The Cat

BY Vince Cooper

This is a chapter from the book ‘Blue Army’

The Worthing Catholic team which competed in the Sussex County League in the late 1950s was full of Bonettis. Dad Joe, then well into his 40s played regularly for the team and he was joined in the line-up by Robert, Francis, Adrian and Rene. So it was no surprise when Peter also made the line-up and perhaps the only place left for him was in goal, although he did also appear at centre-forward at times.

By then the son of Swiss-Italian parents, who was born in Putney and whose family had moved to the south coast when he was seven, was also on Chelsea’s books and he travelled with the club to compete in youth tournaments in Holland and France in 1959, signing professional forms in May of that year and flying out to Belgrade with the first team after then first-choice Reg Matthews was struck down by a skin complaint.

Peter, the third oldest of the five Bonetti boys had been working in his father’s sea-front cafe and playing for Reading Juniors when his mum wrote to Blues boss Ted Drake requesting a trial. He was quickly snapped up and a player who cost the club £20 would go on to give them 20 years of service, make over 700 starts and be part of, until recently, the most successful team in Chelsea’s history.

After joining the club he was asked by his local newspaper, the Worthing Chronicle, if he felt he had what it takes to make it:  “I think I can make the grade,” said the youngster before adding; “but you never can tell”.

In November 1959 Bonetti made his first-team debut appearing in a 4-2 friendly win over a British Olympic XI at Stamford Bridge. His first league appearance, when still only 17-years-old, came shortly after signing professional forms.

 

Close to the end of the 1959-60 season both Matthews and understudy Bill Robertson were injured so the youngster, who said ‘I can scarcely believe it’s true’ after being informed by Drake that he’d be starting, played in the 3-0 home win over Manchester City (and Denis Law), made a couple of crucial saves and kept his place for the last five matches of the campaign.

By the start of the following season he had taken over from former England international Matthews as Drake’s first choice and, despite challenges from the likes of Alex Stepney and John Phillips he would hold the post for almost 20 years.

However things didn’t start out too brightly for the youngster. In his first full season the Blues shipped a century of goals and in his second they fell just short of that, conceding 94 times as they finished plum last in the 1st Division and the club transitioned from Ted Drake to Tommy Docherty at the helm.

Disappointing club results didn’t reflect too badly on Bonetti however and he was called up to make his England Under-23 debut against Scotland in Aberdeen in February 1962 when still just 20. He would go on to make 12 starts for the national team’s youngsters. But, with the imperious Gordon Banks always ahead of him, the shotstopper would have to wait until 1966 to make his full debut when Sir Alf Ramsey selected him for the match against Denmark in Copenhagen on the pre-World Cup tour.

Having conceded almost 200 goals in two seasons Bonetti had a much different campaign in 1962-63. He started the season with three clean sheets and conceded a miserly 35 goals in the 39 league games he played in as the Blues made an immediate return to the top flight.

Back in the 1st Division he started 35 times as the team finished in a hugely impressive 5th place and then in 1964-65 picked up his first medal when the Blues beat Leicester City – and Banks – over two legs to capture the League Cup. That season also featured a 3rd placed finish in the League, just five points behind Champions Manchester United and a semi-final defeat to Liverpool in the F.A. Cup.

Chelsea continued to compete at the top end of the table, and in the latter stages of cup competitions both at home and abroad, throughout the second half of the 1960s. But they never managed to get ‘over the line’ with a disappointing F.A. Cup final loss to Tottenham Hotspur in 1967 the ‘lowlight’.

In the summer of 1966 manager Docherty shocked football by splashing out a record £50,000 to sign Alex Stepney from Millwall. Bonetti thought he would be sold, which seemed to appeal to him at the time having just been fined by the club for taking a week’s holiday after being part of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad. He had already requested a move before Stepney’s arrival saying ‘Everything is stale for me at Chelsea now’. It seemed that a switch to West Ham, who had also been in for Stepney, looked on the cards but the manager insisted he stay and stated that his plan was to play the pair on alternate weeks. After the newcomer had made a single appearance in a 3-0 win over Southampton he was sold to Manchester United with the Blues making a £5,000 profit.

Saving from former clubmate Jimmy Greaves

So, Bonetti remained the first choice. Small for a goalkeeper, his game was based on a tremendous sense of anticipation and superb agility and it is impossible to estimate how many points he earned Chelsea with his displays. One vivid personal memory was a match against West Ham United in December 1966. One of the most amazing matches I’d ever seen ended 5-5 and as we wandered home after the game everyone agreed, Bonetti was Man of the Match. Chelsea had five chances and scored five times whereas without the Cat it could well have finished 10-5 to the Hammers!

Perhaps an indication of his form at this time is that, in a team full of stars it was he who was awarded the Club’s inaugural Player of the Year award in 1967.

Peter saves a penalty from West Brom’s Tony Brown

Another key, and often overlooked part of his game was the ability to start attacks with accurate kicks, a legacy perhaps of those early Worthing Catholic days as an outfield player.

With Gordon Banks

The way to more international caps was, as ever, barred by Banks. Bonetti was a non-playing member of that 1966 World Cup winning squad and national team appearances were sparse. Two starts in May 1967 against Spain in the first leg of the European Championship quarter-final (John Hollins’ only cap) and Austria, in both of which, like his previous start against Denmark, he kept a clean sheet were followed by an appearance for an F.A. XI (basically the full England team) in a tournament they would eventually win in Montréal . The tournament is best remembered for an outburst by Sir Alf Ramsey. After a circus had been staged on the pitch the day before the first match the England manager initially refused to play angrily saying; ‘I will not allow my players to risk injury by playing on a disgraceful pitch that is covered in elephant shit’.

On England duty with Paul Reaney

In 1968 there was an appearance in the Bernabeu as England beat Spain 2-1 in the second leg of their European championship encounter then in 1969 Bonetti made a pair of starts against the Netherlands and Portugal, both resulting in 1-0 wins with his performance against the Dutch, who featured Johan Cruyff in their line-up, described in the press as ‘brilliant’.

Whilst the 1960s had been a great decade for Bonetti, 1970 was perhaps the defining year of his career. By now Docherty had left and Dave Sexton took over in the managerial hot seat. He led the team back to Wembley, playing some cavalier football. In the final against the mighty Leeds, the Blues played on a pitch decimated by a recent Show Jumping event. The match, variously described as ‘brutal’ or ‘a classic’, finished 2-2 with some fine Bonetti saves (perhaps helped by his Montréal experience) keeping his team in the hunt.

Injured in the FA Cup final replay

The replay, at Old Trafford, was perhaps even more foul-filled than the first match and Bonetti was clattered early on and bundled into the net by Leeds striker Mick Jones. For a while it seemed that the ‘keeper would have to leave the match, but with help from Harry Medhurst he was patched up and carried on. Moments later, clearly still suffering from the injury he was unable to reach a Jones shot and his team were behind for a third time having trailed twice at Wembley. But a Peter Osgood goal 12 minutes from time brought Chelsea level again and when David Webb ‘headed’ a long throw from Ian Hutchinson over the line with a minute to go of the first half of extra time Leeds’ hearts were broken and the Cup was Chelsea’s.

Roughly six weeks after the Cup win England had reached the quarter-final of the World Cup in Mexico. Gordon Banks went down with food poisoning and understudy Bonetti was called in at the last minute having not played competitively since Old Trafford.

In stiflingly hot conditions, goals from Alan Mullery and Martin Peters put England ahead. A speculative shot from Franz Beckenbauer somehow eluded Bonetti and then a header from Uwe Seeler freakishly looped over him and into the net to send the match into extra time. When Gerd Muller slammed home a third with 12 minutes remaining in the extra period there was no way back and the World Cup holders were out.

Whilst there’s no doubt that Bonetti at his best and sharpest would have saved at least one of the goals, manager Ramsey must take a share of the blame. The removal of Bobby Charlton and Peters clearly affected England’s control of the match. But it was the goalkeeper who shouldered the brunt of the criticism in the national press and it proved to be Peter’s last start for his country.

One for the cameras

Back at The Bridge the new season started with a 2-1 Charity Shield defeat to champions Everton where Bonetti was beaten at his near post by an Alan Whittle shot for the first goal. More questions about the ‘keeper. But then he and the club turned things around, finishing 6th in the league and beating Real Madrid in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup In Athens, after a replay of course (this Chelsea team never did things the easy way). It was also during this season the now-29-year-old made his 500th appearance for the club, but there were lots more to come.

The 1970-71 season saw the first of two testimonials for The Cat when Chelsea lost 2-1 to Standard Liège in front of 18,363 fans and there was also a joint testimonial match for Bonetti and Surrey wicketkeeper Arnold Long at The Oval where the Blues played their hosts at cricket and 5-a-side football. Eight years later the player was awarded a second benefit, this time the opposition was Manchester United and 10,652 were on hand to see Chelsea win 5-3

The following season saw the ‘keeper again in outstanding form as Chelsea reached another final, this time succumbing to Stoke City in the League Cup decider at Wembley with Gordon Banks gaining revenge for that defeat when he was with Leicester seven years before.

The remainder of the 70s was a tough time to be a Chelsea fan, or a Chelsea goalkeeper for that matter with one brief high spot.

Bonetti moved into the veteran stage and left the club halfway through the 1974-75 relegation season, joining St Louis Stars in the NASL. When Eddie McCreadie took over as boss he brought his teammate back and the old hand provided a calming influence for the exciting young team the Scot built. After winning promotion McCreadie left in unfortunate circumstances and another relegation followed in 1978-79. It was towards the end of that season that the goalkeeper made his 729th and final appearance, in a 1-1 home draw with Arsenal and Stamford Bridge said goodbye to ‘The Cat’.

The next move was to Scotland where he took over a guest house on the Isle of Mull. He signed for Dundee United but made just two appearances for the club before suffering a hand injury and losing his place to Hamish McAlpine. So he decided to hang up his gloves.

After retirement Bonetti worked at a number of clubs as coach including Newcastle United, Fulham, Manchester City and Chelsea. He also made a brief comeback in 1986 when, at the age of 44 he made two appearances for Woking.

Snapping teammate Ray Wilkins

Peter Bonetti was around for more than one era at Chelsea. His career at the club straddled the precocious talents of Jimmy Greaves, Peter Osgood and Ray Wilkins, he played a part in three major cup wins and suffered three relegations. He was there for the best of times and the worst. For English supporters of other teams his reputation might have been tarnished by that fateful day in Leon, but for Chelsea fans there will only ever be one ‘Cat’.

Peter Bonetti sadly passed away in April 2020 but he left behind some fabulous memories among Blues’ fans who, although of course mourning his passing, were also reminded that for 20 years, the Cat was theirs.