International Football

Peter Bonetti and death in the afternoon

Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti was a fine goalkeeper: agile, occasionally flashy, brave and consistent. But for World Cup winner Gordon Banks, he would have won more than his seven England caps – and this was in an age when decent English-born custodians came off the production line like Ford Cortinas.

Unfortunately for Bonetti,  he will be remembered by fans from most clubs for one career-defining and steamy afternoon in Mexico more than his long and successful tenure in the Chelsea goal. It is a disaster invariably mentioned when England meet Germany.  Bonetti has rarely spoken of that World Cup quarter-final tie – the moment that England let go of the Jules Rimet trophy, never to get a glimpse of it again – and in interviews, he’s not pressed on the subject. Some people trace the decline of the England national team to that very game: England 2 West Germany 3, June 14 1970.

But poor old Bonetti has been tainted by that below-par performance in Mexico. I don’t doubt that “The Cat of Stamford Bridge” often wakes up in a cold sweat after dreaming of Gerd Muller, Uwe Seeler or Franz Beckenbauer all screaming “Tor!” in the dead of night, or of Sir Alf Ramsey snubbing him – terminally – after the game. Actually, quiet man Ramsey’s advice was “don’t let it affect the rest of your career”.  But it did, for Bonetti never played for England again as Ramsey had the likes of Peter Shilton waiting in the wings.

Let’s examine that game in Leon. Bonetti was thrust into action because Banks went down with food poisoning. It was hot…very hot, and England had a few older lags in their ranks. It was a huge game and importantly, it was West Germany’s chance to avenge 1966.

With England leading 2-0, Beckenbauer’s strike, after he had accelerated past Alan Mullery, was low and hard, but Bonetti should have done better. He may, just may, have been slightly unsighted, or even distracted by the onrushing Muller, but it was this goal, and this goal alone, that Bonetti apologized for as the ball skidded under him.  But he couldn’t really use the “greasy jersey” excuse of the 1927 Arsenal keeper when Cardiff City netted their shock winning goal in the cup final.  Sun-baked Leon probably hadn’t seen rain in months!

As for Seeler’s goal, it was a trademark back-header that caught Bonetti and the England defence off guard. Karl-Heinz Schnellinger’s  cross should have been cut-out by an England defender and Seeler didn’t have to labour to meet the ball. Bonetti was not especially out of position, but few people would have expected Seeler to send his header goalwards with such a trajectory. Brian Labone complained as Bonetti retrieved the ball, but he seemed to be remonstrating at the flat-footed defender rather than the yellow-shirted Bonetti.

And so, the winner. Juergen Grabowski turned Terry Cooper inside-out, the cross was headed back into the centre and an unmarked Muller volleyed home, waist-high from six yards. Bonetti  had no chance. But he was cruelly exposed as Muller had more space than a striker could expect in such close proximity to goal. And Muller certainly knew how to hit the ball – he wasn’t called Der Bomber for nothing!

So yes, Bonetti may not have been at his best, but then neither was the England defence. 005_peter_bonettiOf the three goals, the first could have been stopped, but the others? It’s debatable. Should he have been discarded so easily by England? Probably not.

Until Mexico, Bonetti’s England career had been impeccable, conceding one goal in six games. He had been a member of the 1966 squad, but never played a game in the finals. The 1969-70 season was arguably his finest for Chelsea, coming a year after being voted the club’s greatest ever player. He won the FA Cup with the Blues after two titanic battles against Leeds United, sustaining a nasty injury when Mick Jones launched into him early on in the game. He bravely played on and Chelsea won 2-1 in one of the most brutal games seen on TV.

Perhaps there is no coincidence that the following season, 1970-71, was not a great one for Bonetti. He played 28 league games, largely due to injury and illness, and for the first time in years, had a contender for his green jersey at Stamford Bridge, John Phillips. It was the beginning of the end for Bonetti, for whereas he rarely missed a game for Chelsea, his position was now under threat. By the time the next World Cup came around, his first spell at the club was coming to an end.

Bonetti’s reputation at Chelsea was so massive that until Peter Cech came along, he was still widely considered to be their finest goalkeeper. For sheer agility alone, there have been few to match him anywhere in the English game. And if he had played more than seven games for England, one moment of error would not be allowed to blemish the record of a model professional. Believe it or not, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton also made mistakes. As it is, Mexico 1970 will – rather unfairly – always be the shadow hanging over Bonetti. They talk about cats having nine lives, but this footballing feline was only allowed seven in an England shirt….

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