STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND – Thousands of fans joined luminaries of English soccer for a final farewell on Monday to Gordon Banks, a steelworker’s son who became one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers and will forever be remembered for a miraculous save against Pele.
Teammates from England’s 1966 World Cup win and members of former clubs Stoke City and Leicester rode in a cortege from Stoke Stadium to a church funeral for Banks, who died at 81 last month of cancer.
“As a goalkeeper, he’s one of the few superstars of our position,” Leicester and Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who was a pallbearer at the funeral, said.
“Great ‘keeper; great man. It’s an incredibly sad day.”
Banks was best known for the stunning one-handed save from a Pele bullet header that bounced awkwardly in front of him during England’s group-stage game against Brazil at the 1970 World Cup.
“With the luck of the gods, the angle at which I’d managed to lift that ball was perfect, and it ballooned in the air and over the bar,” the genial and down-to-earth Banks said in one of the many recountings begged by fans and media.
Footage shows Banks chuckling afterward, as England’s Bobby Moore jokingly chides him for not catching the ball.
His achievements went far further than stopping Pele.
Banks won 73 national caps, played nearly 500 times for Leicester and Stoke, won two League Cups and was six times FIFA ‘keeper of the year before a car crash blinded him in one eye.
He remained in Stoke, a former mining and pottery city, where he would watch games, attend charity events and take a weekly walk around Trentham Gardens.
“He donated his tie to a charity event I was involved in and we raised £200 ($265.56). Such a gentleman,” reminisced Phillip Steele, 76, next to a statue of Banks at the hilltop stadium decked in flags, scarves, footballs and flowers.
About 2,000 fans were at Bet365 Stadium to watch proceedings on a big screen. Others lined the route of the funeral procession, which paused outside the old Victoria Ground where Banks plied his trade before reaching Stoke minster.
Goalkeepers Jack Butland and Joe Hart also helped to carry Banks’s coffin into the church, where fellow 1966 World Cup winner and hat trick hero Geoff Hurst gave one of the speeches.
“Gordon Banks contributed to the worst moment of my football career,” Hurst quipped, recalling a penalty of his that Banks stopped in Stoke’s 1972 League Cup semifinal against West Ham.
“He was a superstar on the field — but off the field he was an ordinary guy, no airs and graces.”
In a largely working-class city obsessed with soccer, Banks was viewed as a reminder of simpler days before the Premier League’s mega-millions.
Everyone had their favorite save.
Banks used to pick out a 1963 F.A. Cup semifinal when Leicester scored with its only shot on goal while he single-handedly thwarted chance after chance for Liverpool.
Born in the northern city of Sheffield, he worked as a coal packer and apprentice bricklayer as a teenager before an inauspicious start at Chesterfield’s Reserves: he let in 122 goals in the 1954-55 season. After military service, he got a first-team contract at Chesterfield — for £7 ($9.24) a week.
Anecdotes from Banks’ life tell of a different era to that of today’s cosseted players. Before kickoff of the 1966 World Cup semifinal, he ran out of the gum he used to chew to generate spit for his hands — so the England trainer popped out of Wembley and down the road to buy some from a news kiosk, just in time to stave off Banks’ panic.