On the night of the 20th May 1992, Sampdoria trudged off the hallowed Wembley turf having just lost the European Cup final. They had gone toe-to-toe with Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, taking them to extra time before being dispatched by an unstoppable Ronald Koeman free kick. The defeat would have hurt; but the likes of Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo could hold their heads up high. They had conquered Italy and had come within a whisker of being crowned champions of Europe too.
Nearly 200 miles north of Wembley, upon England’s east coast, lies Blundell Park, the ramshackle home of Grimsby Town FC. The weather-beaten stands, all of differing vintage and design, perennially take the force of gales whipping in from the North Sea. It’s full of character, but it’s a pretty inhospitable place. It’s the kind of place that even Stoke wouldn’t fancy on a cold Tuesday night.
The contrast between these two locations could hardly be greater, but within the space of a little over three years Ivano Bonetti transitioned from unlucky Wembley finalist to Blundell Park hero.
Bonetti came from a footballing dynasty. His father, Aldo Bonetti, played for Brescia in the pre-war era. Meanwhile his elder brother, Dario, was a commanding centre half who, in addition to winning international recognition with Italy, represented Sampdoria, Roma, Milan and Juventus.
Ivano was a mercurial talent. A wide player, comfortable with the ball at his feet and running at the opposition. A player who could make things happen. A creator of goals, rather than a scorer of goals. His left foot was capable of crafting moments of exquisite beauty. But he was also inconsistent. An enigma. Temperamental.
He graduated through the Brescia Primavera, but it was at Genoa in 1984/85 where Bonetti achieved his break-through with a sustained run in a promotion-chasing team. Still only 21, Juventus had seen enough of this unpolished jewel to take him to Turin where he would serve a second apprenticeship under Giovanni Trapattoni.
In common with countless young players before and after him, the move to Juventus proved to be a double-edged sword. He benefited from rubbing shoulders with the likes of Michel Platini and Michael Laudrup but was also competing with these self-same established stars for a starting place. Bonetti was largely an observer as Juve swept to the 1985/86 Scudetto, making just two appearances. Things improved the following season, but his 16 league appearances came almost exclusively from the bench.
In search of first team action, Bonetti made a loan move to Serie B Atalanta at the beginning of the 1987/88 season. This was just the tonic he needed; a run of games in a successful team. Bonetti was instrumental as La Dea achieved promotion on the final day of the season. At last, Bonetti was beginning to fulfil his early promise.
This was the beginning of a five-year period that saw Bonetti establish himself as a serial threat to some of the best defences in the world. Bonetti moved on to newly-promoted Bologna in 1988/89. He barely missed a match, helping them to Serie A survival in his first season, before propelling them to an eighth-place finish and UEFA Cup qualification in 1989/90.
This form prompted Sampdoria to come calling. In tandem with Lomdardo on the opposite wing, Bonetti would provide the ammunition for the formidable double-axis of Mancini and Vialli in attack. Bonetti was at the zenith of his powers. As a regular starter, he helped Samp go unbeaten in the second half of the 1990/91 campaign, culminating in their maiden Scudetto. The following season, Bonetti was once again an integral player during their ultimately luckless assault on Europe.
After the disappointment of the Wembley defeat, Samp coach Vujadin Boskov departed for Roma, to be replaced by Sven Goran Eriksson. However, the change of management combined with a spiral of injuries and poor form saw Bonetti’s role reduced to that of fringe player.
In a bid to recapture his form, Bonetti dropped down to Serie C1 to reunite with Bologna in 1993/94. He rose once again to Serie A in 1994/95, initially with Torino and then on loan with Brescia. However, it was a calamitous return to his boyhood club as they broke the record for the lowest ever Serie A points total. Bonetti had become a shadow of the player that had won the Scudetto just three years earlier.
Bonetti’s decline was in stark contrast to the fortunes of his former team mates and contemporaries Lombardo and Vialli, who were now excelling at Juventus. At 31 years old, Bonetti decided it was time to leave the peninsula in pursuit of a new challenge. Torino agreed to release him, on condition that he did not sign for another Italian club. He was reportedly keen on a move to Japan, but his agent was also making enquiries around Europe.
Meanwhile on Humberside, an ambitious young manager named Brian Laws was in the market for a left-sided player to bolster his promotion push with Grimsby Town. Already punching above their weight in England’s second tier, Laws was battling against the odds in pursuit of promotion to the Premier League. Through his network of contacts, Laws was tipped off about the availability of a seasoned left winger that might fit the bill.
Bonetti accepted the invitation to participate in a reserve match, doing more than enough to convince Laws, who sought to agree a more permanent arrangement. Grimsby supporters could scarcely believe what was happening at their club; the nuances of Bonetti’s recent form aside, signing a two-time Scudetto winner from the most competitive league in the world was beyond their wildest dreams.
However, there was a problem; Bonetti’s image rights had passed into the hands of an American intermediary, who were demanding a fee of £100,000. Furthermore, under FIFA rules, Grimsby were prohibited from dealing directly with the intermediary. The solution was a creative one. Grimsby fans crowd-funded half of the fee, doing so the old-fashioned way with bucket collections and donations. The other half, remarkably, was paid for by Bonetti himself. The respective gestures forged an indelible bond between the two parties.
Bonetti’s transfer coincided with a tipping point in the transformation of English football. This was the pre-Bosman era and English football was only just emerging from the doldrums. The influx of foreign players to England – even at the highest level – had only just begun. With the arrival of Ruud Gullit, Juninho and Dennis Bergkamp in 1995/96, Bonetti’s move could conceivably be viewed as an extension of these pioneering transfers.
A seemingly irreversible change was in train, but it wasn’t until the following season that the foreign revolution fully took hold at Chelsea (Vialli, Di Matteo and Zola) and Middlesbrough (Ravanelli and Festa). Aspiring clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday (Carbone) and Newcastle (Asprilla) were getting in on the act too, increasingly looking to Serie A for their recruitment as an international power-shift unfolded. It would be a stretch to suggest that Bonetti’s transfer caused the floodgates to open, but there was certainly correlation. If little Grimsby Town could recruit a player of Bonetti’s pedigree, then what was holding back other, more established clubs?
Grimsby had been a thriving port back in the 1950s, boasting the largest fishing fleet in the world, but was now in the grip of persistent economic decline. This largely mirrored the fortunes of the town’s football team who had last been in the top flight nearly half a century before. The signing of Bonetti offered hope to Grimsby supporters, the prospect of a brighter future and an opportunity for escapism. Overnight, home gates doubled, matches were sold out and the club were making the most of a roaring trade in Italian tricolori and Bonetti replica shirts. Ivanomania rapidly engulfed the town.
On the Blundell Park pitch, Bonetti had the tendency to drift in and out of games, but there was no doubting his quality once on the ball. He mesmerised the defenders of the Endsleigh League, his flamboyance and silky touch marking him out as being of a different class. Bonetti was given an elevated status within the Grimsby team; unshackled from tactical instruction, he was given freedom to play across the pitch.
Bonetti made his debut in October, but truly won the Mariners’ hearts with his winning goal in a grudge match against West Brom in November. The previous season, West Brom had poached Grimsby’s manager and several key players. A fortnight later, Bonetti put in a virtuoso performance and struck the winner against Tranmere Rovers, lifting them up to second place in the table.
Bonetti was imperious too during Grimsby’s 7-1 FA Cup demolition of Luton in January, scoring one and creating two more. Not only was Bonetti creating goals, but he was scoring them with a regularity never before seen in his career. Bonetti clearly revelled in being the star turn, albeit on a smaller stage.
However, around the turn of the year, cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship. Grimsby were in the midst of a poor run of form, having taken just one league win in nine matches, seeing them drop down the table. Bonetti’s dislike for the grittier duties of second tier football had been excused when the going was good, but as the team dug deep to revive their promotion hopes, Bonetti’s languid approach was starting to grate with the management, if not the supporters.
After the FA Cup mauling, hopes were high as Grimsby travelled to Luton in the league. The visitors were 2-1 up on the hour mark, but let the lead slip, ultimately falling to a 3-2 defeat. In the changing room after the match, Laws’ ire was directed at Bonetti, whom he felt had been particularly culpable in his lack of discipline and effort. There are several different versions of what happened next – most involving a plate of chicken being thrown – but there was certainly an altercation between the two, resulting in a fractured cheek bone for Bonetti. The marital bliss was well and truly over.
Bonetti and Laws publicly made up, but behind the scenes Bonetti had launched a law suit against his manager. Bonetti stayed at the club for the remainder of the season, eventually returning to the first team, but the magic had gone. Grimsby faltered to a 17th place finish only assuring their safety on the final day.
Bonetti departed for Tranmere the following season, repeating much the same pattern observed at Grimsby. He started brightly, showcasing his undeniable talent and winning the hearts of fans. However, by late-autumn he was failing to command a starting place. From there he briefly appeared in the Premier League for Crystal Palace, no doubt on the recommendation of his former team-mate Attilio Lombardo, before returning to Italy with Genoa.
Bonetti’s Football League sojourn was a symbolic moment in British transfer history. His arrival allowed Grimsby fans to dream and served as a bell-weather for the way the transfer market was changing. Other clubs sat up and took note. Although his tale is ultimately a cautionary one, Bonetti retains near-mythical status on Humberside. Ask any Grimsby fan about Ivano Bonetti and their eyes will likely glaze over with fond reminiscence of a short, but passionate affair in the winter of 1995.
Words by Tom Griffiths: @CalcioEngland