‘Gooool’ bellowed the distinguishably deep voice of Pele as his firm, downward header edged past Gordon Banks on what was, to 67,000 fans at the Estadio Jalisco and the millions watching across the globe, a journey destined to end in the bottom corner of the net. The Englishman refused to subscribe to destiny, however, despite admitting thereafter that he thought there was no chance he could deny O Rei under sweltering temperatures in Guadalajara.
But that is exactly what he achieved in the Group 3 match at the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, hurling his body down to his right, arching his arm backwards, outstretching it to a distance that almost defied physics and, with his thumb, miraculously flicking the eye-catching adidas Telstar round the upright and out for a corner – all in the swiftest of movements.
"From the moment I headed it, I was sure it had gone in,” recalled Pele. "I had already began to jump to celebrate the goal. Then I looked back and I couldn't believe it hadn't gone in."
It remains the most renowned save in football history; one which, according to Banks, is “easily the reason for which I’m most well-known”. Yet such celebrity for that one moment of genius is a disservice to the exceptional career of a man who, aged 18, was still working as a bricklayer and who was almost 22 by the time he made his top-flight debut – Peter Shilton, Banks’s successor as Leicester City and England No1, made his own First Division bow as a 16-year-old.
The Sheffield native certainly made up for lost time, though. Just seven months after making his professional debut for Chesterfield in the third tier of English football, Banks was signed by Leicester for £7,000 as a deputy to Dave McLaren. He swiftly relegated the dependable Scot to the substitutes’ bench, however, and wowed Foxes fans over the next eight years with his positional acumen, assured handling and, especially, hypersonic reflexes. The capstone of Banks’s time in the Leicester goalmouth was victory in the 1964 League Cup final. The nadir was twice being on the losing side in FA Cup finals; against a formidable Tottenham Hotspur team in 1961, and Manchester United two years later in a match in which Banks uncharacteristically gifted the Red Devils two goals.
In 1967, due to the emergence of Shilton, Leicester unexpectedly decided to sell the 29-year-old. He joined Stoke City, went on to excel in 246 appearances for them over the next five years, and inspired the Potters to what remains the only honour in their history: the League Cup in 1972.
From the moment I headed it, I was sure it had gone in. I had already began to jump to celebrate the goal.
But it was Banks's endeavours for his country that ensured he remains one of the greatest keepers in history. He made his international debut in 1963 and though he was not the headline-grabber in a high-scoring 4-2 victory in the Final of the 1966 FIFA World Cup, the contribution he made to the hosts’ conquest throughout the tournament was irrefutable. Indeed, it took 442 minutes, until the end of the semi-final against Portugal, for Banks to finally leak his first goal, with a Eusebio penalty ending his seven-match sequence without conceding, which remains an England record.
Banks’s name was also central to England’s Mexico 1970 tale. He kept clean sheets in two of their three group games and made that save in a 1-0 defeat by Brazil. However, a dodgy bottle of beer on the eve of a quarter-final with West Germany, rendered Banks ill and caused him to miss the encounter. “Of all the players to lose, we had to lose him,” rued manager Alf Ramsey as Peter Bonetti was summoned to deputise. England were 2-0 up and seemingly cruising, but Franz Beckenbauer’s 68th-minute drive got their opponents back in the game – Der Kaiser later opined that he would not have scored had Banks been between the sticks – and Helmut Schoen’s team ultimately emerged 3-2 victors.
Banks’s misfortune did not end there. In October 1972, while still England’s first-choice goalkeeper, he lost sight in his right eye in a car accident. He would never play top-flight football in his homeland again, though he exited retirement to represent Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL in 1977 before permanently hanging up the gloves that had frustrated an assembly of the sport’s most lethal marksmen. “When I was up against Gordon I used to ask myself, ‘how can I beat this man?’” said Jimmy Greaves.
It is a question Pele asked himself that afternoon in Mexico. “I know I scored that goal – Banks ran away with it!” joked the iconic No10. Banks added: “It's something that people will always remember me for. They won’t remember me for winning the World Cup, it’ll be for that save. That’s how big a thing it is. People just want to talk about that save.”
And while that may be true, Banks’s sits immortally in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats, with the International Federation of Football History & Statistics electing him the second-best keeper of the 20th century, above Dino Zoff, Sepp Maier and Ricardo Zamora and only outranked by Lev Yashin.
The victim of him making arguably the greatest save in history holds him in even higher stead. “He was perhaps the best defensive player in history,” commented Pele.
Did You Know?
Banks didn’t even realise he’d made that famous save from Pele until he heard a team-mate congratulating him. “I didn’t imagine that I could stop the ball and even though I got a thumb to it, I assumed it had gone in until I heard Bobby Moore applauding,” he recalled.
The Mexican press dubbed the England No1 ‘El Magnifico' following his wonder save against Pele, while ‘safe as the Banks of England’ – a reworking of a popular simile – was adopted to describe a consistent goalkeeper.
In a 1971 international, Northern Ireland’s George Best cheekily flicked the ball out of Banks’s hands as he attempted to take a goal-kick and nodded it into the empty net. The goal was disallowed for ungentlemanly conduct.
Banks kept clean sheets in a remarkable 35 of his 73 internationals.
No less than Pele and Archbishop Desmond Tutu travelled to Stoke in 2008 to inaugurate a statue in honour of Banks.