Obituary: Gordon Banks, England international goalkeeper and World Cup winner who made ‘the save of the century’

Gordon Banks OBE, goalkeeper. Born: 30 December 1937 in Sheffield. Died: 12 February 2019 in Stoke-on-Trent, aged 81

Goalkeeper Gordon Banks circa  (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)
Goalkeeper Gordon Banks circa (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)

Gordon Banks, who was diagnosed as suffering from kidney cancer in 2015, has died after a short illness, is best-known for making “The Save of the Century” when he kept out a Pele header during the England v Brazil World Cup game in Mexico in 1970. He may not be the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) when it comes to goalkeeping, but he is on the short leet along with Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff, Gianluigi Buffon and Peter Shilton – the man who succeeded him for club and country. And none of them pulled off a stop to equal that one from Pele.

He back-stopped England’s World Cup victory in 1966, when he was named as Goalkeeper of the Tournament, confirming that, at that time, he had overtaken Yashin as the game’s leading custodian.

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Banks was born in Sheffield, the son of an illegal street bookmaker. There was early tragedy to overcome when his disabled elder brother was mugged for the day’s takings from the family’s illegal betting shop, and subsequently died from his injuries.

Gordon left school to work in a coal merchant’s, a job which he credited with building up his upper body strength. He had played for Sheffield Schoolboys, but this cut little ice with professional clubs and, as a 15-year-old he was playing non-league football for Millspaugh FC.

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He was still with them, working as a hod carrier and playing on Saturdays, when he was spotted by Chesterfield, who gave him an extended trial, then put him on a £3 per week contract as a part-time player in 1953.

National Service with the Royal Signals saw him taste success for the first time, as they won the Rhine Cup, and, then, back in England, he helped them to the 1956 FA Youth Cup Final, where they lost to a team of “Busby Babes” which included future England team mate Bobby Charlton.

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Chesterfield’s Scottish manager, Doug Livingstone, gave him his first-team debut in November 1958, against Colchester United and, after just 26 appearances, in the close season of summer 1959, another Scottish manager, Matt Gillies of Leicester City, paid £7,000 to take him to Filbert Street, where he was competing for the first-team slot with two Scots, the long-serving Scotland cap Jock Anderson and Dave MacLaren.

By the end of that first season, however, Banks was first choice.

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He went on to play 356 first team games in eight years at Leicester, during which he was twice a Wembley loser, in the 1961 and 1963 A Cup finals, in which they lost to double-winners Tottenham in the first final and Manchester United in the second. He did, however enjoy League Cup success over Stoke City in 1964.

With Leicester challenging for honours, he began to be spoken of as a potential England player. He made two Under-23 appearances before Alf Ramsey handed him the first of what would become at that time an England record for a goalkeeper of 73 caps, for the 1963 game against Scotland. Ironically, his final cap was also against Scotland, at Hampden in May, 1972.

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Jim Baxter beat him twice as ten-man Scotland won, but Banks would go on to quickly establish himself as England’s undisputed number one for the remainder of the decade and beyond.

He even survived being dropped by Leicester, in favour of the teenaged Peter Shilton, a set-back. Shilton, who always had a firm belief in his ability, challenged City to play him or sell him, so the directors decided to keep Shilton and cash-in on the established Banks, who was sold to Stoke City for £50,000.

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In retrospect, this was a bargain, since around the same time, West Ham paid £65,000 for Kilmarnock and Scotland ‘keeper Bobby Ferguson who, good though he was, was no Banks.

Tony Waddington the Stoke boss built a “Dad’s Army” squad of experienced professionals, which proved hard to beat, but, as with Leicester, Banks, at club level, had to be content with just one winner’s medal, when they beat Chelsea in the 1972 League Cup final.

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The move to Stoke in no way harmed Banks’ England prospects as Ramsey continued to see him, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton as the spine of the side which, although they lost to Scotland at Wembley in 1967, finished third in the 1968 European Championships, went to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup as one of the favourites.

That save from Pele was the highlight of a difficult tournament for Banks, who struggled with the heat and humidity, and was then knocked out by a bad attack of “Montezuma’s Revenge,” and executing the “Mexican two-step” between his hotel bed and the toilet as West Germany knocked-out England in an epic quarter-final.

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Stand-in Peter Bonetti had to carry the can and, to this day, there is a belief in England had Banks not been laid low by that stomach bug, they would have won.

The 1972 European Championship qualifiers, in which England again lost to the Germans, would be his final international tournament, as, in October, 1972, returning home from treatment on a shoulder injury, he was involved in a car crash, sustaining injuries which included the loss of vision in his right eye. He formally retired in the summer of 1973.

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He played 250 games for Stoke and when later cameos in the US and Ireland are included, in his 25-year professional career between 1953 and 1978, he played over 750 games.

He did not convert well to coaching, or management and, after being sacked by non-league Telford United he largely turned his back on the game.

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If playing honours largely eluded him, one World Cup winner’s medal (which he later sold for nearly £125,000), two League Cup winner’s medals and 73 caps seems a small return for such a great player, he garnered off-field honours.

In addition to his OBE, an honorary doctorate from Keele University, the Freedom of Stoke-on-Trent and being appointed Life President of Stoke City in 2000, in succession to Sir Stanley Matthews, he was an inaugural inductee on to Sheffield’s Walk of Fame and won the following honours: FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year: 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971; member, FIFA World Cup All-Star team member, 1966; Daily Express Sportsman of the Year 1971 and 1972; Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year 1972; Football League 100 Legends, 1973; North American Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year 1977; the FIFA 100, 200; PFA Team of the Century 2007.

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He met his wife Ursula while doing his National Service in Germany, she survives him with their three children, Julia, Wendy and Robert.

Gordon Banks never had a goalkeeping coach, he worked out the special needs of the position on his own, and did this very well indeed.

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Arguments about who is the GOAT will continue, but, when it comes to goalkeeping – Gordon Banks will be a contender.