LONDON, United Kingdom, Feb 12 – It says much about the brilliance of Gordon Banks that the World Cup-winning England goalkeeper never rated his legendary save from Pele as the greatest stop of his glittering career.
Banks, who has died aged 81, earned his place in the pantheon of England icons when he flung himself to his right to turn Pele’s goal-bound header over the crossbar in the group stages of the 1970 World Cup.
Such was the accuracy and force of Pele’s effort that the Brazil great thought he had scored and was beginning to celebrate before being stopped in his tracks by Banks’s breathtaking intervention.
“I heard Pele shout ‘Goal!’ after he headed it,” Banks said. “Definitely. He thought it was past me.”
Banks’s England teammate Bobby Charlton echoed the feelings of the fans inside Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco and the millions who have seen the save since.
“That is without question the greatest save I have ever seen,” said Charlton.
It was also a tribute to Banks’s diligence and attention.
Noticing the ball was bouncing higher than usual during practice on the sun-baked Mexican pitches, Banks adjusted his technique and his reward was football immortality.
“I noticed in shooting sessions that sometimes the ball would kick up a bit more,” he told the Daily Mail.
“I was able to anticipate that it was going to bounce up and I could flick it over.”
Banks had no complaints about being revered for his showdown with Pele.
But, for the man himself, that save actually played second fiddle to a stop he made while playing for Stoke City on a dank evening in London’s East End.
Asked in 2016 if denying Pele was his crowning glory, Banks replied: “No, that was a penalty (save) from Geoff Hurst against Stoke in the League Cup semi-final in 1972.”
– Cat-like reflexes –
Despite Banks’s save from Pele, England were eventually beaten 1-0 by Brazil and saw their reign as world champions ended.
But two years later Banks was celebrating his second and last major club trophy thanks in part to his sublime penalty save from West Ham United’s Hurst in the League Cup semi-finals.
Stoke were clinging to a 1-0 second-leg lead, which had brought them to 2-2 on aggregate, when West Ham were awarded a penalty with four minutes remaining at Upton Park.
Taking a long run-up, Hurst smashed a ferocious shot to Banks’s right that appeared destined to burst the net.
Yet the Stoke goalkeeper showed astonishing, cat-like reflexes to leap and palm the ball over the bar.
Stoke went on to reach the final after two replays before defeating Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley.
Of course, Hurst had already played a defining role in Banks’s career in 1966 when the striker’s hat-trick in a 4-2 victory against West Germany earned England the World Cup on home soil.
That golden afternoon at Wembley must have seemed unimaginable to Yorkshire-born Banks when he started his career with Chesterfield as a teenager while digging ditches and carrying bricks on a building site.
He made his name with Leicester City, where he won the League Cup in 1964, before joining Stoke in 1967 and being voted the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year in 1972.
Making his England debut in 1963, Banks won 73 caps and was voted FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year six times before his international career came to an end when he lost the sight in his right eye in a car accident.
In later years, Banks twice battled cancer, but remained as active as possible as a Stoke life president and was a regular in the crowd at his old club’s Britannia Stadium.
Like many of England’s Wembley heroes, Banks eventually sold his World Cup winner’s medal to help his three children buy their first homes.
But while the tangible souvenirs faded, nothing will ever erase the memories of Banks’s greatness.