?Chelsea lost one of the club’s all-time greats on Sunday as iconic goalkeeper Peter Bonetti passed away aged 78.
A common joke about the Blues is that they had no history before Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, but we all know that’s not true. They had plenty of history before that, and so much of it was down to Bonetti.
In two separate spells between 1960 and 1979, the man who became known as ‘The Cat’ set a new idea of how goalkeepers should be viewed. By the time he was done, he was the standard against which any Chelsea goalkeeper is compared to.
In what is the perfect indication of the time period in which Bonetti arrived, the young goalkeeper was given a chance at ?Chelsea after his mother wrote to then-manager Ted Drake. That was all it took.
It didn’t take long for Bonetti to break through to the senior side, with his debut coming against ?Manchester City in April 1960. At the time, Drake’s side had been leaking goals – losing their last three matches and conceding ten goals – so the boss took a shot on young Bonetti.
Chelsea ran out 3-0 winners, and Bonetti’s clean sheet was the first of the 208 which he kept in Chelsea blue.
While still a youngster, Bonetti saw Chelsea begin to implode. Drake was dismissed in favour of Tommy Docherty, who ushered in a new, younger era at the club. Bonetti was right at the heart of that, and he played a huge part in keeping the club afloat.
So many of Chelsea’s biggest moments came from Bonetti. He pulled out a last-minute save in the 1962/63 season to earn promotion back to the top flight, before playing the hero again two years later in the League Cup final against ?Leicester City – Chelsea’s first such trophy.
His athleticism, flamboyance and reflexes earned him his nickname, and it wasn’t just Chelsea fans who recognised his talent. Bonetti was Chelsea’s sole representative in the 1966 World Cup squad, and he would have enjoyed a far greater international career had it not been for the presence of a certain Gordon Banks, who commanded the sole starting spot in the England setup.
By this time, Bonetti had enjoyed plenty of stunning moments, but the greatest of them all came in the infamous 1970 FA Cup final against ?Leeds United.
His outstanding performances saw the Blues snatch a fortunate 2-2 draw and earn a replay, but that’s where the magic happened. Just minutes into the second game, Bonetti went down with an injury and looked like he could not continue, but he limped back on to the field and played the entire game on one leg.
He was targeted by the Leeds forwards, who hoped their physicality would get the better of the wounded Bonetti, but the Englishman could not be deterred. He pulled out save after save after save, allowing Chelsea to snatch an unlikely 2-1 win and win the competition for the first time.
Bonetti added to his ever-growing trophy cabinet just one year later as he led Chelsea to their first UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. ?Real Madrid had dominated in the final, but they could not find a way through the dominant Bonetti, and Chelsea took the spoils once more.
League Cup glory. FA Cup glory. Cup Winners’ Cup glory. All of those victories were the first of their kind in club history, and Bonetti was almost single-handedly responsible for all of them.
Financial struggles saw Chelsea decline in the early 70s and Bonetti left the club in 1975, joining St Louis Stars in the United States, but his love for Chelsea soon brought him back. The Blues had tumbled down the divisions once more, and Bonetti needed to come save the day yet again.
RIP my friend and one time goalkeeping coach
A lovely lovely guy
A fabulous goalkeeper
A great coach
A truly fantastic gentleman
Thanks for all your help
— Neville Southall (@NevilleSouthall) April 12, 2020
Now under Eddie McCreadie, Bonetti brought Chelsea back to the top flight before retiring in 1979, having made a whopping 729 appearances for the club – only Ron Harris has ever made more for Chelsea.
Bonetti saved Chelsea from two of their darkest periods of the 20th century, but not only that, he brought silverware to Stamford Bridge in the process. There is nobody in club history who has been quite so significant.
He is often overlooked by younger fans in the conversation of Chelsea’s greatest ever player, but Bonetti was never concerned by that. He was a humble, beloved figure who only wanted the best for the Blues, and he dedicated his entire career to leading the Blues to greatness.
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