It is evident from so many of the tributes made since Peter Bonetti’s death yesterday that he was many things to many people. An idol and an icon. Heroic but humble. A great goalkeeper and a great man.
For Eddie Niedzwiecki, who arrived at Stamford Bridge in 1983 and worked with the former England World Cup winner as his goalkeeping coach, Bonetti was a mentor and an inspiration.
In fact, it was the prospect of working closely with the man whose own career between the sticks had earned him the enduring nickname of ‘the Cat’ that convinced Niedzwiecki to make the switch from Wrexham to join the Blues, then languishing somewhat in the Second Division.
‘One of the big influences when I came to Chelsea in 1983 was having Peter as my goalkeeping coach,’ Niedzwiecki told the official Chelsea website after the sad news of Bonetti’s passing on Easter Sunday.
At the time, Bonetti was one of the first specialist goalkeeping coaches and his wisdom was undoubtedly crucial for Niedzwiecki, who would later follow his mentor and become a goalkeeping coach at Chelsea, as well as an outfield coach.
‘He was a lovely man and ever so helpful when I first started settling in along with the other goalkeepers Steve Francis and Grant Lunn,' he continued. 'Right from the off, he was such a wonderful help to me. He was always willing to stay out and work with you on the training ground, passing on his knowledge and his experiences, and he helped me so much.
‘One of the big things for me with Peter was even if I had very little to do in a game, he would call it being hyper-critical so he would say Wwhat about when that ball came in, you could have been doing this or doing that" or "what about when you received the ball, did you see he was available?"
‘He would pick little things out and that was really so good for me. He could assess situations very quickly and he adapted very well. I loved the time we spent together, hours and hours on the training ground, trying to improve in certain situations or with certain abilities I may have lacked.
‘I just wish that I’d had even longer with him because I loved coming in to train. I will treasure the moments I shared with him for the rest of my life.’
After hearing the news of Bonetti’s death yesterday, Niedzwiecki was clearing out his garage later in the day and quite inexplicably came across a pair of those iconic cotton green gloves that Bonetti made famous during his playing career.
‘I really remember him as a goalkeeper wearing those green gloves so it was quite ironic when I came across a pair of them yesterday, still in the packaging with a picture of Peter and Phil Parkes on the back,' Niedzwiecki revealed.
‘When I was growing up, everyone who played in goal wanted a pair of those green cotton Peter Bonetti gloves. I can’t quite believe I’ve still got a pair here and they’re still in the packet as well, believe it or not. That was quite ironic but it brings back happy memories.’
Niedzwiecki also recalled our famous trip to Highbury on the opening day of the 1984/85 season, our first game back in the First Division after five years away, and a story that perhaps sums up the life of a goalkeeper. No matter your achievements or legend, a keeper is forever blighted by their mistakes.
‘It was an early kick-off,’ he remembers. ‘Peter and I were about to run out at Highbury to warm up and he said to me "you watch, I’ll get some stick here". I couldn’t understand why but he said "just listen" and we ran out. Obviously the Chelsea fans were chanting his name but the Arsenal crowd were singing about the World Cup in Mexico.
‘Even in yesterday’s clips, people still relate to Peter being the goalkeeper that made a mistake for England in a World Cup quarter-final. He took a lot of criticism for that but when you think of the career he had, I find it quite sad that people bring that back up because he was such a wonderful servant, a wonderful goalkeeper and a wonderful man who wanted to help so many people.
‘He knew it was coming but you have to stand up and take it. He tried to have a laugh and a joke about it but it still hurt him deep down.’
Bonetti’s innovation as a goalkeeper carried on into his coaching and he was clearly influential in the careers of many shot-stoppers of the future, not only at Chelsea but in later work with Newcastle, Fulham, Manchester City and the England national team.
The Cat’s agility and reflexes made him a household name but it was his kind, caring and humble nature that won him the hearts of those fortunate to spend time in his company.
‘He had a huge influence on me in a coaching respect as well,’ added Niedzwiecki. ‘I look back with great fondness on the work we did together and of course he’s been a major influence for me in many aspects of life.
‘He was such a wonderful man with it but he was very humble as well. He’d have time for anybody, would speak to anybody and give them his time and help. He was a wonderful servant to Chelsea Football Club.
‘I was very lucky to work with him. I worked with some really good coaches at Wrexham when I was growing up who helped me along my way but I have to say that Peter Bonetti was my biggest influence. I only wish I had the opportunity to work with him a lot longer.’
In his column tomorrow, Pat Nevin, who was a team-mate of Eddie Niedzwiecki at the time, will be paying his tributes to Peter Bonetti.