A mere three years after making what was commonly billed as the ‘save of the century’ to deny Pele at the 1970 World Cup, England’s greatest-ever goalkeeper Gordon Banks was about to bid farewell to the game, in the most unlikely of environments and the saddest of circumstances.
Stoke City undertook an extensive tour at the conclusion of the 1973 season, but any fans attending games on the New Zealand leg of the trip hoping to see the legendary England keeper in action would be disappointed. This tour was effectively Banks’s goodbye to the game, but ignominiously in the last New Zealand friendly, his place was taken by the Potters’ third-choice keeper and he appeared instead for the hapless combination side who were Stoke’s opponents that day.
It wasn’t the way he would have wanted to see out his long and illustrious career, but his reduced role and diminished capacity was an unfortunate, if understandable, consequence of the car crash in October 1972 that nearly killed him and hastened the end of his top-level career.
Banks had suffered serious head injuries and was left blind in one eye, meaning he could no longer catch a ball properly. Although 34 years old and in the latter stages of his career when the accident happened, he was still showing excellent form. He played a significant role in Stoke’s surprise 1972 League Cup final win against Chelsea and was voted the club’s Player of the Year for his endeavours. Still an international for England, Banks played in the annual Home International series with the game against Scotland proving to be his 73rd, and last, appearance for his country. An automatic first-choice for his club with 59 appearances the season before, Banks played just 11 senior games during the 1972-73 season – and all of them came before the car crash.
So a close season tour undertaken in the May of 1973 was both an opportunity to take Stoke City to the world, and to provide a last hurrah for the legendary 1966 World Cup winner. The Potters began their tour in the unlikely location of Iran and managed a 1-1 draw against the prominent Tehran club, Persepolis. The next distant leg of the tour took them to Australia and victories over New South Wales and Western Australia, then a 2-2 draw against a South Australia select.
New Zealand teams weren’t considered as strong as those across the Tasman and a national league had only started as recently as 1970, however the country was a place that foreign teams were happy to visit. Manchester United’s visit in 1967 was as much a cultural event as a simple football tour, while teams as diverse and exotic as a Scotland XI, Sparta and Slavia Prague, Cardiff City, an England FA XI, and Wolves all visited New Zealand as a leg of their Australian tours. There was money about and the Kiwis were keen to welcome the best so as to test their own players and raise the standards of the national team.
For the visiting teams, these weren’t merely trips to try out fringe and youth players. Such tours typically represented as much a thank-you holiday for the stars who performed well during the season. and as such would take in a leisurely mix of football and relaxation time. The touring Stoke side contained England internationalists Geoff Hurst and George Eastham, as well as Jimmy Greenhoff, John Ritchie, Alan Bloor, and Mike Pejic. John Farmer, the England U23 player who stepped up to take Banks’ place earlier in the season, was one of three goalkeepers.
Stoke weren’t expected to have much trouble against the Auckland provincial side when they met on the 12th of May, but instead suffered a 3-1 humbling. Auckland contained 10 players who had played for their country, including former Brentford star and 1982 World Cup hero Brian Turner. But this was a national side that had only once attempted to even qualify for the World Cup and Stoke was used to performing at a far higher level. “Stoke, regrettably, did not reach the standard expected of them, and in only rare moments showed the ability and skill in keeping with their big reputation,” lamented the New Zealand Herald.
Auckland keeper Kevin Curtin outshone both Banks and Farmer who replaced him for the second half. The first goal came when Banks was well outside his goalmouth covering one player, which allowed Adrian Elrick to gather the loose ball and score. Embarrassingly, the Potters were 3-0 down before Bloor pulled a goal back. No one tried to blame jetlag for the loss, though it was likely a contributory factor.
Just 24 hours later Stoke were in New Zealand’s capital Wellington and defeated the city side 5-1, with both Hurst and Ritchie scoring twice and Eastham grabbing the other. Four days later in front of a record crowd of 10,000 at Christchurch’s English Park, Stoke defeated the Canterbury regional side 4-2 with Ritchie again grabbing a brace and Eastham and Greenhoff also on the scoresheet. As in Wellington, Banks didn’t get a minute of action with Farmer preferred in goal.
Reflecting on the tour to date, coach Tony Waddington blasted the local refereeing as “primitive, if not prohibitive” and couldn’t pinpoint a single New Zealand player who would be good enough to play at a high level in England. Still, he felt football could yet become the national sport due to the large crowds at the games and the enthusiasm of the young supporters. Five decades on and football fans in Aotearoa are still waiting for the sport to usurp rugby and cricket. As an aside, Canterbury and Christchurch United player Tom Randles was once on the books of Stoke City before moving to New Zealand in the mid-60s.
In the final game Stoke played a composite Otago-Southland side featuring players from New Zealand’s two most southerly provinces. This was regarded as the weakest of the four provincial sides that Stoke would face, and it was announced by the Otago Football Association that Banks would play the second-half of the game representing the hosts. It was an unexpected selection choice and added in a layer of interest for local fans with victory virtually out of the question. Scottish reserve keeper Mike McDonald, who had been signed from Clydebank to provide cover for Farmer after Banks’ accident, started and finished the game in goal for Stoke. Unfortunately, Banks had to endure his Stoke team-mates playing at full tilt and the tourists cantered to an 8-1 win, John Ritchie scoring every one of them. It took his tour total in New Zealand alone to a dozen from four games.
The New Zealand Soccer Annual was particularly scathing about the touring side, describing their visit as “false packaging” that “served up mediocre football that wouldn’t even pass in the 4th division”. It dismissed Banks’ involvement as mere reward for past services and that was an assessment that was hard to disagree with. Fellow World Cup hero Hurst was given short shrift by the publication which even went as far as to suggest his performances “really spoiled his image”. Nevertheless, there was credit for Eastham, Pejic and Ritchie whose substantial goal haul was well merited.
Banks appeared in England on just one more occasion, at the end of 1973 in his testimonial against Manchester United, as part of an all-star Stoke City line-up which included Eusebio and Bobby Charlton. He made a comeback in 1977 to play for Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the North American Soccer League and lasted two seasons, playing 39 games.