Gordon Banks defied gravity as well as Pele with that unfeasible leap

Of course he will always be remembered for that save. It could not be otherwise. There had doubtless been a heap of improbable stops by excellent keepers in the previous 100 years of association football but none of that scale on such a stage against arguably the greatest player of them all before a global audience of immense reach in a World Cup involving two heritage teams. Gordon Banks defied gravity as well as Pele in making that unfeasible leap to his right, and in one priceless moment of goalkeeping exotica made the man between the sticks something more than an adjunct in gloves.
Gordon Banks will always be remembered for his save against Pele. The pair are pictured here in 2004 with a framed picture of the famous moment. Picture: PA.Gordon Banks will always be remembered for his save against Pele. The pair are pictured here in 2004 with a framed picture of the famous moment. Picture: PA.
Gordon Banks will always be remembered for his save against Pele. The pair are pictured here in 2004 with a framed picture of the famous moment. Picture: PA.

It must be hard for football millennials birthed in the Premier League age to imagine how impossibly romantic it was to experience a game of football live via a television screen. And in COLOUR. We were one of the few households in our street to have that privilege. Most were still watching on black and white sets propped on spindly legs and would not have known the joy of those blazing yellow shirts of Brazil filling the front room with a golden aura. So unforgettably rich was the texture of the day it seemed the sun itself was shining out of the TV.

And not just any TV. This was an all-singing, all-dancing 32-inch Grundig home cinema number set in its own wooden cabinet complete with sliding doors. That’s the aspirational working class for you. Just to roll back the shutters to reveal the screen was a moment of exquisite portent. And to do so on the occasion of the World Cup, a live broadcast from somewhere called Guadalajara on a distant planet known as Mexico was just mind-bending.

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It was against this groundbreaking backdrop that Banks made his historic contribution. Oh my. It was all wrapped up in what appears now like a dream sequence. The pass from Carlos Alberto, surely the most captivating right-back of all time, to Jairzinho, the latest magical Brazilian to enthrall a European audience far removed in spirit and culture from feet that moved like his, was peak Selecao. Jairzinho made a statue of Terry Cooper on the left of the English defence going by him in a blur to fire over a raking, looping cross. Pele, hanging in the air for what seemed an age, never put more force into a header. In the immediacy of the match there was little time to celebrate it or assimilate its importance. Banks received a cursory pat on the head from Alan Mullery and resumed his feet in order to defend the ensuing corner. He would eventually be beaten by a rasping thunder clap issued from the boot of Jairzinho, which itself became a central exhibit from that eternal contest. The match closed with the celestial embrace of Pele and Bobby Moore, a conjoining of two great football traditions. It also marked the end of football’s age of innocence, a period when the deeds of great players were witnessed largely by those who passed through a turnstile.

That a global audience of millions was witness to arguably the greatest save ever made elevated Banks beyond the station even of the great Lev Yashin, who in so many ways ushered in the age of the modern keeper. There is barely any meaningful footage to preserve the genius of the Russian trendsetter. Banks on the other hand will live forever in a YouTube archive, an arresting, royal blue barrier holding back the Brazilian tide.

Recalling that moment on the BBC a year ago as part of his 80th birthday celebration Banks talked us through his save. “The ball actually hit the top of my hand and looked as though it was going into the top of the net. As I hit the floor I saw that the ball had missed the goal. At first I thought “you lucky so and so” but then I realised it has been a bit special. I’ve met Pele many times since. He thought he’d scored.”

Though Banks was six times FIFA goalkeeper of the year, five consecutively, his experience at Leicester and Stoke reflected the lower status the position carried in club football of the period. His only major trophy was the 1972 League Cup with Stoke. However Banks remains the ultimate reference point for today’s keepers, his contribution in 1970 raising both the profile and significance of the goalkeeping art, persuading nippers everywhere is was cool to be goalie and making it possible for today’s poster boys to bank their millions.

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