Gordon Banks, arguably England’s best ever goalkeeper, who died on Tuesday aged 81, will be most vividly remembered for one flashing moment when England played Brazil in Guadalajara, Mexico, during the early stages of the 1970 World Cup.
As Jairzinho on the right wing prepared to hit a deep cross into the England penalty area, Banks was positioned on his front post, precisely where he had to be. His disadvantage was that Jairzinho’s ball was similarly precise and arrowed towards the head of Pelé, the Brazilian superstar who met it perfectly, aiming it hard and down towards the far corner of the net.
Banks somehow made it all the way across along his goal line to dive and complete the save to the disbelief of millions, not least Pelé, who was yelling goal from the moment the ball left his head.
For many who had followed and admired Banks’ career, however, there was not a great deal of surprise to the occasion; they just knew he was going to make the save.
Banks was of a time when British football fans — the English in particular — believed they had the finest goalkeepers in the world. But he came to the position by accident. Born in Sheffield, and a coalbagger by trade, he turned up at his local playing fields looking for a game after a Saturday morning’s work and was asked to play between the posts.
His club career was spent mainly playing for the unfashionable likes of Leicester City and Stoke City, both of which were rarely favourites to win anything. Their leaky defences, however, gave him plenty of practice in perfecting his art.
Banks was of the British “spectacular but safe” school of goalkeeping, which flirted here or there with a bit of mid-air exuberance but learned with time that neither the fans nor managers liked anything remotely “continental”. To suggest that in his youth he played in a flashy style (he did) was to be challenged with a note of anger as he pointed out that perfect positioning — not extravagant diving — had always been his forte.
His international career got off to an inauspicious start with a home defeat in 1963 against Scotland. But thereafter, Banks played with a consistency that guaranteed him to be manager Alf Ramsey’s first-choice keeper for nearly a decade, during which he played 73 games for his country. He said he allowed himself four goals a season which might conceivably have been his fault.
The high point of his career was England’s World Cup victory in 1966. At the outset of the competition few England fans gave the home nation a chance of winning the trophy but it was Banks’ growing composure that spoke for a team whose confidence increased with each game. His performance in the 4-2 win over West Germany in the final was a model of calm goalkeeping.
He said his confidence was at its highest in the period around the time of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico but in 1972 his career was cruelly brought to an end by a car accident in which he lost an eye. Driving home, churning over in his mind a mistake he felt he had made in a recent game against Liverpool, he made an error of judgment in overtaking. The crash led to a tightening of the law on wearing seat belts, which was not compulsory at the time.
He tried for a while playing in the US, where football on a national scale was in its early days but gave up, in part since the loss of his eye impaired his game and also because of the rodeo-like shows he was asked to participate in before a match.
Banks had played football of outstanding quality where the highest standard was expected of him — as exemplified by the immediate aftermath of his save in Guadalajara. As Banks rose to his knees to assess how he had — incredibly by any other goalkeeper’s standard — somehow parried Pelé’s header over the bar, an England teammate jokingly admonished him with a slap around the head and the words: “So, why didn’t you catch it?”
Banks is survived by his wife, Ursula, whom he met while on national service in Germany in 1955, and by their three children, Robert, Wendy and Julia.