Packie Bonner still keeping abreast of the game’s changes
The ex-Celtic and Rep of Ireland No 1 now a technical adviser to Uefa on goalkeeping
“Then the door opens and in walks Jock Stein.”
For a moment Packie Bonner is back in the Ballyraine hotel in Letterkenny. It is May in 1978 and Bonner is about to turn 18. He is with his parents, Andrew and Grace. They are waiting.
Bonner is a hopeful young goalkeeper. He is anxious. They are all staring at a door. Waiting. And then a legend opens it. Packie Bonner’s life changes.
Jock Stein was about to sign the Donegal teenager for Celtic. What Bonner did not know was that a fortnight later Stein would leave Celtic, the club he managed with such historic distinction from 1965. Packie Bonner became Jock Stein’s last signing.
“We arrived at the hotel and I was sitting with my Mum and Dad,” Bonner says, slightly incredulous even 40 years on. “Then the door opens and in walks Jock Stein.
“You knew he was coming, but even so. When he walks in the door . . . he’d that kind of limp.
“If you think about it, Jock Stein making a point of coming over to sign me? Why? Imagine Jose Mourinho saying: ‘I’m just heading over to Donegal’?
“Fate has it. Jock knew he was leaving. It was an incredible thing for him to do. I’m the last signing. To be part of that Jock Stein time, and Seán [Fallon]. Aye, amazing.”
Bonner signed a £70-a-week contract at Celtic and was then handed £1,000 by Stein. The teenager was instructed to look after his parents.
To be attached to Celtic history by such a thread is a privilege Bonner understands. He would go on to play 650 games for the club over 17 years.
Glasgow became home – not that Bonner ever left Donegal in his head, and the conversation ends with Ramelton, McDaid’s Football Special and Swilly Rovers. But it is Glasgow where we meet, and not to sink into nostalgia. It to discuss goalkeeping, its evolution, Bonner’s role in that, how two Champions League semi-finals can produce 20 goals between them and what that says about modern goalkeeping.
Today he is a technical adviser to Uefa on the subject, specialising in goalkeeper coach education. Bonner has literally written the course for the Uefa diploma.
As well as that, 28 years after Italia 90, Genoa and Romania, Bonner is back on the front page of the Irish edition of a new book on that landmark World Cup. World in Motion by Simon Hart is an engrossing read of sweep and detail. Bonner being hugged by Andy Townsend is on the cover.
“That’s taken before the last penalty,” Bonner says of Genoa. “Andy and Cas [Tony Cascarino] run from the halfway line to jump on me. I so remembered the referee being a real stickler, making everyone pull up their socks. That’s what was going through my mind. After the elation I was saying to the lads to get back to halfway line. I thought we might have to retake it or something.”
David O’Leary then stepped up to score, of course, and a 0-0 120 minute draw was won 5-4 on penalty-kicks.
During extra-time, as the shoot-out loomed, Bonner’s mind rewound six weeks to a previous 0-0, the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen. That, too, went to penalties. Aberdeen won 9-8, which Bonner remembers well as he saved none. He dived the right way for one.
“I was talking to Billy Stark recently about that final,” Bonner adds. “I didn’t save one. That’s about not thinking properly. It shows you – preparation. Now they have ipads, pictures, information. We didn’t.”
Bonner is not annoyed, the progress of technology and the arrival of data analysis in football is essential to his work. It is also part of the evolution which gathered pace during and after Italia 90.
While the Irish style in the 0-0 against Egypt in the second match in that World Cup caused a Dunphy of a dispute, those who administer the game grew concerned at an overall picture, a trend of negativity and time-wasting. Bonner holding the ball for up to six minutes (in total) against Egypt was cited as a principal cause of the subsequent changing of the back-pass law.
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Hart, however, has interviewed Sepp Blatter for his book and Blatter recalls a Group D match between Colombia and the United Arab Emirates eight days before Ireland-Egypt.
“Something is wrong,” Blatter says he was thinking as he watched. “There was no rhythm . . . [the UAE] were the champions of keeping the ball and they always gave it back to the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper had it in his hands . . . because it was permitted then.”
A World Cup that is cherished for its atmosphere, theatre, and which was a watershed culturally and commercially, was officially given 6/10 by Fifa for the quality of football.
There was the telling statistic of 2.21 goals per game, the lowest scoring rate at a World Cup. Fifa considered enlarging the goal-frame.
Instead, 17 days after the final, the game’s law-makers amended the offside rule so that an attacker was now onside if level with the last defender.
It was also decreed that a professional foul denying a goalscoring opportunity must be punished with a red card. Fifa’s target was the tackle from behind and Hart notes that Diego Maradona was fouled 53 times in seven matches at Italia 1990. In the same number of games, Lionel Messi was fouled 18 times at Brazil 2014.
But the biggest law-change was still to come. In 1992 the traditional back-pass was declared illegal. For defenders and coaches the game changed overnight; it was even more dramatic for goalkeepers.
“It was a paradigm shift,” Bonner says, “I was horrified. In a way it killed my career. You’re doing something for 20 years and then someone tells you that you can’t do that anymore. Wow. That was huge for the older keepers like me. Most of us had only used our hands, kicked the ball from our hands.
“And when the back-pass law came in, think about the pitches, they weren’t the bowling greens they are now. The rule was introduced like that [clicks fingers]. It was like the smoking ban in Ireland.”
Bonner is somewhat perplexed that the Egypt match should be used as a reason for the change, he recalls plenty of back-passing against Romania too. The heat was a decisive factor in how those matches were played. It was not simply Jack Charlton’s defensive mindset.
“Jack didn’t give me a specific instruction to waste time,” Bonner says. “Egypt, that was a non-event. I actually didn’t know that it was even discussed how long I’d held the ball.
“That was the way Jack played – no risk at the back. That was his tactic. He always felt that if the opposition scored because you’d put the ball at risk, then they’d shut up shop. Not allowing them to score first was so much in our minds. That was key.”
By the 1994 World Cup in the USA, Charlton’s put-em-under-pressure tactics – a form of gegenpressing – was undermined by humidity and the law-change.
“Jack recognised that, so we played differently in ’94 to 1990. The Irish style was high intensity, short bursts. We had to give players a rest. Ireland couldn’t close others down because of the heat, more intense in America. It changed the way we played.
“But people didn’t close us down either, not in the way they do now.”
At USA ’94 the goal average was up to 2.71 per match. In Serie A goals scored rose from 2.27 to 2.8 in the season after the back-pass change. Two seasons on and Serie A adopted three points for a win, then Uefa and Fifa. It was another contributor to an emphasis on attack.
In other ways, though, Bonner feels the response to the back-pass revolution was slow. It was 1999, he says, when Kenny Dalglish returned to Celtic as manager, that Terry Gennoe became Celtic’s first full-time goalkeeping coach.
So-called sweeper-keepers had been mentioned but, stylistically, general play was familiar.
“Before the ’94 World Cup David Seaman started a new trend of rolling the ball outside the box before striking it. Arsenal’s back four pushed up and he hit an area. That was George Graham’s Arsenal.
“If you think about it, that was almost the start of keepers passing the ball.”
But ‘hitting an area’ was a keeper’s priority for seasons. Bonner was always interested in tactics and got his A Licence at 26 but he is self-critical when he thinks back. He and others “had not really thought about the consequences”.
“The next part of the game wasn’t there. The goalkeeper was not the starting point of the team, he did not build the game. You were separate, you trained separately.”
The status of the keeper as formulator of tactics was reflected in an easy-to-refuse salary offer to Bonner from Celtic to be their goalkeeping coach in 1996. He joined Mick McCarthy with Ireland, then the FAI as technical director, now Uefa.
Bonner’s aim – Uefa’s aim – is to increase the status of goalkeepers and their coaches. Data analysis has helped, as, this season, has Pep Guardiola’s use of Ederson at Manchester City.
“Recognition of goalkeeping coaches – as coaches – has only happened I’d say in the last eight years,” Bonner says. “It was tradition. But because of the back-pass change, and then the arrival of data – around 2010 – it could be shown that a goalkeeper’s actions on the ball was up to 70 per cent with his feet. That meant that goalkeeping coaching had to change.”
Ederson, who was a defender as a boy, is the example of the footballer as goalkeeper, or vice versa. The cliché that goalkeepers are different is under review.
Bonner is reluctant to go overboard but says: “Guardiola’s brought real awareness that the goalkeeper is part of the team. It’s 11 v 10 + 1 if the opponents don’t think the same way.
“The goalkeeper is a part of the team, not apart from the team. And the goalkeeping coach is a part of the staff. Not apart, a part.”
Yet evolving tactics, such as the forward-thrust full-backs Guardiola employs, are also, Bonner thinks, part of why keepers are freshly vulnerable.
“In my day you had two full-backs near you and two centre-half. Now the full-backs are on the halfway line. What does that do to how a keeper organises? The goalkeeper is not in a position to organise his defence as he used to.
“It’s almost left to the last phase of play. I think the goalkeeper is overexposed. He’s left to defend counterattacks with two centre-halfs. That’s a reason why so many goals are being lost at the moment.”
Bonner also points out wisely that two-legged knock-out European ties bring comeback opportunities – Paris St Germain 4-0 Barcelona leading to Barcelona 6-1 PSG last season. The format, excitement, emotions, cannot be overlooked.
It can feel a long way from Letterkenny, from Jock Stein to data analysis. Back then, a football man like Stein was the data.
But it is the Scottish Cup final and Bonner returns to Celtic, to Brendan Rodgers and how they will set up against Motherwell. Rodgers requires a footballer-keeper to fit the passing style he encouraged at Swansea.
“Motherwell are very direct,” Bonner says. “Brendan has gone with Scott Bain recently and could do again. Bain’s good with his feet. He’ll be expected to be tactically aware.
“And to build the game.”