeeper in the world, despite playing for unfashionable Stoke City, when you did national service, and when you never earned more than 100 pounds per week as a top footballer. Where you started off working-life bagging coal, then hod-carrying, and began in football with obscure local amateur clubs, one of which dropped him as a 15-year-old, after 2 matches.
It’s at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium where a statue sits of his fabled save from Pele (actually unveiled by the great Brazilian himself) and it was at the Potteries club where he won only his second, and last, trophy in club football, the Football League Cup. Banks had previously won the same competition, with Leicester City in 1964.
For Stoke this was huge, it remains to this day, the only major honor in the club’s 156-year history. And Banks had a major role to play. Like the Pele save it was televised. Stoke had lost the semi-final first-leg at home to West Ham, and by winning 1-0 at Upton Park, had taken the match into extra-time. With three minutes to go in the extra period, a mix-up in Stoke’s penalty area saw Banks and team-mate Mike Pejic (his nephew a former Vancouver Whtecaps player) bring down Harry Redknapp (Yes! That Harry Redknapp!!), and the ref pointed to the spot.
Ironically facing Banks from 12 yards was his great pal and 1966 World Cup team-mate, Geoff Hurst, who had already planted a penalty past Banks in the first-leg.
Hurst, a wonderful and forceful striker of a football, the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final, always packed a lot of power into his spot-kicks. This really was the moment for West Ham to seal the deal.
Banks takes up the story. “He was setting himself up to take the same sort of long run-up and I thought: ‘He’s not going to change here, I’ll gamble’,” said the keeper, who hurled himself to his right as Hurst thumped his shot to that side.
The ball was a blur, Banks looked as though he may have dived too far to the right. Then his left arm went up.
“I was flying through the air with both my arms pointing towards the sky. Geoff had hit the ball so hard that when my left hand made contact, I had to tense the muscles in my arm and wrist, or it would have knocked my hand aside.”
“To my great relief it ricocheted up into the murky gloom and over the bar.”
Pejic and Banks had argued ever since as to whose fault it was for bringing down Redknapp for the penalty. But Pejic, who used to kiss Banks’s feet in retirement such was his adulation, added: “I always took credit for making him even more famous by giving him the chance to save that penalty. I always blamed him for giving it away and he always blamed me, but I will take the blame now.”
“Either way, an unbelievable save. From the very best there was.”
It’s a little-known fact from what has become a largely forgotten episode in Canadian Soccer, but Gordon Banks did play in Montreal, for a very strong Football Association XI. He appeared in two matches at the old Autostade, in the Expo ’67 International Tournament in June 1967, which they won, defeating Borussia Dortmund in the Final.
Banks faced, and blanked, Mexico’s, SC Leon (3-0) and then took his place between the posts for the decider, which the English FA XI side containing several of the previous year’s World Cup winners, won 3-2.
Banks was also at the centre of another iconic 70’s moment much closer to home (for me) in Belfast, but this time he didn’t look so clever despite having the last laugh.
At a gloriously sunny (it does happen) Windsor Park in 1971, faced by Northern Ireland’s George Best and about to launch a long punt downfield out of his hands, the England number one released the ball, as all ‘keepers did in those days. But before he could volley the dropping ball, Best, in a split-second of brilliance and cheek, flicked it away and ran around a trailing goalkeeper to head the ball into an unguarded net.
Those of us in the home crowd went wild with delight, Northern Ireland never did score too often against England, never mind actually win those games, so to go 1-0 up was momentous.
A flustered Banks protested to the referee, he’d probably never experienced impudence like that from Georgie and certainly wasn’t expecting it, his arms flailing up and down and head turning from left to right in a “that can’t be allowed” sort of way.
The ref, who I’ll swear wasn’t sure what to do either, disallowed the goal, and that in itself probably preserved the moment, which has become one of the most replayed retro clips in British/Irish sporting history.
I also recall sat at home on a boring Sunday evening in October 1972, when the news came through about Banks’ car accident. First stories highlighted a danger to one of his eyes. News reports for days afterwards had updates on the situation. Sadly and ultimately surgeons were unable to save the sight in his right eye.
Banks said later: “I wouldn’t say I was bitter because I was to blame for the crash.”
This of course effectively ended a great career, although he did play on, winning Goalkeeper of the Year honours in the old NASL with Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and actually playing in one game of League of Ireland football with St Patrick’s Athletic against Shamrock Rovers, but there was no hope of him ever returning to the level at which for several years, he had few, if any, peers.
It’s fitting to leave the last word to the great Pele, who upon hearing of Banks’ passing last week, was quoted as saying, simply, “Gordon Banks – a goalkeeper with magic.”
He certainly had that!
Gordon Banks – Born Abbeydale, Sheffield, England, 30 December 1937. Died Stoke-on-Trent, England, 12 February 2019
Note: Anyone with any information or pictures from the 1967 Expo International Tournament involving any of the six teams involved, I would appreciate if they would get in touch. Many thanks!