Gordon Banks & The Anatomy of “That” Save

You’ve probably already seen it twenty times today, and once more likely won’t hurt you. The death of Gordon Banks has been met by a flood of tributes over the course of the last twenty-four hours or so, all richly warranted for probably this country’s finest ever goalkeeper. He had a professional career which lasted for fourteen years and which was only curtailed by the loss of an eye in a car crash in 1972, winning the World Cup with England as the high point of a career which saw him win seventy-three caps for his country, during which he kept thirty-five clean sheets. Not for nothing was he known as “Banks Of England” – he was the safest pair of hands in English football. 

He served Chesterfield, Leicester City and Stoke City with distinction and, even five years after the accident that saw him partially lose his sight, he managed to play a season in the North American Soccer League with Fort Lauderdale Strikers, winning the Eastern Division of the American Conference and being selected as the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year, being given a place in that year’s NASL All-Star team, alongside Franz Beckenbauer, Pele and George Best. The International Federation of Football History & Statistics would later rank him as the second greatest goalkeeper of the twentieth century, behind Lev Yashin of the USSR. The modest nature of his club career in England meant that his domestic honours were limited to just two League Cup winner’s medals – one each with Leicester City in 1964 and Stoke City in 1972.

Banks is quite possibly best remembered for that one save, though. In the sweltering midday sun of Guadalajara in June 1970, during England’s World Cup group match against Brazil, he leapt across his goal to use one finger to tip a downward header from Pele over the crossbar. It is one of the most iconic moments of the one of the most iconic football tournaments of all time, yet in recent years it became increasingly commonplace for this moment to be something approaching derided. Every astonishing feat of athleticism from a goalkeeper was talked about as though pushing Banks’s moment down some sort of imaginary list, as though that really matters in any way.

The hyperbole surrounding the save itself – and if we’re honest with ourselves, how exactly could one save in one match be ranked as the greatest of all-time? – came to be replaced by a desire on the part of some to talk it down, to treat it as though it was no more than anything else that we’d normally see on a Saturday afternoon nowadays, anywhere in the world. There is a case to be made for the quality of goalkeeping in this moment, of course. Even if some people aren’t as impressed as others by Banks’ athleticism in getting down to make the save, we should perhaps pause to consider that the ball was considerably heavier than anyone under the age of fifty would be able to remember, that football boots at the time were more like clogs than the scientifically-engineered slippers given to professional players these days, and that the kit he was wearing was only tailored for the conditions through being made from Aertex, a lightweight material to try to combat the fierce Mexican heat.

In addition to this, the skillset to make such a save is broader than most people would give credit for. There was the preparation – Banks later confirmed that his awareness of how hard the pitch in Guadalajara was allowed him to be able to judge the bounce of Pele’s downward header – and the positional sense to have been able to get across the goal in order to be able to reach it in the first place. And all of this is before we even get onto the small matter of the agility and strength required to be able to direct a downward header from that angle up and over the crossbar. Banks would later state that Pele shouted “GOL!” as he headed the ball goalwards, and that this, combined with the roar of a crowd of more almost 67,000 people, led him to momentarily believe that it had ended up in the goal. He would later say that his first thought to himself upon realising that he had somehow kept it out was, “You lucky prat.”

But this particular passage of play is iconic. Pele, another player who has been subjected to this “build ’em up and knock ’em down” treatment over the years, was in the form of his life, and was probably the best player in the world that summer. Banks might have been the greatest goalkeeper in the world at that time. And, although this was just a group match, it was a match which some expected, thanks to the way that the draw had fallen, to be a dress-rehearsal for the final of the tournament. And we can stretch it out further than that, as well, from Bobby Moore’s perfectly-timed tackle on Jairzinho, through the latter’s match-winning goal to the late miss from Geoff Hurst which might, on another day, have rescued a point for England.

This save also forms a part of the broader story of how England failed to retain the trophy that they’d won four years earlier on home soil, from the accusations of theft made against Moore as the team attempted to acclimatise to playing at altitude in Colombia through to the illness that left Banks out of the team’s quarter-final against West Germany, a match lost from a commanding position, partly as a result of some less than perfect goalkeeping from his stand-in, Peter Bonetti, following the substitution of Bobby Charlton, reportedly because manager Alf Ramsey wanted Charlton rested for the upcoming semi-final against Italy. Gossip, bad luck and hubris. The distillation of what the England national team would become was really born in 1970 rather than in 1966.

But even furthermore, the 1970 World Cup finals claims a special place in our memories, even if those memories are false. It has been said before that some events in history were so momentous that even those who weren’t alive at the time can remember what they were doing at the time they occurred. Everybody knows that the 1970 World Cup finals were the first broadcast in colour, but what is sometimes overlooked is that relatively few viewers would have seen it in colour at the time. Sales of colour television sets in the UK would only start to out-strip sales of black and white sets in 1976. The vast majority of those “back home” who saw Banks’s save live would have done so in black and white. Having said that, though, 1970 was the first colour World Cup.

We might not all have seen it in colour at the time, but we certainly have done since, and this one moment forms an indelible part of our collective memory, even we didn’t see it live in colour, or even see it live at all. And on top of that, Gordon Banks played the entirety of his club career for relatively modest clubs at time when most matches weren’t even filmed. As such, that save is a moment almost frozen in time. And whilst the truth falls somewhere inbetween the two extremes of “The Greatest Save of All-Time” and “A Save That Any Goalkeeper Could Make”, it falls considerably closer to the former than the latter, and it might even be argued that its brilliance comes in the goalkeeper’s preparation and anticipation, even more than its dazzling athleticism. Those who witnessed it should be grateful for having had the opportunity to do so, and that applies just as much to those who compare it with feats of modern goalkeeping athleticism just as much as those who were watching events unfold at the Estadio Jalisco, almost forty-nine years ago.