It is with fond memories and immense sadness that Pat Nevin writes his column this week, the company of Peter Bonetti still fresh in his mind...
There is only one man I can talk about this week and it is of course our legendary goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, who we have sadly lost. I was fortunate to get to know ‘The Cat’ personally when I arrived at Chelsea because at that point he was just returning as the first team’s goalkeeping coach. I immediately recognised not only a club legend but quite possibly the nicest person I had met in the game of football. John Hollins was also just coming back at that precise moment and between them you could not have met two more decent honorable people, even though they were already giant figures in the club’s history.
Peter was still diving about in training with his legendary litheness even though by then he was well into his forties. I didn’t even consider it unusual at the time but it was astonishing for a man who had played for our club 729 times, done countless training sessions over a 20-year football career, represented England during the country’s greatest international football period, taken a huge amount of knocks and yet there he was still with his agile athleticism unaffected.
As you will all know by now, he had the second most appearances by any player in the history of Chelsea Football Club after Ron Harris and it is hard to imagine anyone ever beating those numbers.
Back in the early 1980s, as principal coach to our keepers, our new stopper Eddie Neidzwiecki probably benefitted more than anyone else from his time back at the club and there was a special bond between the two. Peter loved being around the place again and it was particularly special when he went out to help warm up Eddie pre match - the fans loved getting a chance to see him again. We got to see him most days at training and if he was needed in goal for one of the bounce games at the training ground, trust me, nobody had the temerity to take it easy on the ‘old’ man. He was still quality and still hard to beat.
It is hard to imagine it now but as I arrived at Chelsea as a 19-year-old. I had to get my head around the idea that this was the actual Peter Bonetti! The man who had played for England in a World Cup quarter-final, played for Chelsea in ‘that’ 1970 FA Cup Final, whose name was as legendary as Osgood and Cooke and whose trademark goalkeeping gloves I had bought as a kid more than a decade earlier. And I wasn’t even a goalkeeper, but they were so cool and more importantly so innovative and effective, just like the man himself when he was between the sticks.
Much has been written about his career by others on this site and indeed in the world’s press over the last couple of days. He certainly isn’t one of those ex-players that I have been writing about in recent weeks that we could ever have forgotten about. The trophies and the stylish impact he made was unforgettable.
When I say stylish, I don’t mean it in the way it was portrayed by many footballers of that era. The seventies had the big drinkers, constantly being showy and laddish with their fast cars and as they used to say, even faster women. Peter was the opposite, more than stylish he was classy. In fact, he was a gentleman with a caring attitude towards everyone he came across.
It came as no surprise to me when I discovered that a little later in life the haunts of King’s Road weren’t really a great draw to him, and he had instead chosen the life of a postman on the idyllic remote Scottish Isle of Mull. You couldn’t get two more opposite lifestyles on these islands, yet that rural beauty seemed perfectly suited to his personality at the time. He was often quiet, unassuming, personable and perfectly normal away from the madness of the fast-paced football world, but he was still a strong enough character when the moment needed it.
When you come to the end of a well-lived life and no-one seems to have ever had a bad word to say about you, then you were certainly a genuinely good person. To be as talented as he was with no sign of egotism or arrogance, raises him to the level of a great man in my eyes, and the eyes of many others too.
It was great to see him back representing the club in the hospitality boxes at Stamford Bridge for a good few years in the modern Premier League era. Many generations of fans old and new go into those areas and even though he wasn’t the tallest or most imposing looking goalkeeper in history, he was still very recognisably ‘The Cat’. He was always noticed and respected as soon as he walked into any of those rooms, decades after his last game at the Bridge. Everyone always knew who he was, he never had to promote himself.
To this day, the photos of him around the ground pay tribute to just how loved he was and how much respect all of football had for those groundbreaking goalkeeping techniques. No, he wasn’t the tallest at just under 5ft 11in, but that agility and his speed of movement gave hope to many who weren’t giants, but still wanted to be pro keepers.
I played with one of them, Neville Southall, when I was at Everton. He was just a little taller than Peter and was a totally different shape, but he also had a superhuman athleticism and agility that made up for those couple of lost inches in height. Neville was the best in the world for a while and he today is as devastated as anyone else in losing a mentor. As he put it himself, ‘Peter was lovely, lovely guy. A fabulous goalkeeper. A great coach. A truly fantastic gentleman. Thanks for all your help.’ They worked together on a goalkeeping documentary and Nev clearly held Peter in the highest regard. I know Neville, and not many are given that deep level of respect.
Petr Cech, also for a time the best keeper in the world, and also a friend of Peter’s, was similarly respectful towards a man whose heyday was long before he was even born.
We will all have our own personal memories of Peter Bonetti and I fortunately have many of the man himself which I feel honoured to have.
As for his football career, well there is a picture of him in black and white in The Copthorne Hotel at the club. Every time I walk past that picture I stop in wonderment. He is diving backwards, in midair, elegantly arched, eye on the ball, seemingly floating a little bit too high above the ground for a mere mortal, with I think Eddie McCreadie in the background amazed by the save. The moment encapsulated Peter performing at his best where he was most loved.
I have always walked past that picture only to stop, shake my head and smile every time. It will feel even more poignant now. Peter we all miss you.