Guest post by Colin Hopkins
As a young boy growing up I had always one desire when it came to football – to grow up to be a top goalkeeper. Yes, I was one of the mad few who took delight in having thunderous shots fired at me from all distances, who loved feeling the thud of a stray boot flying in near my face as I fell heavily to the ground to prevent a certain goal. Call me crazy if you like but that was my dream, a dream sadly scuppered when height spurts stopped and at a vertically challenged height of only five foot , six and a half inches (don’t forget that important half inch!) I realised I was never to achieve my ambitions.
Given this background I hope you can understand as to why I always take a special interest in goalkeepers, especially those who have guarded the net of my beloved Chelsea over the years. I have saw them come and go, I have witnessed some who have been simply amazing, others mediocre and others still as daft as a brush. Some have coerced me to jump off my seat in sheer ecstasy whilst others I have almost been forced to watch from behind the sofa given their performances.
For me this whole love story with goalkeepers started with a man whom I still regard as my favourite all time Chelsea goalkeeper, the legend that is “The Cat” – Peter Philip Bonetti, and yes I fully appreciate that will give you an idea as to my own personal vintage! It was Peter whom I, as a young boy all those years ago, longed to be like – the agility, the bravery, the skill – oh how I longed to be half the keeper he was.
I recall well to this day that sense of pride when he was named in the England team to take on West Germany in the 1970 World cup and then after that match the sense of hurt as it seemed the whole nation turned on him blaming him for the 3-2 defeat. As someone from Northern Ireland I don’t deny not being too concerned generally when England are playing but on that occasion with Peter in the ranks I cheered them as loudly as any native Englishman.
To follow this undoubted legend in filling the Chelsea gloves was always going to be a tough act but let’s face it the next few ‘keepers at the Bridge were hard to watch – John Phillips, Steve Sherwood, Bob Iles – need I say more? Of course Bonetti did return for a spell but, for me anyhow, the magic had gone, “the cat” had lost his cream.
Then in the late 1970’s enter a new hero, albeit one who was as crazy as a box of frogs, Petar Barota. Signed from Partizan Belgade in an era where signing overseas players was seldom heard of, Petar soon won over the Chelsea faithful albeit through a mixture of brilliance and madness which were more often than not displayed in the same game. I can recall games looking at the net and thinking “Where’s the keeper?” only to then look up and see him 20 yards outside of his penalty box in left or right midfield. Yes he was brilliant, yes he was crazy but for me recalling Petar always brings back smiles, no wonder he won the Player of the season in 1981, Sadly Petar is no longer with us having passed away in 2010 at the age of only 56 years old.
After Petar we endured a few more barren years of average keepers – Steve Francis, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Tony Godden, Roger Freestone, Dave Beasant and Kevin Hitchcock. That said I am probably being a bit unfair here in including “Steady” Eddie Niedzwiecki in that list. Eddie really never let us down and indeed played a major part in our securing that return to the old first division in 1984 playing in every game in Division two that season and conceding less than a goal a game along the way. Sadly injury was to blight, and indeed eventually end, his Chelsea career which in turn probably ended his chances of being looked upon as one of Chelsea’s elite guardians.
The forever tracksuit bottomed Dmitri Kharine was the man to replace Hitchcock between the posts but once again he was too inconsistent for my liking – I guess I found it hard to respect a goalkeeper who didn’t want to get his legs dirty!
Frode Grodas followed, I had almost forgotten him when writing this to be honest such was his minimal impact although to his credit he did keep a clean sheet in our trophy drought breaking FA Cup final win over Middlesbrough in 1997. This however was to be his final bow in Chelsea colours when in June we witnessed the arrival of the Dutchman Ed de Goey.
Ed went onto become our regular guardian and was a key member of the team of the team which won the 1998 League cup and Cup winners cup and in 2000 the FA Cup. Sadly after three superb seasons Ed’s form began to wane and he was eventually replaced by the Italian Carlo Cudicini who, like his predecessor, started his Chelsea career well only to see it peter out albeit having secured a Premiership Goalkeeper of the year award and a fans Player of the year award along the way.
By now the Roman Abramovich era had begun and it was no surprise when Chelsea brought in the living legend that we all know now as Petr Cech in July 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history. For me personally Petr was easily our best goalkeeper since Bonetti and this is fully borne out with his medal count over his 11 year career span at Chelsea. League winners medals, FA Cup winners medals, League cup winners medals, Europa League winners medal and the most notable of all – a European Champions league winners medal in 2012. I cried the night we won that final as I’m sure most of us did and Petr’s heroics of saving Robben’s spot kick in extra time and those penalty saves in the shoot out will always be ingrained in our collective memories.
Despite eventually leaving to make way for the unsettled Thibaut Courtois and going, of all places to Arsenal, Petr Cech will forever be a true Chelsea legend and I’ve no doubt we will all wish him well in his retirement which he announced in the last few days
Next up on our list enter Thibaut Courtois whom we signed in July 2011 but then, in typical Chelsea fashion, we allowed to go on loan for a period of no less than 3 years. He returned to Chelsea in June 2014 and it was clear from his return that he wasn’t prepared to play second fiddle to the then ageing Cech. A new 5 year contract was signed by Courtois and he went straight into the team staying there as our main goalkeeper for some three seasons during which he picked up 2 x Premier league titles, an FA Cup winners medal and a League cup medal. Despite this however I personally still saw too many weaknesses in his game – a tendency to allow shots go in at his near post and too many goals being conceded through his legs meant I shed no tears when he announced he wanted to head to Spain where Real Madrid where waiting for him.
And so we arrived in the summer of 2018 and a new era began as we witnessed the arrival of a new baby faced shot stopper in Kepa Arrizabalaga.
I must admit I had serious concerns about paying a rumoured £71 million pound and offering a seven year contract to bring a fresh faced untried 23 year old into the heat of the premier league but I have to say now credit where it is due and admit that he has settled in well. Yes it’s way too early to talk of him in any form of legendary status but so far so good with 10 clean sheets and only 17 goals conceded in 22 league appearances so far. Kepa seems calm, collected and very much in control and if that initial start continues for the duration of his seven year contract then I have no doubt we will look back and say that was money well spent come 2025!
Of course there have been others along the way who haven’t made this list, Hilario, Green, Schwarzer, Caballero, Eduardo, Begovic, Sullivan to name but a few but with time against me I have opted, given their limited impact, not to include them – I hope you feel the same way!
Anyhow that’s my recollections of the men between the sticks in recent, and not so recent times, I hope it brought back some memories of those who have “kept” the blue flag flying high!