As we continue to mark the passing of the legendary Peter Bonetti, our columnist Giles Smith recalls what The Cat meant to him when growing up as a young Chelsea fan outside of London, and how his hero unexpectedly delivered…
Did you have the gloves? Pat Nevin had the gloves. He said so on this website the other day. I had the gloves, too. You had to have the gloves. It was one aspect of the extraordinary magnetism of Peter Bonetti that he could stir a yearning for replica glove-ownership, even in kids who weren’t goalkeepers and had no real intentions of becoming one.Later, cooler models had a capital ‘B’ stitched on the back of each hand, but mine were clear of branding – green, close-fitting, entirely unpadded, and thin enough to come packaged in a slim cardboard sleeve. Modern goalkeeping gloves look like baseball mitts by comparison. Yet these were pioneering items at the time. Older photos of Bonetti in the Sixties strikingly show him working with his bare hands.
So, I had the gloves – they came one Christmas. I also had the autograph. But that was a kind of miracle, it seemed to me at the time, and still does. While Chelsea were carving their way to FA Cup glory in 1970, and European Cup Winners' Cup glory the year after, I was 70 miles away from Stamford Bridge in Essex, growing up with parents who had less than no interest in football. The idea of seeing Chelsea play in the flesh – let alone being in a position, before or afterwards, to seek autographs from the players – was the stuff of wild provincial fantasy. Frankly I had more chance of seeing African prairie dogs in Colchester Castle Park.So I tried the postal route. Sometime around 1972, I wrote to Peter Bonetti, care of Chelsea Football Club, Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, London SW6, enclosing a picture and asking him to sign it. Bonetti, note. I was obsessed with Peter Osgood, too, and possibly even more obsessed with Charlie Cooke. Yet, when I hatched this unlikely pen-pal scheme, it was Bonetti I chose to approach. He just seemed… I don’t know… reliable, somehow. Approachable.Anyway, it was, frankly, an absurd thing to do – a clearly doomed request. How would a letter, lobbed at the club, even find its way to one of its star players, let alone find that star player in a receptive mood, with a pen handy?And even in my naivety, I obviously knew how forlorn the mission was. The picture I chose to send was no more than three inches tall and two inches wide. It was black and white, cut out of Shoot! magazine, and had a pin-hole at the top, testifying to the time it had spent on display on the pinboard in my bedroom. I knew deep down that I wouldn’t be seeing this picture again. That’s why I didn’t send one of the good ones.A few days later, the picture came back, signed. ‘Scenes,’ as nobody said in those days. It was a formative moment for my faith in human nature, my faith in Chelsea, my faith in the postal system, my faith, above all, in Peter Bonetti. I was already of the opinion that football couldn’t offer a more capable or kinder-seeming goalkeeper, and the return of my picture, carefully autographed in blue biro, confirmed both those things forever after.
Internationally, of course, Bonetti was destined to play Crosby to Gordon Banks’s Sinatra. So soon after the glories of the FA Cup final, our man’s globally broadcast humiliation for England against West Germany at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico stung Chelsea supporters personally – young, impressionable ones in particular. I date my antipathy to international football from that exact moment. But we knew how good he really was.When he left for America in 1975, I imagined my chances of seeing him actually play for Chelsea had gone. Yet he came back, and there he was, in goal for my first game at the Bridge, against Carlisle in August 1976. I’m proud to be able to describe myself as someone who ’started going back in the Bonetti era’, though, of course, with those 729 appearances, he gave us an unusually large target to aim at.
Sad news, then. But of course, we’re lucky because they live on, these heroes, and there are places where we can always find them when we need to. Peter Bonetti will be back in goal for the 1970 FA Cup replay on 29 April – going out live on the app that night in honour of that golden occasion’s golden anniversary.And he’ll be around again, I’m sure, on the copy of ‘Chelsea’s Cup’ that I acquired this week in his honour. ‘Chelsea’s Cup’ is the souvenir ‘spoken word’ album of the 1970 final, on vinyl, with commentary extracts from both the games. (Side one: Wembley. Side two: Old Trafford.) Even allowing for the vinyl revival, it would be hard to think of a more pointless and outmoded item, really, in the age of video streaming. And this week, of all weeks, I absolutely had to have it.It cost me a fiver, if you’re wondering. Absolute bargain, in the circumstances. Just think how much that’s going to be worth if we win the replay on 29 April.And, you know what? With Bonetti in goal, I wouldn’t put it past us.- The gloves and cap pictured at the top are in the Chelsea Museum
An online book of condolence to pay tribute to Peter has been opened