The 1978/79 season was a truly dreadful one for Chelsea. Don’t take my word for it, look at the facts: a measly twenty points garnered from a 42-match league campaign, relegated at Easter and with 92 goals conceded throughout the season (champions Liverpool let in just 16!); these were dark days at Stamford Bridge.
With the Blues plunging headfirst towards their second relegation of the Seventies, having begun the decade in cup-winning style both domestically and in Europe, chairman Brian Mears took the decision to remove struggling manager Ken Shellito just before Christmas 1978, and replace him with former Tottenham and Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower. Depending on your viewpoint, it was an appointment based on little more than a romantic notion, which ultimately backfired, or it was an appointment steeped in incompetence and stupidity. Shellito was clearly not experienced enough to cope with the rigours of managing a big club in demise; a task that required keeping Chelsea out of the relegation zone with a squad of primarily youthful, inexperienced and unproven boys, whilst selling some of the few crown jewels available to him in order to service the debt which had hung over the entire club since the ill-fated development of the East Stand, earlier in the decade. However, if Shellito didn’t have the required skills and experience to cope with the lofty demands of the job, neither did the man brought in to replace him.
With the exception of a brief spell as part-time manager of Northern Ireland, Danny Blanchflower’s only involvement in football since retiring as a top level player in 1964 had been as a journalist, writing about the game he had graced for 15 years. Inevitably, the Irishman’s tenure was no more successful than that of his predecessor. But were he still with us, Blanchflower could at least point to the fact that he was responsible for signing one of the biggest entertainers the Chelsea supporters have had the opportunity to witness in the history of the club. The original Big Pete between the Stamford Bridge sticks: Petar Borota.
Blanchflower signed the burly Yugoslav with the face of a Bond villain in March 1979, after Peter Bonetti announced that he would be hanging up his well-worn gloves at the end of the season. The cash-strapped Blues cobbled together £70,000 to procure Borota’s services from Partizan Belgrade, and immediately threw him in at the deep end, with a debut at home to mighty Liverpool.
The matchday programme for the Liverpool clash made great play of the fact that Bonetti’s exuberant replacement shared the same initials as his illustrious predecessor; but realistically, that was where the similarity ended. For all his famed cat-like agility, Bonetti was an understated character who prided himself on his reliability. By contrast, Borota was an eccentric personality, who felt it was his duty to entertain the Chelsea supporters for the time that he was out on the pitch. For a set of supporters deprived of real entertainment for too long, he was like a gift from the Gods – and a new cult hero was born.
Borota made an auspicious start to his Chelsea career, keeping a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with the champions-elect; but the next five games all ended in defeat, culminating in a 6-0 thrashing by Nottingham Forest.
After relegation was confirmed, Borota played the remainder of his Chelsea career in the Second Division. It was a bleak period for the club, with occasional glimpses of promise regularly being overshadowed by poor displays and embarrassing defeats.
Geoff Hurst replaced Blanchflower in September 1979, and the former England striker was clearly impressed by his new goalkeeper. For a man who had played alongside Gordon Banks at both club and country level, it must have been strange for Hurst to witness his goalkeeper rushing forty yards off his goal-line to intercept a pass, or back-heeling the ball to Micky Droy when he could sense that a touch of boredom was setting in amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful.
But not only did Hurst rate Borota, in the summer of 1980 – after Chelsea had just failed on goal difference to clinch promotion back to the top-flight – he made him his captain. By now a firm crowd favourite, Borota was genuinely touched when he recalled the moment he received the news: ‘When Geoff Hurst say to me about being made captain, I tell him “do I hear right – me, captain of Chelsea Football Club?” I don’t believe it, but I am so happy and proud to accept. I love this club, and my feelings for Chelsea are so strong that some days this summer I come to Stamford Bridge to walk alone on the pitch, look at the grass and up at the big stands, and dream a little of great days ahead.”
Despite an excellent start to the new season, when Chelsea stormed to the top of the table under Borota’s captaincy, they fell away embarrassingly, embarking on a run in which they scored in just three of their final 22 league games. Throughout this period, there was little else to keep the Chelsea fans entertained and amused other than the sight of their goalkeeper’s eccentric displays.
When things were going well, in particular during a 6-0 thrashing of Newcastle United in November, Borota was the picture of joy, celebrating wildly on the pitch as the goals flew past a bemused United keeper; and when things began to implode, he took it upon himself to try to drag the club out of the mire. Against Cardiff City, with the Bluebirds clinging on to a one-nil lead, Borota raced forward to join the Chelsea attack for a corner at the North Stand end of Stamford Bridge, just failing to connect with Clive Walker’s in-swinging set-piece – but when he again raced out of his goal to launch an attack against Watford, the inevitable finally happened as he was dispossessed by the Hornets’ Malcolm Poskett, who rolled the ball gently into an empty net, consigning the Blues to yet another defeat.
The howler against Watford aside, 1980/81 was a far better campaign for Petar Borota than it was for the club as a whole, as he broke Peter Bonetti’s club record of 16 clean sheets in a season. But perhaps the most notable mark of the esteem in which the affable man in the Chelsea number one shirt was now held by the Blues’ supporters, came in an FA Cup match at Southampton in January, when he stepped in to quell a mini-riot that was breaking out amongst the travelling fans behind his goal.
Borota’s Chelsea career came to an abrupt end early in the 1981/82 season, after a 6-0 defeat at Rotherham. It was an ignominious goalkeeping performance within an infamous team display, but Borota’s part in it can perhaps be explained by the comments of our former midfielder, Dale Jasper, in Chelsea Here, Chelsea There: ‘I remember getting my mates tickets for Rotherham years ago, when we lost 6-0. I think I was probably in the reserves then but I got a couple of the lads to leave them tickets, about six of them. I remember they had a nightmare getting there and a nightmare getting home. This was before my time even, I think I might have just broken into the reserves, and they used to give you a nip of scotch in your cup of tea before the game when it was cold. Anyway, before the game someone has said “Where’s Petar Borota?” and they’re looking for him everywhere; he’s in the shower room and he’s finished the bottle. That’s a true story. I saw the goals in the news that night and I thought ‘What are you doing?’ I knew he was mad-cap, the fella, but I thought ‘What is he doing with them crosses?’ I’d never seen anything like it! When I asked the players in training on the Monday, they said he was paralytic drunk.’
Petar Borota was replaced soon after by young Steve Francis, before moving to Brentford on a free-transfer the following summer. However, his Griffin Park career had barely begun when Benfica came knocking, and the eccentric Yugoslav moved to Portugal without having made a single appearance for the Bees. Happily, he returned to London soon after, as a spectator in the East Stand on the day that promotion back to the top-flight was sealed in April 1984. As the fans on the pitch celebrated a crushing 5-0 victory over rivals Leeds United, Borota was able to receive one final cheer from the fans who had taken him to their hearts just a few years earlier.
A truly remarkable man, Petar was a talented abstract artist, who had his work displayed in London in 1980. In later years, he became embroiled in an art forgery scam which saw him serve a short spell in prison, but it is as an agile and talented goalkeeper, an eccentric entertainer, and a popular and ever-smiling friend of every Chelsea fan who endured the early-80s that he should be remembered.
Petar Borota died last Friday in Italy, aged just 57. Rest in peace, the (highly) original Big Pete – we’ll never see your like again.