In the first of a new series exploring what it’s like to play between the sticks for the Blues, we explore the modern history of Chelsea goalkeeping and the mentality needed to make it as the last line of defence.
Following the sad passing of Peter Bonetti, an all-time Blues legend and one of England’s finest goalkeepers, it got us thinking about the cult heroes who have stood in goal for the Blues since the Cat became a huge fans’ favourite in the Seventies.
Over the coming weeks, we aim to give Chelsea supporters an insight into life between the sticks through a series of interviews with a number of our former keepers, which were conducted for either the club’s matchday programme or monthly magazine.
Before that, though, allow us to briefly recap of the modern history of Chelsea goalkeepers, why those who have occupied it over the years have been held in such esteem by Blues fans and what kind of mentality is needed to become a keeper.
The club’s first-ever Player of the Year was a goalkeeper – Bonetti, of course – in 1967 and the most recent shot-stopper to take home the prize was Petr Cech in 2011. Few would argue against their status as the top two keepers to represent the club.
Although a quarter of a century separates the two legends' spells in west London, that's not to say there was a lack of talent in between. Petar Borota, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Carlo Cudicini joined them in being voted Player of the Year by Blues fans, while Ed de Goey was the last line of defence in numerous cup successes.
There have been several other fine custodians in that period, too, all worthy of a mention: the homegrown Steve Francis, ever-loyal Kevin Hitchcock, England international Dave Beasant, tracksuit-bottom wearing Dmitri Kharine and the man between the sticks when Chelsea won our first FA Cup for 27 years, Frode Grodas.
It takes a different breed of athlete to want to play in goal. Think back to childhood games of football with your mates at the park and the phrase ‘two and in’ regularly being uttered, with each player on the pitch taking two-goal shifts between the posts. Even an injury wouldn't end your game – you could simply spend the rest of the match playing as the last line of defence.
So why would anyone want to take it up as a profession? It's undoubtedly the loneliest position on the pitch, with long spells of the game simply passing you by if your team is dominant in the attacking third. This, in turn, leaves you with far more opportunities to be the villain rather than the hero. It seems like a rather thankless task.
Well, it probably would be if it wasn't for the adoration bestowed upon whoever happens to be between the sticks for the Blues. Bonetti was the first goalkeeper to truly build up a relationship with his club's supporters, responding to the chanting of his name with a wave.
For the younger element of our fan base, can you recall the constant singing of Marco Ambrosio's name when the virtually unknown Italian took the gloves from the injured Cudicini at a critical point of the 2003/04 season? Despite his goalkeeping being of the slapstick variety at times, Ambrosio had unrelenting support from you guys.
It takes huge strength of character to fulfil a role where you can do everything right for 89 minutes, but one lapse of concentration can undo all of your good work. There are very few second chances in this most unforgiving of positions.
‘First of all, every goalie is a very good actor,’ was how Cudicini once explained a goalkeeper’s ability to deal with this. ‘You have to hide your feelings when you concede a goal, you have to show you are strong enough to cope with it.’
As if keeping the opposition out isn’t enough, goalkeepers nowadays are expected to be as good as an outfield player with the ball at their feet.
Well, we say nowadays. While pundits in recent years have raved about the sweeper-keepers who have become an essential part of modern football, Chelsea had our own ball-playing goalkeeper back in the 1980s.
The eccentric Borota was known to bounce the ball of his own crossbar mid-match and swing off that very same part of the goal frame during quiet periods in the game, among other idiosyncrasies.
But he wasn’t just some clown between the posts – he could really play, too. As the journalist John Moynihan of the Sunday Telegraph noted in his match report for an otherwise dull 1-0 win over Oldham: ‘Borota gave a good impression of a speedy winger, dummying the bemused forward and back-heeling the ball.’
Another big factor often overlooked when discussing goalkeepers is the fact that only one of them can ever play at one time, meaning someone has always had to accept the disappointment of missing out, even long before the days of squad rotation.
Take Hitchcock, for example. In 13 seasons at the Bridge, Hitchy made just 135 appearances – a tally that one of those who regularly featured in front of him, De Goey, had surpassed by the midway point of his third campaign with the club.
‘You want to show your peers you're good enough to do it,’ said Hitchcock, who was a hugely popular member of the dressing room. I was on the bench a long time, but as I got older I loved it, and when called upon I just tried to do my best.’
Having focussed on many of the negative aspects of goalkeeping, we don't want to put any youngsters off life between the sticks! As with any position in football, there are plenty of positives, too – notably when the accolades come your way.
‘It shows how appreciated you are by the supporters,’ said Niedzwiecki, who received his Chelsea Player of the Year award on crutches after suffering a serious knee injury which eventually ended his career.
‘One of the biggest things as a footballer is that you have a relationship with the fans. It's marvellous when you get the award, especially considering the amount of great attacking players in the squad. And without them you wouldn't have won it anyway, because you wouldn't have had that amount of work to do!’
Join us over the next few weeks as we delve deeper to find out just what it takes to be the last line of defence for Chelsea Football Club, as told by some of the men to have experienced it over the past few decades.