It was Peter Bonetti’s misfortune that despite his goalkeeping agility – his nickname “the Cat” was well deserved – and despite the many matches he played (more than 700 for Chelsea), he is remembered above all for a disastrous hot day in Mexico in the World Cup of 1970, a match in which Bonetti, who has died aged 78, should not even have been playing.
It was the quarter-final of the World Cup against West Germany, whom England had beaten four years earlier at Wembley in the final. The first-choice England goalkeeper was the unrivalled Gordon Banks but on the morning of the match in Léon, scheduled absurdly for the intense heat of noon and at a breathless altitude, Banks was to be seen outside the England team hotel, pallid of countenance, walking slowly across the lawn as he was supported by the anxious England doctor, Neil Phillips. He was suffering from food poisoning.
So it was that Bonetti played instead of Banks, though hardly in the ideal condition to do so, as he had not had a game for some time. When England squandered a 2-0 lead to lose to West Germany 3-2, Bonetti was largely made the villain of the piece.
He was seriously at fault for the first German goal, when he allowed Franz Beckenbauer’s low, unexceptional shot to run under his body. The second German goal, however, scored by the stocky centre-forward Uwe Seeler, was something of a freak. When Karl-Heinz Schnellinger lobbed the ball into the English goalmouth, Bonetti, off his line, was arguably out of position, but the back header with which Seeler scored was bizarre. And besides, it could be argued that a flagging England defence failed to move up in time to put Seeler offside.
As for the third and decisive German goal, it had as much to do with the defenders’ weariness as with Bonetti’s positioning. Terry Cooper, the England left-back, who should surely have been substituted, was too tired to prevent West Germany’s inspired substitution, the outside-right Jürgen Grabowski, from crossing. Bonetti did not get to the high ball, Hannes Löhr headed it back, and the prolific Gerd Müller volleyed fiercely home.
It would prove to be Bonetti’s seventh and last game for England. But his international record, until it came to Léon, had been excellent. The first match came in July 1966, a 2-0 victory against Denmark in Copenhagen, and before the Léon match he had conceded only one goal in his previous six.
Standing 5 ft 10 ½in tall and weighing 11 stone, he was something of a contrast with the giant goalkeepers to whom we have become accustomed, but he was brave and spectacular and, pre-Léon, had shown no signs of nervousness. He had also been a member of the victorious 1966 England World Cup squad, although Banks had played all the matches in that tournament.
Born in Putney, south-west London, to Swiss parents, Bonetti moved with his family, as a child, to the Sussex coast, where his parents opened a cafe in Worthing. His talents as a goalkeeper were soon apparent in local schoolboy football and he was enlisted by Reading for its youth teams. Then, after his mother had written to Chelsea asking them to give her son a trial, he was signed at Stamford Bridge.
In the 1960-61 season, at the age of 19, he became the first-team goalkeeper. Chelsea were relegated to the Second Division but, under the managership of Tommy Docherty, they at once returned to the First. Bonetti’s later relations with Docherty became difficult – I remember an untypical outburst from him one day, after training, in a cafe near Stamford Bridge.
Initially, however, a young Chelsea team flourished under Docherty and in 1965 Bonetti played a significant part in helping them win the League Cup final, then a two-legged affair, against Leicester City. That achievement was outshone when his inspired goalkeeping enabled Chelsea, after a replay in the final against Leeds in 1970, at last to gain the FA Cup which had eluded them since their foundation in 1905.
Bonetti was just as good when, in Athens in May 1971, Chelsea beat the formidable Real Madrid to take the European Cup Winners’ Cup. His last game in goal for Chelsea was against Arsenal in May 1979 – his 729th for the club, during which he had kept clean sheets in 200 matches, conceding one goal or fewer in more than two-thirds of his appearances. In 1975 he briefly left Chelsea on a free transfer for a spell in the US with the St Louis Stars, but returned the following year.
He played five games for Dundee United in 1979, and on retirement he lived on the Isle of Mull, where he worked as a postman.
He then became a goalkeeping coach with Manchester City, Chelsea and the England team, and in 1986, at the age of 45, appeared for non-league Woking as they beat Weymouth 1-0 in the FA Cup.
Latterly he worked on match days at Chelsea in the hospitality section.
With his second wife, Kay (nee McDowell), whom he married in 1992, he had a son, Scott, and he had four children, Suzanne, Kim, Nicholas and Lisa, from his first marriage, to Frances Jennings, which ended in divorce.
• Peter Phillip Bonetti, footballer, born 27 September 1941; died 12 April 2020