The football world was saddened this weekend to learn of the death of former Chelsea and England goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti. He had been suffering from a long-term illness.
His sharp reflexes and graceful style earned him his nickname, The Cat. He became synonymous with Chelsea’s ‘Kings Road’ period of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Born in Putney on 27th September 1941, he was a product of an impressive youth structure which made the first team, ultimately winning the 1970 FA Cup. He started the same day at the club as Bobby Tambling and Terry Venables. Ted Drake gave him his debut during the 1960-61 season. He was virtually first choice keeper from then on for the next 19 years.
The club went down in his second season, but with the appointment of Tommy Docherty, they bounced straight back. During a period of the Swinging Sixties, Stamford Bridge was the place to be seen for many celebrities of the time. The team echoed the flashy, colourful nature of the time.
They won the League Cup in 1965 and the following season competed in the UEFA Fairs Cup, the precursor to the UEFA Cup and now Europa League. They made it as far as the Semi-Finals, with Bonetti playing in every match.
In 1967 Bonetti reached another cup final as they took on Tottenham in the FA Cup. They were beaten that day but returned to Wembley three years later to take on Leeds United. By then they were two of the biggest clubs in the country, by reputation. Chelsea won a bruising encounter after a replay. The two games were possibly the finest moments of his career. Making several important saves in the first match, he kept them in it forcing a replay. Minutes into the second meeting his knee was injured by Leeds striker, Mick Jones. These were the days before substitute goalkeepers, so he returned to the pitch after treatment and spent the rest of the game effectively playing on one leg.
The game went into extra time, which must’ve been agony for him, but he bravely beat out everything Leeds could throw at him. His performances that season saw him finish runner-up in the Football of the Year awards.
A year later they competed in the UEFA Cup-Winners’ Cup, reaching the Final to beat Real Madrid, 2-1. Bonetti again shined with some impressive saves. In fact, he had to fight off pneumonia to even make the game. This was his last piece of silverware. They were beaten finalists in the 1972 League Cup and beaten Semi-Finalists in the same competition a year later.
That period at the turn of the decade was one of the most successful for the club for many years. They won two cup Finals and finished third and sixth in the league. But the team was inevitably broken up, with the exception of the goalkeeper.
The 1970s were a tough time for Chelsea with many years spent in the second tier under a succession of different managers. His last match for the club was May 1979 against Arsenal, giving him a total of 729 club appearances. His record of clean sheets has only recently been surpassed.
His performances at Stamford Bridge caught the eye of England manager, Alf Ramsey. Bonetti was perhaps unfortunate to be around at the same time as Gordon Banks. He remains part of a popular pub quiz question as he is one of the 11 players who were in the England 1966 squad but didn’t play in the Final. In all Bonetti played just seven times for his country.
His debut came in a friendly in Denmark just three weeks before the famous World Cup Final. The team that day contained eight of those who would lift the trophy at Wembley. He wouldn’t put on an England shirt again for almost another 12 months, when he appeared in successive friendlies against Spain and Austria. He kept clean sheets in all three matches. He went 318 minutes before conceding his first goal at international level, when Amancio Amaro scored for Spain. Two more friendly matches and two more clean sheets were under his belt as he was on the plane for the Mexico 1970 World Cup.
Bonetti was not expected to play during their title defence. But just before the Quarter-Final clash against West Germany, Banks fell ill with food poisoning on the eve of the game. Leading 2-0 and seemingly heading towards another World Cup Semi-Final, England eventually lost 2-3. Bonetti copped a lot of flack for that, and his reputation never fully recovered. He would never play for his country again.
Only the 11 players on the pitch in July 1966 received medals at the end of the World Cup Final. However, thanks to a campaign many years later FIFA was persuaded to award medals to every squad member. Bonetti was presented with his winner’s medal by Gordon Brown at Number 10 in 2009.
The role of a goalkeeper is very different today to what it was back in The Cat’s day, as back then they were seen mainly as shot-stoppers. Bonetti was one of the first players to use a long throw as a means of distributing the ball rather than the more customary hoof upfield.
Pele was reported to have said when asked who are the three greatest goalkeepers you’ve ever seen?
“Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin and Peter Bonetti”.
You cannot write the history of Chelsea Football Club without including the immense contribution he made for many years. He broke the mould as a keeper and became a household name for two decades. Only Ron Harris has made more appearances for the club, and only Petr Cech has kept more clean sheets.
After his playing career had ended he went into coaching. He had spells at Chelsea and England as well as with Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, Fulham, Manchester City.
Chelsea’s official website put it beautifully when they said
“He was the Cat who broke the mould, defied the odds, drew the gasps, earned the cheers and got the cream. All in the front of an adoring Stamford Bridge.”
There have been many tributes paid for a man who was loved by many throughout the game.