London (AFP) – Former Chelsea and England goalkeeper Peter Bonetti has died at the age of 78 following a long-term illness, the Premier League club announced Sunday, with tributes describing him as a “hero and a gentleman”.

Nicknamed ‘The Cat’ because of his agility, Bonetti was a mainstay of the west London side for close on 20 years throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 

“Our former goalkeeper had been suffering from long-term illness,” said a club statement.

“All at Chelsea wish to send our heartfelt and deepest condolences to Peter’s family and friends.”

Relatively short by modern standards for a goalkeeper at under six feet (1.82 metres) tall, Bonetti made 729 appearances for Chelsea and kept 208 clean sheets.

His Chelsea career started in 1960 and finished in 1979, with his two spells at Stamford Bridge separated by a 1975 stint in the North American Soccer League at the St Louis Stars.

It took until 2014 for Petr Cech to surpass Bonetti’s shut-out record.

– ‘Unbelievable saves’ –

Meanwhile only Bonetti’s former team-mate Ron Harris has made more Chelsea appearances, with the defender playing in 795 games for the Blues.

“He (Bonetti) was about 5ft 10in (1.77m), ever so slim, and acrobatic. He pulled off some unbelievable saves,” Harris told Sky Sports News on Sunday.

“I’m not knocking any of the present day keepers but ask any Chelsea supporter who’s been around for some time and I bet they’d say the number one keeper at Chelsea was Peter Bonetti.”

With Bonetti’s career overlapping those of Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, he made just seven appearances for England.

Paying tribute on Twitter, Shilton said Bonetti was “a hero of mine, a tremendous player and a true gentleman”.

Bonetti was a member of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad, but such was Banks’s form he did not play during the tournament.

It was not until 2009 that Bonetti received a winners’ medal, the rules at the time meaning only the playing XI in the final were so honoured.

His England career, however, is destined to be remembered for one unfortunate match at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

With Banks having suffered a case of food poisoning, Bonetti was called up into the side beaten by West Germany in the quarter-finals.

Alf Ramsey’s team were 2-0 up but lost 3-2 in extra-time, with Bonetti criticised for being at fault for the first two goals England conceded.

But at club level he helped Chelsea win the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup — after the Blues beat bitter rivals Leeds United in a final that went to a replay — and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

One of the pioneers of specialist gloves for goalkeepers, Bonetti also had  spells with Dundee United and Woking.

He later became a goalkeeping coach, working with both Chelsea and the England squad as well as Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Manchester City and Fulham.