Sunday 24 March 2019

RIP Gordon Banks: The day a soccer legend togged out for St Pat's

How a chance meeting at Heathrow Airport led the former England goalkeeper to star in front of a bumper crowd for the Southside Derby

Glory days: Gordon Banks got £500 to play one game for St Pat's
Glory days: Gordon Banks got £500 to play one game for St Pat's

Kevin Barry had never seen anything like it. Emmet Road in Dublin's Inchicore was thronged with people. "It was like the Pope was coming," he says.

The football fan was just 10 years old then and already a regular at Richmond Park, home of League of Ireland side St Patrick's Athletic. His team were playing Dublin rivals Shamrock Rovers but the crowd was way in excess of what would normally be expected for the Southside Derby.

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Reports vary widely, but some say there were more than 12,000 people there on October 2, 1977 and most of them had paid in to see one man: Gordon Banks. A few months before his 40th birthday, and in the twilight of his career, he was a legendary figure having won a World Cup medal with England in 1966 and been named World Goalkeeper of the Year on six occasions.

His astounding save from Brazilian superstar Pele at the 1970 World Cup is still considered to be one of the greatest feats of goalkeeping ever - and was replayed time and again in all the reports that marked his death this week, age 81.

And here he was, this iconic figure who had played 73 times for England and had won the League Cup with both Leicester City and Stoke City, togging out for St Pat's in a league that had been in marked decline since its glory days in the 1950s and 1960s.

"There were people at that match who I've never seen at Richmond Park before or since," Kevin Barry recalls. "GAA men, a man from up the road who would never had much interest in St Pat's. But they all wanted to see Gordon Banks."

It was the keeper's one and only game for the Saints and he helped them to a 1-0 win. He didn't have much to do during the match but, in the dying moments, he made a stunning save from Eamon Dunphy.

"It was at the Shed end," Barry says, of the place where the club's most fervent fans used to gather then. "And close to the end of the match. I'd be lying if I said I could remember much about it, or about the game, but it was one of those matches that supporters still talk about."

How Banks came to play for St Patrick's Athletic reads like a plot line from Roy of the Rovers. The club's English player-manager Barry Bridges - formerly of Chelsea - found himself facing a goalkeeper crisis. His first choice net-minder, Mick O'Brien, was injured ahead of the Rovers game and he wasn't sure what to do about it.

Bridges happened to be at Heathrow Airport just days before the match when he bumped into Banks and the two got talking. Bridges explained to him that he had a goalkeeping dilemma. Years later, the manger recalled the encounter: "Banksy said, jokingly, 'What's wrong with me?' I said: 'Banksy, you've only got one eye,' and he said, 'I can see the same balls with one eye that I could with two eyes, I'll come over and play for you'. I said: 'You're kidding me'. He said: 'No'. He was going back to America a few weeks later, but he said: 'I'll come over for a game if the money's all right'.

"So I flew back to Dublin and called a board meeting and they nearly died when I told them who it was. We offered him £500, which was bloody good money in those days. He flew over and I met him with the club secretary at the airport on the Saturday night where he signed in front of the television cameras."

Banks was plying his trade in the short-lived North American Soccer League, but had a couple of weeks left before the season started. In what could never happen today in an environment of contracts, clauses and red tape, he signed for just the one game. Bridges urged club officials not to let him see Richmond Park before signing - the then ramshackle ground might have spooked a player used to gracing some of the world's finest stadia.

Much was made of the fact that Banks was, indeed, blind in one eye at the time he signed for Pat's - he had sustained the injury in a car crash a few years before, around the time that his international career was coming to an end. Such a disability would almost certainly render a modern-day player unsuitable to professional clubs, but Banks was able to continue, eventually retiring aged 40 after 37 appearances for Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

The 1977/78 domestic football season was all about the ambitions of Shamrock Rovers. Player-manager Johnny Giles had grand designs to turn the club into a European force and among his signings was Ireland international Eamon Dunphy. But the club failed to even finish in the top three and the title was won by Rovers' cross-city rivals Bohemians.

Dunphy would retire from football at the end of the season and begin his long broadcasting career by acting as a pundit for the World Cup in Argentina.

Sold his World Cup medal

And despite the exploits of Gordon Banks that day in October, St Pat's also had an inauspicious season - finishing a disappointing 10th in a then 16-team division - and they would have to wait until 1990 to be crowned league champions again.

Banks was not the only World Cup winner to ply his trade in this country's domestic football league. Many of them were lured here in the 1970s at the tail-ends of their careers. Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton played four matches for Waterford United in 1976 while Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the 1966 final turned out for three games for Cork Celtic the same year. The latter hadn't lost his golden touch: he scored three goals in those appearances.

In the season that Hurst played for the now defunct Cork Celtic, the team also included George Best - then in the twilight of his career, despite still being in his 20s. In one celebrated match against local rivals Cork Hibernian, both Hurst and ex-England international Rodney Marsh scored the goals in a 1-1 draw. Former Manchester City star Marsh had been paid a then eye-watering figure of £800 per game.

Meanwhile, Banks had mixed fortunes in his post-playing life. His one and only football managerial job was at non-league Telford United, but he lasted just one season. After being sacked, he was offered the derisory role of raffle-ticket seller in order for him to have the final part of his contract paid out. He had chequered fortunes in business, too, and ran a hospitality business in Leicester.

Unlike today's pampered players with their enormous wage bills, Banks's generation were poorly paid. In 2014, he sold his World Cup winners' medal for over £124,000. He said it was to raise funds to help his three children buy their first houses.

And unlike many of his illustrious England teammates, he was never knighted. It was revealed this week that there were plans to bestow the honour on him three years ago, but - according to friends - Whitehall officials somehow mislaid the nomination papers.

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