Don Mullan idolised Gordon Banks, England’s 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper.
“I’m so glad I chose him as my mentor and hero, because I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” says Don.
Growing up in Creggan, Don would don a yellow jersey in Banks’ honour as he played on a makeshift pitch.
Little did he then know that he would end up paying a special tribute at the footballer’s funeral.
Banks, who died in February, was laid to rest in Stoke on Monday after a service which witnessed by thousands who lined the city’s streets to pay their respects.
The World Cup hero – who also made that wonder save against Pelé four years later – formed a special friendship with Don.
While millions watched the day in 1966 when England won the World Cup against Germany, the then 10-year-old Don in Creggan was excited that Banks had won the most coveted trophy.
Don played outside his home on Leenan Gardens where they used their jumpers for football nets.
He wore the yellow jersey, which even had the three lions sewn on to it – a rare sight in the estate.
“I remember Kenneth Wolstenholme saying in his commentary – ‘Great save Gordon Banks – the hero of England’ – and somehow that really embedded itself,” he says.
“I wanted to be the hero of Ireland. Gordon Banks became my hero.”
Weeks after the 1970 World Cup, Don got to meet Banks when Stoke City played Finn Harps in a friendly in Donegal in 1970.
The World Cup star was impressed by the 14-year-old’s 500 page scrapbook which he kept until his death.
“My only expectation was to see Banks from the terraces and I saw this tall man leafing through the book,” he says.
“Then my father spoke the magical words ‘Here he is, Mr Banks’.Banks turned around.
“It was like an audience with God, but the thing I remember was, not only his gentleness to me, but especially his respect to my parents. He was so courteous,” Don remembers.
“I always had that memory and retained the love of Banks all through my life.”
It was to be the start of a lifetime friendship where Don would go on to write a charity book about Gordon Banks and ensure a £90,000 statue was erected to the legendary goalkeeper in 2008.
His daughter, Wendy Banks, says her father was humbled by the gesture.
“He couldn’t believe someone would put a statue up to him that he could actually see. Normally statues are put up after people are gone,” she told the BBC.
“He was amazed that Pelé and Desmond Tutu would come.
“He was just very proud and in Don’s debt for that. He gave him a lovely inscribed watch. He loved Don – Don was the number one fan.”
On Monday, Don gave an address alongside England World Cup-hero Geoff Hurst at Banks’ funeral.
He spent several hours with the England legend just days before his death.
“I spent two hours with him and it was just very gentle. I held his hand – the hand that put the ball of Pelé over the bar. This man who was my boyhood superstar
“I said – ‘Pelé sends his regards,’ and he liked that.
“I said ‘Gordon, I just want to say thank you for the joy you gave me and thousands of others’.
“He gave me the most beautiful smile and said thank you.”
His abiding memory of Banks is his “gentleness and kindness” with Don’s parents.
“I remember Phil Coulter saying to me when I was going over as an adult – He said ‘Don, it’s a dangerous thing to met your hero as an adult because sometimes they can let you down’.
“It was the opposite – I found the same man. You knew he was just a genuine man.”Don says that in the midst of his fame, Banks remained a humble man whose talent and dignity will endure.
“I’m so glad I choose him as my mentor and hero because I couldn’t have asked for any better, in terms of his basic human decency”.