Chelsea Football Club is hugely saddened to announce the passing today of one of our indisputably all-time great players, Peter Bonetti.
Our former goalkeeper had been suffering from long-term illness. All at Chelsea wish to send our heartfelt and deepest condolences to Peter’s family and friends.
Bonetti was a goalkeeping superstar of the 1960s and 1970s. Small for his position on the pitch but with an aura of glamour, he was technically innovative and incredibly plucky. The Cat, as he was widely known, was the reassuring security among many mavericks in a golden era for Chelsea.
He was the last line of defence during some of the truly great games. The image of our injured goalie and his superhuman attempts to thwart the opposition in the 1970 FA Cup final replay, 50 years ago this month, is one of the heroic images of that famous match, one that captivated a record TV audience of over 28 million viewers in the UK.
By then Bonetti was one of the keystones of the Blues side that had emerged under Tommy Docherty’s management but was polished by Dave Sexton. Most of that team, Chelsea fans were proud to say, emerged from the club’s youth scheme.
Like his future team-mate Peter Osgood, Bonetti was recommended to the club for a trial by one of his family writing in, in his case his mother. He made his Chelsea debut aged just 18 and appropriately for a great goalkeeper, from that day onwards he never really looked back.
For two decades, a succession of young aspirants to the Chelsea goalkeeper’s shirt were seen off by a familiar figure with his green sleeves tugged up to half mast. Most of the records Bonetti set for clean sheets and trophies won by a Chelsea keeper were only surpassed in the past few years. He is our second-highest appearance maker, he was between the posts for a succession of historic firsts for the club, and he remains our most successful homegrown goalkeeper.
His nickname ‘the Cat’ (‘Catty’ to his contemporaries) was coined by early team-mate Ron Tindall, ad-libbing mock TV commentary during a game of billiards in the old players’ lounge. It stuck for good at Chelsea and in the world beyond because it so simply encapsulated his cool and graceful athleticism.
Bonetti was famous throughout football and innovative in the goalkeeping art. It was he who despite standing under six foot tall, pioneered coming off his line, braving an often brutish melée, and catching of any high ball in his penalty area. It was he who broke the mould by rolling or throwing the ball out to a blue shirt rather than hoofing it upfield.
He was first to recognise a role for gardening gloves in handling slippery winter balls, leading to his Peter Bonetti-branded specialist gloves which were a first and so successful they were sported not only by kids up and down the land, but by many of his contemporaries at the top level of the game too. Forward-thinking Peter later became the club’s first goalkeeping coach.
Those many supporters fortunate enough to have watched the legendary Bonetti in his pomp over two spells will remember many great saves, but when it comes to considering special occasions, that FA Cup win in 1970 and a European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph a year later stand tall.
In addition to those competition firsts for the club, Bonetti was also in goal when we lifted a knockout cup for the first time – the League Cup in 1965.
He was born in nearby Putney but did most of his growing up and learning football outside of London on the Sussex coast. Following his successful Chelsea trial, he started on the same day as Bobby Tambling, Terry Venables and others who would establish themselves in the Swinging 60s side.
After a year in the juniors and a brief taste of reserve team football, he made his debut against Manchester City in April 1960. The Blues had lost our previous three matches, conceding 10 goals in the process, but now ran out 3-0 winners. It was the first of 208 clean sheets Bonetti kept during his time as Chelsea goalkeeper.
Still eligible for the Juniors, he dropped back down to help them win the FA Youth Cup before the season was out – that was a Chelsea first too.
Bonetti was a fundamental figure in all the club’s achievements during the 1960s and 1970s. In the penultimate game of the 1962/63 season, away at Sunderland and with promotion at the first time of asking for Docherty’s fledgling side in the balance, he made a brilliant last-minute save to preserve a crucial 1-0 lead.
In the 1965 League Cup final against Leicester City, the Blues had edged a tight first leg at home and in the return at Filbert Street, Bonetti made a succession of stops as the home side, seeking parity in the tie, put us under intense pressure. They failed, our goalkeeper succeeded, the second leg ended goalless and we had our hands on silverware.
In 1966 Bonetti was Chelsea’s one representative in the England squad at the World Cup on home soil, but with Gordon Banks the first choice and injury-free throughout, he remained unused by Alf Ramsey.
Only the 11 players on the pitch at the end of the final against West Germany were eligible to receive medals. However, thanks to an FA-led campaign many years later that persuaded FIFA to reward every squad member, Bonetti was presented with a medal by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, at Downing Street in 2009.
But for the rich crop of goalies at the time, and especially the durability of Banks, Peter would have played many more times for his country. In his first six international appearances he conceded just one goal.
It was a mark of the man that the enduring thorn in his side was humbly tolerated. Game seven for England was a World Cup quarter-final in 1970 with Banks incapacitated by food poisoning.
Though Bonetti acknowledged being at fault for the first goal conceded as West Germany recovered from two goals down to win, he shouldered an unfair proportion of the national blame for the defeat when the game had changed after Ramsey’s controversial substitutions of Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters.
Peter deserved a much better legacy on the international stage. One of those who watched Bonetti in his prime, Pele, got it right. ‘The three greatest goalkeepers I have ever seen are Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin and Peter Bonetti,’ commented the Brazil superstar.
Chelsea fans knew ribbing from opposition supporters was unjust but it emphasised Bonetti’s strength of mind that it never affected his confidence, and he quickly followed that World Cup by winning his second trophy with Chelsea, the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup which followed on from our maiden FA Cup a year before.
Bonetti had already been in goal at Wembley in 1967 for Chelsea’s first FA Cup final at the national stadium. That was lost but when our team, now managed by Sexton, returned there to face Leeds United in 1970, on a surface far from conducive to good goalkeeping, Bonetti was important in keeping the country’s most physically dominant side at bay with the game locked at 2-2 and into extra-time.
At Old Trafford in the replay, he produced one of the most memorable goalkeeping performances in FA Cup final history. Early in the match he suffered an injury to his left knee when clattered by centre-forward Mick Jones. An awkward landing left him struggling to even walk properly and this was a time before substitute goalkeepers. He would have to finish the half virtually on one leg.
When Jones scored to give Leeds the advantage shortly afterwards the Blues were up against it. The Leeds forwards targeted Bonetti at every opportunity. There was an agonising wait for our supporters, most of whom were packed into the Stretford End, after the outfielders returned from the changing room for the second half with our keeper delayed inside for a pain-killing injection.
After he emerged to their audible relief, he defied the odds to make save after save with Osgood equalising and David Webb bundling in his famous extra-time winner. Bonetti played the full 120 minutes of the breath-taking and bruising contest.
Each upfield kick – never his strong point – seemed mighty and Herculean. Every athletic dive and grab amid a spiky skirmish a blow for the good man against the bullies. The victory created countless new supporters, and brave, stylish Bonetti was one of the chief recruiters.
The victory would not have been possible had it not been for his outstanding bravery in putting his body on the line. When there appeared he had no more to give, he would produce another save to keep Leeds at bay.
The Cat was voted runner-up in the Footballer of the Year award for 1969/70 for the consistently high standard of his displays over the whole season. He had been the winner of Chelsea’s first Player of the Year award in 1967 and was voted the club’s greatest in a fans’ poll two years later.
The European Cup Winners’ Cup followed the FA Cup win, with Bonetti overcoming pneumonia in time to play Real Madrid in Chelsea’s first European final. Again it took two games to win the trophy and though not as busy as against Leeds, our goalie repeated his feat at Sunderland almost a decade earlier when he pulled off an outstanding late save to maintain a decisive single-goal lead.
A team which had won two trophies in as many years also finished third and sixth respectively in the league. It was the high-water mark for Bonetti and that much-loved team. Few older players would survive the rebuilding to come, but Peter again proved himself indispensable.
By 1975 the club was in low water financially and in terms of form. Bonetti had begun playing more for the reserves than the first team, so he spent the summer in America at the St Louis Stars. He returned to the Bridge anticipating a free transfer but with his replacement floundering, he was quickly restored to the starting 11.
He was now the source of experience in a largely youthful and homegrown Chelsea side which secured promotion back to the top flight in 1977. Two years later Bonetti announced his retirement, although a brief spell with Dundee followed, and he could not be kept from his beloved Fulham Road for long.
Even when he was still playing for the club he had begun to coach the younger goalkeepers in an era when there were no such specialist coaches. In 1983 he rejoined as our first dedicated goalkeeper coach, and how the Shed enjoyed chanted his name again and receiving a response when he came out to warm-up Eddie Niedzwiecki before each game, a ritual the Cat and his fans had started way back in the 1960s. There was always a strong connection between Bonetti and the Chelsea support.
He continued in the role into the 1990s and also worked with the England national team including at Italia ’90, before coaching at other clubs.
But Bonetti is woven into the very fabric of Chelsea Football Club and he continued to serve us superbly in the later years of his life as a charming and knowledgeable matchday host in the hospitality areas at the stadium, one of which carries his name. As fit as any outfielder during his playing days, he appeared in goal for the Chelsea Old Boys team well into his 60s.
In his professional career he made an incredible 729 appearances for Chelsea. Only his captain, Ron Harris, has represented the club more times. Peter held the record for the most clean sheets as a Chelsea keeper until January 2014, when Petr Cech surpassed him. The two all-time great goalies came to know each other well and had immense mutual respect.
Peter Bonetti’s position in the pantheon of Chelsea footballing gods is unassailable. He was the Cat who broke the mould, defied the odds, drew the gasps, earned the cheers and got the cream. All in front of an adoring Stamford Bridge.