Football: Banks back in League business

Cheltenham Town's captain is surprised to find himself returning to full-time football.
NEXT MONTH, barring injury, suspension or poor form, Chris Banks should start a Football League match for the 100th time. Nothing remarkable about that, you may think, except that when he became stuck on 93, Kevin Keegan was organising nothing more arduous than his next game of golf in Marbella and Tony Blair was just another fresh face on the Opposition back benches.

On Saturday, when Banks leads Cheltenham Town out to face Rochdale in the first League fixture of their 107-year history, 10 and a quarter years will have passed since he appeared at that level. As one who usually summers as a batsman in league cricket, he knows about the nervous nineties, but even Geoffrey Boycott never took so long to reach a century.

For Banks, who will be 34 in November, Cheltenham's ascent from the Nationwide Conference has provided an opportunity he was certain had gone after Exeter City handed him his second free transfer in 12 months in 1989. He has given up his "other" job, as a qualified tiler, and thrown himself into the full-time training he first tasted as a teenaged centre-back with Port Vale.

With his change in status has come a different lifestyle. Throughout his five years with Cheltenham, whom he joined as a Southern League outfit, Banks has undertaken a twice-weekly, 160-mile round trip from his Staffordshire home to Whaddon Road. Now he makes the journey five days a week.

"It's actually taking me less time than before because of the times I'm travelling," said Banks. "For evening training, I used to leave home at 5 o'clock, so I'd be going through the dreaded Junction 10 on the M6 at the height of the rush hour. There's no way round or through it - you have to sit there and stew - but now I usually breeze through."

The hours he spends on the motorways are not untypical, Cheltenham's players being scattered around the Midlands and West Country. Last season's top scorer, Neil Grayson, makes a daily trek from Chesterfield; the manager, Steve Cotterill, is based in Bournemouth. To Banks, it is a price worth paying to escape football's hard shoulder.

Starting out alongside Robbie Earle and Mark Bright at Vale Park, he had dreams of reaching the fast lane. He operated mainly in central defence but also at full-back, midfield and even left wing on one occasion. As substitute in the Potteries club's epic FA Cup victory over Spurs, he featured in Match of the Day's credits when they showed the home bench erupting after one of the goals.

"It was on every week," Banks recalled. "People kept coming up and saying: `I saw you on the telly'." But his brush with stardom could not save him from being released by John Rudge. Then, despite appearing in all but three of Exeter's Fourth Division games, he was not retained by Terry Cooper. "That was hard to swallow. Sometimes your face doesn't fit."

Cooper had been a willing accomplice in an April Fool's Day prank after Banks kept a clean sheet as an emergency custodian during the final minutes against Peterborough. "We agreed to tell the press I was Gordon Banks' nephew. The local paper had the headline `Gordon is my uncle' and the report had this bit about `goalkeeping is in his blood'!

"When Exeter let me go I didn't expect I'd still be playing in 10 years' time, let alone coming back into the League. I'd just got a mortgage so it was a case of getting a job and making some money. I signed part-time for Bath City and went labouring, which turned out well financially.

"At first I thought someone from the lower divisions might come in for me. The older I got, the less likely that became. The only way I was going to get back to the League was by winning promotion. But Cheltenham kept coming second or third and it looked as if the club would never quite fulfil its potential until Steve Cotterill came."

Cotterill, who played at the highest level with Wimbledon, arrived at his home-town club two and a half years ago. Having steered them into the Conference, albeit only because Gresley Rovers' ground was deemed inadequate, he guided them to the runners-up spot and FA Trophy success at Wembley before last season's title triumph.

"Steve is very much a players' man, though he understands that the gaffer can't be one of the lads," Banks said. "He treats everyone with respect and lets them know what he expects. His determination and enthusiasm rub off on people. He's got more out of the existing players, including me, and all his signings have come off.

"No disrespect to anyone, but he's the main reason we're in the League. I'm sure he'll be lured away sooner rather than later - he has the ability to achieve big things in the game."

For the forseeable future, however, Cotterill is committed to Cheltenham, for all their modest resources. His captain is confident they will more than hold their own. "Wycombe and Macclesfield went straight up," said Banks. "Halifax just missed the play-offs. Judging by that, we should do well.

"The whole experience should be exciting. Nearly everyone here has been rejected by pro clubs - Mark Freeman, who plays alongside me, was even released by Hednesford because they didn't think he was good enough for the Conference - and they've been playing non-League a long time. Now they can see how they compare with supposedly better players.

"It'll be great going to proper stadiums with decent crowds. I've played some places where it's been one man and his dog, but in the opening week we've got Norwich away in the Worthington Cup. We're really looking forward to that."

First, though, comes the historic moment at five to three on Saturday when Chris Banks sprints out at the head of Cheltenham's red-and-white striped shirts. Seldom, if ever, has a visit by Rochdale been so eagerly awaited.