OBITUARY: Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti will be fondly remembered for his reflexes, gravity-defying saves and incredible legacy at Chelsea – after bouncing back from being made a scapegoat for 1970 World Cup exit
- Former Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Bonetti died on Sunday at the age of 78
- Bonetti played 729 games for Chelsea in two spells over the course of 19 years
- ‘The Cat’ was non-playing member of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad
- He will be fondly remembered for his sharp reflexes and as Chelsea’s quiet hero
Peter Bonetti knew that not all cats have nine lives so he fought tooth and claw for the one God gave him.
That long battle with Alzheimers ended this Easter Sunday, at 78, and football is in mourning for a goalkeeper so acrobatic and gravity-defying that Chelsea did indeed call him The Cat.
His final resting place is in the West Midlands. Several years ago a Chelsea fan visiting a relative in Bloxwich Hospital for dementia chanced upon Bonetti in the ward and reported: ‘He looked terribly unwell but seemed happy watching a video of the FA Cup final against Leeds.’
Former England goalkeeper Peter Bonetti died on Sunday aged 78 after battle with Alzheimer’s
Bonetti was nicknamed ‘The Cat’ for his incredible reflexes and gravity-defying saves
Bonetti is a legend at Chelsea after making 729 appearances in two spells over 19 years
It was poignant insight, even though our informant was uncertain whether he was looking at the 1970 Wembley draw or the Old Trafford replay. It hardly mattered.
Bonetti made the flying saves which defied Don Revie’s rampant team first time out. Then, despite badly wrenching a knee in the first minutes of the replay, he repeated those miracles through to the end of extra-time to cement the unlikeliest of 2-1 glories.
For that, his family apart, Chelsea are the most bereaved. There were more silver-winning exploits in Bonetti’s totals of 19 years and 729 appearances in two spells at Stamford Bridge.
Uncannily, at the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, The Cat kept Real Madrid at bay through two similarly fraught extra-time matches, both in Athens.
Bonetti put in an amazing display in 1970 FA Cup final replay win despite injuring his knee
That remarkable body of work offsets the one grievous disappointment of his career. Bonetti, having been mostly kept understudying for the England jersey by Gordon Banks, was suddenly called upon to take the greatest goalie’s place against West Germany in the swelter of the 1970 World Cup quarter final in Mexico.
Bonetti, a non-playing member of England’s only World Cup-winning squad of ’66, found himself plunged into a cauldron of controversy.
Banks, who was being exalted for the ‘impossible’ save from Pele’s header in a group match against Brazil, was taken ill with crippling stomach pains on the eve of the German game.
Rumours and accusations of dirty tricks abounded, with claims that Banks had been poisoned. Bonetti was projectiled into the biggest match of his life in only his seventh international appearance.
Bonetti was part of a golden era of English goalkeepers and did battle with Gordon Banks
Bonetti pictured lining up in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final in Mexico in place of Banks
‘Safe as the Banks of England,’ the fans were used to chanting. That changed to ‘Don’t let us down, Cat.’
The heat was on but all went well for England as they took a two-goal lead. All turned ugly for Bonetti as the Germans came back to draw level and then score a third in extra time.
Bonetti gallantly admitted liability for the first German goal but although manager Alf Ramsey came under fire for prematurely substituting Bobby Charlton to save him for a semi-final which never came, The Cat was the scapegoat-in-chief. It mattered not that he had kept clean sheets in his six preceding England games.
It could not have happened to a less deserving, more self-facing gentleman footballer. It took a mighty effort of will for him to knuckle down and continue building a brilliant, lasting legacy with Chelsea and at brief stops elsewhere on the way to becoming a coach. First at the Bridge and then, somewhat ironically, for a while with England.
Bonetti (right) lifts the FA Cup with Ron Harris after Chelsea beat Leeds to win trophy in 1970
The national mood had long been softened by sympathy by the time he and the rest of the reserves of ’66 were eventually presented with their long overdue World Cup winners’ medals.
Small of stature for a keeper, at under 6ft, The Cat compensated by developing not only extraordinary agility but an acute sense of anticipation which enabled him to climb above the giants in his penalty area to make catches which nipped in the bud aerial attacks on his goal.
When the shots came in he either flew to deflect them or clasped them with lightning reflexes. His athleticism enabled him to patent the over-arm throw to team-mates which he employed more often than the traditional long hoofs up-field.
Bonetti was a quiet man among the young jet-set Chelsea team who hit the King’s Road running in the 60s and 70s. As such, when the football work dried up, he retreated with his family to the Isle of Mull, where he became a postman.
Far from the madding crowds settled The Cat who had most – though sadly not all – the cream.
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