I am six years old. Our family struggles adjusting to a new environment. An exchange year, at a fledgling international school in Ibiza, an island in the Mediterranean off the east coast of Spain, does not pan out as anticipated. We pack up, move again, this time to England, to the greater London area. Mill Hill.
Things take time to settle. For me, attending the local elementary school is an intimidating experience. Yet, the playground, at recess and lunchtime, becomes a sanctuary. My classmates are infatuated with football, what I know as soccer. And they invite me to join their impromptu games. A seed is planted and so begins a love affair with the sport.
Three weeks later, an even bigger thrill. My father, a huge sports fan, secures tickets to a professional match. The two of us travel to Tottenham, to famous White Hart Lane, home of Spurs, one of the most famous clubs in the world.
Though almost six decades have since passed, I remember that Saturday vividly. The journey by bus and then train. Emerging from the local railway station an hour before the scheduled kick off. The stadium itself, a massive rectangular structure dwarfing the nearby buildings and houses.
We join the throng of spectators streaming to the ground, many wearing Tottenham scarves and rosettes. Edge along Worcester Avenue to the entrance gates. Me trembling with excitement and anticipation as we finally reach our seats high up in the East Stand.
The game begins.
Spurs control the play, launching waves of attacks. And so, it is perhaps not surprising that one player in particular catches my eye. He is the goalkeeper for Chelsea FC, the opposing team.
His name is Peter Bonetti.
Nicknamed the Cat, he is graceful, athletic and agile. Not big, less than 6’ tall and slight in build, he still dominates the penalty area, ranges off his line to safely catch or punch away crosses. He looks brave as well, diving in among a scrum of players to snaffle a loose ball. And he makes one especially brilliant, sharp reflex save, diving to his left at the last possible second to parry a powerful, close range volley.
He also eschews the traditional punt up field, preferring instead a relatively new maneuver, namely long, accurate, overhand throws from his goal area to teammates. One starts an important counterattack, with Chelsea registering a crucial away goal in a 1-1 draw.
So begins an informal, yet lifelong connection with my favourite player, and, by extension, my favourite team. For the rest of that 1964-65 season I follow Bonetti and Chelsea closely. It is almost as if my mood each week hinges on his and the team’s performance. Thankfully, the Blues capture the League Cup by virtue of a 3-2 aggregate victory over Leicester City, largely in part to an inspired effort by their goalkeeper in the high pressure, second leg.
That summer our family returns home to Canada. It becomes more difficult to follow the English and European football competitions. I am reduced to reading occasional back issues of The Times or The Telegraph newspapers, or forced to rely on other third-party information. The internet, and thus immediate access to all results and statistics, is still a long way off. Still, I glean that, while Chelsea is often in the hunt, major trophies generally elude the team. Yet, Bonetti plays superbly in two notable successes, first in an ill-tempered 1970 FA Cup vs Leeds United, then in the 1971 European Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid.
Bonetti is also part of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, though always in reserve to the incomparable Gordon Banks. Unfortunately, the last of his seven international caps comes four years later in the same international showcase, this time in the brutal heat and humidity of Leon, Mexico. With Banks sidelined by food poisoning, Bonetti is thrust with little warning into a quarterfinal pressure cooker vs Germany. I watch this match on an old black and white television, glued to the action. It is a crushing blow to see England surrender a 2-0 lead, with one of my boyhood heroes deemed responsible for costly errors, indeed labelled a villain by a cruel British public, in the 3-2 extra time defeat.
Yet, this does not dissuade me. I know what I see and what my impressionable young mind remembers. Of Chelsea playing attractive football, and, whenever it doesn’t or whenever it is under pressure, being rescued by its keeper. I take further solace in the words of Pele, the Brazilian superstar and greatest performer of all time. He lists Bonetti as one of the three best goalies he ever faced.
The Cat duly completes his Chelsea career in May 1979, after nineteen memorable seasons. In 729 games for the club, he records 208 shutouts.
As time passes, my own athletic interests turn more towards rugby, basketball and golf. Still, Chelsea is in my blood, and I remain aware of the club’s progress. Eventually, it regains its place as a force in the football world, especially with the arrival in 2003 of a big spending, new owner. He pours millions of euros into transfer fees for name players and hires a whole slew of high-profile coaches. Of this latter group, the most notable is Jose Mourinho, a charismatic and controversial Portuguese. The result is plenty of silverware, even if the dull, defensive, negative tactics draw plenty of criticism and the ire of neutrals.
On retirement, Bonetti dabbles in coaching, works as a postman, then, ever loyal, returns to Chelsea as an ambassador. But, in declining health, he dies in April 2020 at the age of 78.
As a result, he does not see, in person, Chelsea riding a late first half goal and iron clad defence to its very recent European title, a 2021 Champions League triumph over favoured Manchester City.
Still, I am confident that somewhere the Cat actually is watching, likely clad in his familiar green goalkeeping jersey. Perched in a box seat, high above, in heaven.
And, solely because of him, because of an unlikely connection made nearly 60 years ago, I watch as well.