Gordon Banks on playing while blind in one eye in 1977: “If I was conscious of myself, I wouldn’t be playing at all.”
By Michael Lewis
Way back in the stone-age days of 1977 when there were no cellphones, internet, soccer on TV every day and instant information, I had the opportunity to interview the man who backstopped England to its one and only world championship.
As a sportswriter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I was covering the Rochester Lancers at the time. During that era, some of the world’s greatest players came to play in the North American Soccer League.
Pele, of course, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, George Best.
And the great Gordon Banks.
How did we get our information back then? From the clubs and even updated encyclopedias. So, I knew that Banks was the goalkeeper for the England side in the 1966 World Cup, made what many considered to be the greatest save ever on the fabulous Pele in the 1970 World Cup and that he was 37-years-old in 1977. Armed with that very basic information and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers coming to town that weekend, I decided to interview Banks for an advance story in the paper.
What I learned during our talk in the lobby of the Americana Hotel was incredible and was a lesson in changing interview tactics on the fly.
Banks told me he was blind in one eye — a blind goalkeeper — a soccer oxymoron if there ever was one. He said that he had lost sight in his right eye in a car accident after the 1973 English First Division season.
Now, that fact I did not see coming as my entire focus of the interview went towards one subject.
“I just wanted to find out how well I could manage with the disablement,” Banks told me. “I’ve done all right. I’ve been quite pleased with my work, really. This is the first time I’ve played competitively in three years.
At the time, the Strikers were 10-5 and Banks had a 1.16 goals-against average with five shutouts.
“Gordon is still good,” Lancers head coach Don (Dragan) Popovic said at the time. “If he had been playing the other years, he would be among the five best in the world.”
The 5-11, 170-lb Banks said the injury didn’t make him reluctant to dive for balls because his depth perception had changed.
“If I was conscious of myself, I wouldn’t be playing at all,” he said.
OK, fair enough.
I asked Miami Dolphins placekicker Garo Yepremian, who also was the Strikers’ radio color commentator about Banks.
“The way Gordon plays, if People didn’t know he had a problem, they would never realize it,” he said. “He’s never shied away from a ball at his feet. … He’s a superstar, in the same class as Pele.”
Still, Banks admitted he had some perception problems.
“On certain occasions I find it difficult to pick things up,” he told me. “The defenders know what parts of the game that might trouble me, so they know how to react to certain situations.”
When Banks suffered the injury in 1973, he thought his playing days were kaput.
“The retina was too damaged for the doctors to save it,” he said. “”It wasn’t 100 percent in the other eye, but I could see. … I couldn’t return to the First Division because no one wanted to handle the insurance for the eye. The next alternative was non-league football in England, but I didn’t want to lower myself. So, I went to America and took a crack at his. I’m glad I didn’t let myself go after the accident. I kept myself in shape by running every day. … It was a gamble for myself, and Ron [Newman, Strikers coach]. I didn’t know if I could come back and Ron didn’t know what I could do. It’s worked out. It’s been a good experience for both of us.”
Years later, Newman’s son, Guy, told me why his father decided to go with a one-eyed goalkeeper.
He always wanted to try different things to see if they would work,” he said. “Some of them did, some of them did.”
It certainly worked out for Banks and the Strikers, who captured the Eastern Division title in the Atlantic Conference with a 19-7 mark and 161 points, finishing 21 points ahead of the Cosmos (15-11). Banks was second in the league among keepers (to Dallas’ Kenny Cooper) with a 1.12 GAA and nine shutouts while earning first-team all-star honors. New York, however, had the last word on Fort Lauderdale, squashing them in the division championship, 8-3 and 3-2 en route to the NASL crown.
Banks returned to the Strikers to play 11 games in 1978 before hanging up his competitive gloves for good.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, I visited an antiquarian sports book shop in north London that had for sale a book that had a full-page bio and a full-page photo of each member of the 1966 England team. It sold for $150 (£100 in those days). The only starter that had not signed the book was Gordon Banks. Despite that and given that I had some discretionary income in those days, I decided to purchase the book, hoping that I would get an opportunity for Banks to sign his photo not unlike his teammates. Unfortunately, that never happened (a year or two later, the store owner admitted to me that he should have priced that book much higher).
Regardless, it is a book I still cherish and treasure (keeping it out of the sunlight), along with the time I met and interviewed Gordon Banks.