Tommy Banks, rugged full-back who became England’s oldest surviving international footballer – obituary

Tommy Banks in 1950: not to be messed with
Tommy Banks in 1950: not to be messed with - PA/Alamy

Tommy Banks, who has died aged 94, was a footballer who won the FA Cup with Bolton Wanderers in 1958 and played six times for England, including all four of their games at that summer’s World Cup; a fearsomely tough left-back, he became the oldest surviving former England international following the death of the Luton Town goalkeeper Ron Baynham in March this year.

“He had a lot to say on and off the field but knew football and was a master of his craft,” his England teammate Bobby Charlton recalled. “Fast over the ground and hard as nails – wingers didn’t like playing against him. If you had any weak spot in your make-up he’d exploit it.”

Though he was never once booked, the story is still told in Bolton of how Banks would shout over to Roy Hartle at right-back, “Roy, when you’ve done with your man, chip him over here and I’ll see if he likes gravel rash” – and wingers were supposedly wont to develop “injuries” rather than travel to Burnden Park and become acquainted with the pitchside track.

Banks attempts to block a cross from Stanley Matthews at Burnden Park in 1954
Banks attempts to block a cross from Stanley Matthews at Burnden Park in 1954 - W&H Talbot Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Thomas Banks was born on November 10 1929 in Farnworth, in Bolton, the youngest of seven children of John Banks and Catherine, née Mannion. He attended Harper Green Secondary School in the town then went down the pit at Mosley Common colliery, while playing for a local side, Partridges FC.

Word of his defensive talents spread beyond Bolton, and Arsenal, Leeds, Wolves, Portsmouth and Burnley all made enquiries, while Matt Busby, who was in the process of creating his first great Manchester United side, turned up at his house with an invitation to watch the first team train. But young Tommy was a committed Wanderers fan – his older brother Ralph, had joined in 1940 – and stood firm, signing, initially as an amateur, in 1945.

He made his first-team debut in May 1948, going on to play 233 league games for Bolton. While his brother Ralph was at left-back against Blackpool in the famous “Matthews final” of 1953, the highpoint of Tommy’s club career came five years later when they beat Manchester United – recently shorn of eight Busby Babes in the Munich disaster – 2-0 in the final, with a brace of goals from Nat Lofthouse.

Banks takes on the USSR's Anatoli Ilyin at the World Cup in 1958
Banks takes on the USSR's Anatoli Ilyin at the World Cup in 1958 - PA/Alamy

It was the death of one of the Babes, Roger Byrne, that gave Tommy his England chance. Millions of words have been written, many dreams dreamed, about how England might have fared at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with Byrne, Tommy Taylor and the mighty Duncan Edwards in their ranks, but Banks acquitted himself well at left-back, and Walter Winterbottom’s side could count themselves as unlucky not to reach the knock-out rounds.

It became an uphill struggle after Tom Finney was kicked out of the tournament by the Soviet Union in the opening game, a 2-2 draw, and England drew their next two group games – including a valiant goalless draw against the eventual winners Brazil – before losing to the Soviets in a play-off.

Banks was brought rapidly back to earth when he arrived back in Bolton, resplendent in his England blazer and flannels. A local woman stopped him, saying: “Hello Tommy, you look very smart. Have you been to Blackpool for your holidays?”

By 1961 Banks – thought to be the first British sportsman to appear in a TV advert, for Gillette razors – was in the autumn of his career. Needing a new challenge, he sought a move to Oldham Athletic. But under the old “retain-and-transfer” system he was at the mercy of his club, who refused to let him go for less than £10,000.

Banks at Burnden Park with his England teammates, l-r, Wilf McGuinness, Billy Wright and Bobby Charlton
Banks at Burnden Park with his England teammates, l-r, Wilf McGuinness, Billy Wright and Bobby Charlton - Spencer/Daily Herald/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

George Eastham had already gone on strike to try to secure a move from Newcastle United, and their struggles would eventually end up with victory in court and a fairer system for players.

But that was several years down the road, and Banks, who had also been a prominent supporter of the campaign to end the maximum wage, was forced to play out his career in non-league football with Altrincham and Bangor City, retiring in 1965. He stayed in his home town, running a newsagent’s for a while and working in the building industry. In 2012 a biography of Banks appeared, Ah’m Telling Thee by Ian Seddon – another former Bolton player – while pupils at his old school, Harper Green, staged a musical based on his life.

Tommy Banks married, in 1952, Margaret Charles; they had two sons. She died in 1977, and in 1981 he married Marguerite Morris, known as Rita.

His international teammate, the goalkeeper Colin McDonald, who played behind him in Sweden in 1958, takes over the mantle of England’s oldest surviving international footballer.

Tommy Banks, born November 10 1929, died June 13 2024