GORDON BANKS, ENGLAND’S NO.1, HAS DIED AGED 81
“I was ready to celebrate, but then this man Banks appeared in my sight like a kind of blue phantom.”
Even Pele was stopped in his tracks by Gordon Banks, the world’s best goalkeeper in his day, who has died aged 81.
A World Cup winner with England in 1966, he is perhaps best remembered for his wonder save from Pele four years later in Mexico, a stop often dubbed the greatest in football history.
Almost half a century later, Banks’ diving flip to deny the world’s best player is still astonishing in its athleticism, snatching victory from certain defeat, an almost extra-terrestrial action on the football field.
A Goalkeeper With Magic
His nonchalant trot back head down across his goalmouth to defend the ensuing corner shows the other side of his character – a decent, modest yeoman warrior not given to blowing his own trumpet loudly.
In both tournaments Banks was in imperious form and might have won a second Jules Rimet trophy had he not mysteriously gone down with food poisoning on the eve of England’s quarter-final against West Germany.
The fact he was the only player to fall ill, from a suspected contaminated beer, and he was England’s mighty guardian, was very suspicious.
“Of all the Qiu Qiu Terbaik players to lose, we had to lose him,” rued manager Alf Ramsey.
To this day no proof of foul play has come forth but rumours abound that the CIA wanted England out so that Brazil would win the World Cup and in its elation the country would not fall to the communists.
Banks was the unlucky hero whose beer was duly poisoned as part of a political game, so the theory goes, but other bizarre events accompanied England in that tournament, which give weight to the conspiracy theorists.
The fourth of England’s 1966 side to die, following Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, Banks was along with Moore and Bobby Charlton, one of the three players in the side who was genuinely world class.
The boys of ’66 have attained a sacred status in England because the Three Lions have failed to win anything before or since so the loss of another of that heavenly eleven is the shining light of a star going out for good.
So the tributes have been pouring in from the likes of fellow custodians like Peter Shilton, who followed Banks path to England and the World Cup via Leicester and Stoke.
“I’m devastated,” said Shilton. “Today I’ve lost my hero.”
“One of my heroes…an inspiration, a winner and a true gentleman,” opined Peter Schmeichel.
“I am one of the many who built their dreams on your perfect save!” tweeted Gianluigi Buffon.
“Definitely England’s greatest goalkeeper,” said Ray Clemence.
Growing up I was taught England made the best goalkeepers and that tradition surely started with Gordon Banks’ tenure between the sticks.
Goalkeeping demands a range of skills – agility, elasticity, anticipation, presence, strength, communication, handling and distribution for starters.
But Banks’ letter to journalist Lee Marlow, much shared on the web today, shows the Sheffield-born shot-stopper knew his craft like an old master.
“Always know where you are in the goal,” he wrote, “narrow the angles down and make it as hard as possible for the striker to score…the more you play your eyes will get better at spotting the angles. You will begin to know where the ball will go..the eyes pick up the direction of the ball, how it floats through the air and send messages to your brain and then to your hands…play games like table tennis. That will sharpen your reflexes…play with a smaller ball…you have to be brave to come out for crosses or dive at the feet of a centre-forward…and be brave too if you lose or make a mistake.”
Shilton noted that Banks put in extra training to hone his art when it was standard practice to go home at lunchtime.
Banks played a total of 558 league matches – 23 for Chesterfield, 293 for Leicester, 194 for Stoke as well as 73 for England.
In 1972 he had a head-on collision in his Ford Consul with an Austin A60 van and lost the sight in his right eye. He never played again in England but five years later turned out for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the USA and was voted goalkeeper of the NASL season to boot.
If Lev Yashin was the world’s best custodian in ’66 and Dino Zoff was in 1974, for that period in between until 1972 it was the mild-mannered Yorkshireman who never played for a big club who was the best in the world at his job.
When he went back to football having lost an eye he became truly heroic.
What everyone agrees on beyond his goalkeeping prowess was how pleasant a man Banks was off-field, an immediately likeable and trustworthy chap.
“A fierce opponent and a good man. Rest in peace Gordon Banks”, tweeted the German Football Association today.
The last words go to Pele, who was denied a famous goal by magic hands which instead made a famous save, the best-known in football’s long history:
“He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people,” the Brazilian legend wrote on his Facebook page today.
“So I am glad he saved my header – because the act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure…Yes you were a goalkeeper with magic. But you were also so much more. You were a fine human being.”