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.