Happy 80th birthday to Gordon Banks, England’s goalkeeper during the 1966 World Cup and rated by many as the most dependable the nation has ever had. We pay tribute to him today…
Gordon Banks would in later years recall Sir Alf Ramsey reprimanding him for bidding him an innocuous “see you again” after an England match, the implication being he should not be taking his place for granted (he was not the only player to have such a conversation with Ramsey). But in reality Banks was far and away the first choice goalkeeper under Ramsey. He was the first name on the teamsheet literally and probably metaphorically as well, arguably even ahead of Bobby Moore. Banks would prove his worth when he played and, perhaps more significantly, when he wasn’t available as Ramsey would struggle to find a like-for-like replacement.
When Ramsey first managed England away to France in February 1963, he saw the size of the task awaiting him as the side conceded five goals. It was clear this team would need rebuilding and in the next game, against Scotland at Wembley, the uncapped Banks was selected in preference to Ron Springett. Despite conceding twice in the first half in a 2-1 defeat, Banks did enough to keep his place. Springett went from being regular goalkeeper to back-up to Banks. Ramsey was to build from the back and by the 1966 had established a solid defence, with Moore and Jack Charlton in the middle and the dependable duo of George Cohen and Ray Wilson operating at full-back. And there was little doubt who the man behind them was, as Banks found himself without serious competition for his place. Springett and Peter Bonetti would join him in the 1966 World Cup squad, but both would merely watch on.
Banks kept clean sheets as England faced Uruguay, Mexico, France and Argentina, with his unblemished record only ending courtesy of a late Eusebio penalty in the semi-final win over Portugal. He would receive a telling-off from Ramsey afterwards for diving the opposite way for the penalty than they had worked on in training. Banks admitted in his autobiography that “I could have strangled Bally” after the Portuguese players caught sight of Alan Ball repeatedly telling Banks which way to dive – leading to the goalkeeper suspecting Eusebio would now place it the opposite way, with Banks going to his left and being beaten as Eusebio once more put it to his right.
But Banks’ place in the final was unsurprisingly retained despite Ramsey’s annoyance over the penalty. He conceded two goals including a last-gasp West German equaliser to send the match into extra-time. “I felt as if the bottom had fallen out of my world. Glory had been snatched away when I practically had it in my hand,” he wrote in his autobiography, as he feared he would suffer yet more Wembley heartache after twice losing FA Cup finals with Leicester City. But in extra-time he kept the West Germans out as England won 4-2 and Banks became a World Cup winner. “I felt as Christopher Columbus must have felt when realising he hadn’t sailed over the edge of the world,” wrote Banks.
“Of all the players to lose…”
Banks remained the clear number one over the next four years, being part of the side that finished third at Euro ’68. Such goalkeepers as Everton’s Gordon West and Manchester United’s Alex Stepney enjoyed only the briefest of international careers, while deputy Bonetti was afforded merely the occasional appearance. It is open to debate if Banks was the best goalkeeper of his era – the likes of Lev Yashin and Pat Jennings were contemporaries – but Ramsey knew how fortunate he was to have him at his disposal. By the time of the 1970 World Cup the England side had evolved from the 1966 team and was highly rated, with Banks still regarded as one of the key players. Bar perhaps Moore, Banks would be the one member of the Boys of ’66 whose status was enhanced out in Mexico in 1970 – even though the side did not replicate the success of four years earlier.
On successive Sundays the English nation would, for very different reasons, recognise the value of Banks. He kept clean sheets in wins over Romania and Czechoslovakia, but it was his contribution during the defeat against Brazil in the group stage that would forever be remembered. He pulled off one of the most famous saves in World Cup history as he dived low to push Pele’s goalbound header over the bar. Some naysayers have tried to dismiss the save as not being particularly special, but the majority continue to admire it. The Brazilian majesty in both the tournament and build-up to the header add to the stature of the save, as Banks was seen as pulling off the most unlikely of stops. True to nature, Banks simply got up off the floor and prepared to deal with the ensuing corner rather than lapping up the applause.
But the 1-0 loss meant England finished second in the group and faced a lengthy coach trip from Guadalajara to Leon to face West Germany in the quarter-finals the following weekend. It was to be a particularly uncomfortable journey for Banks, who had fallen ill with a stomach bug. The first doubts were surfacing over his involvement in the match the next day, although the general feeling was he would quickly shake off the bug as others had in Mexico. But the illness would not vanish, as toilet visit followed toilet visit and he was far from his usual self.
Yet here Banks would get to see just how highly Ramsey thought of him, as he revealed in his autobiography how light the ‘fitness test’ he underwent was – as if Ramsey wanted to justify picking a half-fit Banks over Bonetti. Only as the sickness resumed ahead of departure time did it become clear that Banks would have to stay in the hotel. Bonetti was thrown into the side unexpectedly and he would unfortunately take some of the blame as England lost 3-2 after being two goals up.
With the technology of the time far less advanced than today, Banks could not watch the match live on Mexican television and he was viewing a delayed showing as the squad returned to the hotel. England were winning on the TV and Banks believed his team-mates were winding him up when they said they were going home. It was only as he caught sight of Bobby Charlton’s anguished face that he knew the dream was over.
Conspiracy theories have continually cropped up over whether Banks was deliberately targeted, but he has been sceptical about the possibility. One thing is for sure though, England felt his absence. “Of all the players to lose it had to be him,” rued Ramsey, words millions back home probably echoed. In such a major match, England had been left without their star goalkeeper and come undone. There was no guarantee Banks would have saved the effort from Franz Beckenbauer that deceived Bonetti and turned the game, but most firmly believed he would have. Banks, to his credit, would not lay the blame at Bonetti’s door and sympathised with him over the position he was placed in.
After the World Cup heartache, Ramsey took steps to ensure there would be no repeat of the Bonetti scenario by blooding Peter Shilton in several games over the next couple of years. Banks though remained number one as England reached the quarter-final of the 1972 European Championship where they again met West Germany. This time he was fit to play but was powerless to prevent the Germans deservedly winning 3-1 on aggregate, as the Ramsey empire looked in decline. He would though remain in charge for qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, with Banks one of the last Boys of ’66 in his plans.
And then came the events of October 22, 1972. Banks was involved in a serious car crash that ended his professional playing career and cost him his sight in one eye. England’s woes in the qualifying campaign that followed were not just down to his absence, but his experience and reliability were undeniably missed – never more so than when Shilton conceded the decisive goal against Poland in the infamous final qualifier in October 1973. Banks was capped 73 times, but when he didn’t play his qualities would arguably be appreciated even more.
It’s a matter of debate whether Banks is England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, but he’s got plenty of fans who will argue his merits over other custodians. No other goalkeeper has played for England in a World Cup triumph; he made the most celebrated save of any England goalkeeper; he would be greatly missed when he wasn’t able to play; and unlike other respected England ‘keepers such as Shilton, Ray Clemence and David Seaman, it’s hard to recall him making a costly error in an important international (he did have the ball kicked out of his hand by George Best, but the goal was ruled out). The statistics would also back up his merits. He played nine World Cup matches and conceded just four goals – one a penalty – and in 73 appearances for England he was only on the losing side nine times.
Banks first caught the eye at Chesterfield and then gave good service to Leicester City and Stoke City, yet it would come as a surprise to many that he would never sign for one of the nation’s glamour clubs. Even more staggering was the fact Leicester were willing to let him move on less than a year after the World Cup triumph, as they opted to go with emerging youngster Shilton. Banks was keen on a move to West Ham United to team up with fellow 1966 winners Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, but that would fall through. Instead he switched to Stoke, where shortly before his career ended in 1972 he won a rare major honour at club level as the Potters lifted the League Cup (he had also won it with Leicester in 1964 prior to the final being played at Wembley). His honours list may look limited, but the presence of a World Cup winners’ medal would underline his qualities and be the envy of many who enjoyed regular club glory but little international success.
It’s little wonder Ramsey thought so highly of Banks. They would say at the time that he was “as safe as the Bank(s) of England”, a goalkeeper who could be trusted to simply do his job and keep the opposition out. Earlier this month he participated in the World Cup draw and he remains much-loved and greatly respected.
Happy 80th birthday Gordon and thanks for the memories of your wonderful career.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.