He's still holding the Fort

Gordon Banks was the world's best goalie until he lost an eye in an auto crash. He's now the last line of defense for the surprisingly tough Fort Lauderdale Strikers
July 10, 1977

They came dangerously close to being labeled the Fort Lauderdale Sea Boots, but their general manager, Krikor Yepremian, was finally talked out of naming his team after his sportfishing boat. They share their stadium with the South Broward County High football team; it seats 11,000 maximum, on wooden benches. Last year they were the Miami Toros of unhappy memory and these days they run onto the field to the theme from Rocky, as if apologizing in advance. But they now have a touch of class.

Last Friday morning, backlit by lightning flashes and dripping wet in the warm rain, the Strikers—as they were called after Sea Boots was jettisoned—worked out under the direction of their classy touch, Gordon Banks, by general consensus the finest goalkeeper in the world until he lost the sight of his right eye in a car crash.

Since that wet Sunday afternoon in October 1973, when he pulled out of line to pass on a narrow road near his home in Staffordshire, England, hit an oncoming van and was lacerated by windshield fragments, Banks had played very little soccer until he came to Florida this spring. It took 108 stitches to sew up his face but the eye was gone. He tried a number of comebacks in exhibition games—too soon, he now believes—before settling down as assistant coach at his old club, Stoke City in the English First Division. Then Ron Newman, the Strikers' head coach and an old friend, persuaded him to come to Fort Lauderdale.

The deal smacked a little of showmanship. Indeed, a club official admitted at the start of the season that he didn't believe Banks would be "much of a factor on the field" at 37 years of age. And Steve Rankin, the club's PR man, had perhaps the most difficult problem of all. How do you write a press release that says, basically, "Strikers sign one-eyed goalie"? The answer, as Rankin discovered after numerous false starts, is to refer to "a serious eye injury."

By last Friday morning, though, two-thirds of the way through the regular NASL season, there was good reason to take Banks' comeback seriously. The Strikers' respectable 10-6 record had been achieved mainly by hard defensive play in low-scoring matches. "He's kept us in a lot of games this season," said the official who had downgraded Banks. No backs, however good, can perform well if they lack confidence in the goalie. And what Banks had plainly not lost along with his right eye was the great talent he displayed in his 73 games for England over a 10-year span—an ability to read the flow of play so that he was perfectly positioned as an attack developed.

Banks, a big, loose-armed man with the lined face and the comic-lugubrious look of the late French comedian Fernandel, is frank about the limitations his injury has put on his game.

"Obviously, a dimension has gone," he says. "I can put my hand up on one side and I can't see it. And in certain situations when I have to concentrate on a player with the ball quite close to the goal, I can't see other fellows who are running up into potential striking positions. So I have to read the game better than I did. I have to allow for a quick look around and judge whether or not I can cover if the man with the ball releases it to another forward. I've always explained the situation to whomever I've played with, so that they'll come in and help me out in a way that they might not with another goalie. They realize I can compensate with the experience I have in other ways."

With the air at practice as thick and hot as minestrone, Banks, who is also the team's assistant coach, skipped in front of the squad like a 20-year-old, then put in an extra half hour of training himself to oblige an English TV crew. The other Strikers filed back into their concrete-block dressing room, where a bleak notice is taped beneath the phone: NO CALLS—MANAGEMENT. They seemed a little downhearted. Two days earlier they had lost an away game to Rochester 3-1. That evening they were to meet Tampa Bay, whom they led by a single point in the fight for second place behind the Cosmos in the Eastern Division. But the Rowdies would be fresher, not having played since their 4-1 win on Monday at San Jose.

Tampa Bay had troubles of its own. Since the sudden, mysterious resignation of its much-acclaimed head coach, Eddie Firmani, for "personal reasons" four weeks earlier, the Rowdies had won only two out of six games. And this evening's game had taken on new importance overnight. The Cosmos had lost 3-5 at Vancouver and no longer seemed unassailable. They were still 19 points ahead, but in the NASL it is possible, by winning and scoring at least three goals, to pick up nine points in the standings in a single match—six for winning and as many as three for goals scored.

The Fort Lauderdale-Tampa Bay game was less than five minutes old when David Proctor, a veteran of the old Toros, scored for the Strikers, hitting a ball that had been badly cleared over the prone body of the Rowdies' goalie.

It seemed likely that Fort Lauderdale would fall back and play defensively to hold on to its lead. The Strikers did no such thing. They raided and held the balance in midfield by being more committed than Tampa Bay in going for the ball. For the first 20 minutes Banks was not seriously challenged. At 20:05 Colin Fowles scored the Strikers' second goal at close range after a goal-mouth melee.

Increasingly petty fouls began to sour the game—tripping, holding, pushing from behind. Two minutes after the second Strikers' goal, one of these fouls resulted in a free kick that Tampa Bay's Rodney Marsh crossed to Derek Smethurst in the middle who hit a hard, waist-high shot at Banks. The goalie beat it out, but straight to the feet of Steve Wegerle, who scored. "I hit it at the wrong angle," Banks said self-accusingly after the game. But there are few goalkeepers who could have parried the first shot.

Soon afterward, there came a moment of vintage Gordon Banks. From the left, Marsh put in a magnificently struck shot that was going to curve just inside the right-hand post. Seemingly far out of position, Banks lunged full length to block the shot. Suddenly it was 1970 again, when Banks made what Pelé described as the greatest save he had ever seen, by the greatest goalie whom he had ever encountered.

That was in Guadalajara, Mexico, England vs. Brazil in a first-round World Cup game, when Jairzinho broke through on the right wing and crossed to Pelé, unmarked in front of the net. "He came up like a salmon," Banks recalls, "and with those tremendous neck muscles, he hit a perfect header. The most dangerous kind, just short of the goal line, to bounce up and in." Banks had been at the extreme other side of the goal to cover a possible Jairzinho shot and hadn't quite got to the middle when Pelé was punching the ball down toward the far corner. So Banks had to leap, computing the bounce, how high and wide off the turf it would go, as he was in midair. And as the crowd was screaming "Goal!" and Pelé was turning to run back, arms high in triumph, Banks got the top half of his right hand to the ball, spinning it up and over the bar....

But that was a long time ago, and now Banks was in a game that looked to be as hard and as bitterly fought as many World Cup matches, with the fouls increasing and becoming less petty and with the referee patently losing control of the game. When Marsh, admittedly provoked, punched a Striker defender in full sight of the crowd, he was shown the yellow caution card. It was absurd. In soccer there are only two ways a referee can react to a punch: pretend he doesn't see it or flash the red card and send the player off the field.

The game seemed over when George Nanchoff broke free and made it 3-1 for Fort Lauderdale. But as the Strikers increasingly showed the fatigue their midweek game had brought, the Rowdies' pressure intensified. Fifteen minutes before the end, David Robb made it 3-2. After that all that stood between them and a tie were Banks and the crowd, fewer than 10,000 but enough to help the Strikers raise their game and hang on to win. With a touch of class, they did.

PHOTOIn the Strikers' 3-2 defeat of the Rowdies, one Banks save recalled his legendary 1970 deflection.