CELTIC’S ONE CLUB MEN continues this week with Pat Bonner on St Patrick’s Day and Paul McStay later in the week. We featured Billy McNeill and Bobby Lennox last week so if you missed those features check it out on the Lions and Legends button. Written by Hugh Gallagher for CQN Magazine…
PAT BONNER was from the Celtic heartland of Burtonport, West Donegal. He joined Celtic as a teenager, from his local team, Keadue Rovers, and was Jock Stein’s last signing, in May 1978. He made his debut on, appropriately, St Patrick’s Day 1979 in a 2-1 home win over Motherwell.
Peter Latchford was still Celtic’s first choice goalkeeper, so it looked as if Packie was going to have to endure a long apprenticeship. However, in August 1980, Latchford’s bad luck gave Bonner his big break. Big Peter had a hand injury, so Bonner deputised in Danny McGrain’s testimonial game against Manchester Utd. He was excellent in a 0-0 draw, and retained his place, being Celtic’s first choice for the next decade and a half.
Although young and inexperienced, he showed remarkable maturity and developed a great understanding with Celtic’s back 4 of that time; McGrain, Aitken, McAdam, Reid. He won a League Championship medal at the end of the 1980-81 season. At the same time as he was picking up his first League medal, he won the first of his Irish caps. Bonner turned in some good European performances, and had a tremendous game against Juventus, in Turin; however, his heroics weren’t enough, as Juventus won 2-0 and overturned Celtic’s 1-0 home advantage.
Bonner helped Celtic retain the league, in 1982, which was the first time that Celtic had won consecutive leagues since the heady days of 9 in a row. This meant another tilt at the European Cup and, against star studded Ajax Amsterdam, for whom Johan Cryuff was still playing, he gave probably his best performance in a Celtic jersey in the Olympic Stadium. With Bonner playing out of his skin, Celtic scored a last minute goal to give Celtic an unexpected 2-1 win on the night and a 4-3 aggregate win.
At about this time, Celtic were an exciting team going forward, with players like Frank McGarvey, Charlie Nicholas and George McCluskey. However, Celtic struggled to find a commanding centre half; despite this, Bonner continued to impress. League wins started to dry up although a very poor Rangers team were not the difficulty; Aberdeen and Dundee Utd, under the expert guidance of Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean respectively, won several leagues between them in the early-mid 1980s. Celtic didn’t win the league again until 1986.
However, Bonner won his first Scottish Cup medal in 1985 in an exciting game against Dundee Utd, when Celtic had to come from 1-0 down to win with a late goal. Before that, Bonner had turned in some more impressive European performances, against quality teams like Nottingham Forest and Sporting Club Lisbon.
1987-88 was his most memorable season, for both club and country. His goalkeeping displays helped turn Celtic’s Centenary season into a celebration, with the winning of the Double. Billy McNeill had returned to manage Celtic and the move worked. In the Scottish Cup Final, Bonner’s place went to Allen McKnight, due to injury. Celtic, just like in 1985, had to come from behind to beat Dundee Utd 2-1.
After Celtic’s double triumph, Bonner had no time to celebrate. An excellent Republic of Ireland team – with players like Bonner, McGrath, Whelan, Brady, Moran, Houghton, Stapleton and Aldridge – had qualified for their first ever major tournament, the European Championships in Germany. Bonner gave a master class of goalkeeping in Ireland’s opening game against England, in Stuttgart. Glasgow born Ray Houghton had headed Ireland into a 6th minute lead and Bonner, almost single handedly, kept the English, with highly rated forwards like Lineker, Barnes and Beardsley, at bay, for over 80 minutes.
Another excellent Bonner performance helped the Irish to a 1-1 draw against the USSR, meaning a draw against Holland would put Ireland into the last 4. For over 80 minutes, Bonner and his defence held out, before going down to a goal in the dying minutes.
As Celtic sought to defend their recently won double, at the start of 1988-89, they were hit with a major blow. Bonner’s troublesome back injury had flared up after the European Championships and he was forced to miss the start of the campaign. Shortly after the start of the season Rangers humiliated Celtic 5-1, with rookie goalie Ian Andrews having a nightmare. Happily, Bonner returned in October but, even as early into the season as that, it was obvious that Celtic would be unable to retain their league title. Some consolation was gained at the end of the season, with a 1-0 Scottish Cup triumph against Rangers, in which Bonner, again, played a prominent role.
The next few years were, unfortunately, a nightmare for Celtic, although Bonner continued to turn in excellent performances. Free spending Rangers totally dominated as Celtic were in turmoil both on and off the park. During this spell, Bonner was having better luck with his international team. Ireland reached the last 8 of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Packie Bonner is remembered, in particular, for his contribution against Romania in the 1st knockout game. With the score 0-0 after 120 minutes, the game went to penalties; Ireland scored all 5 penalties, so Bonner’s save from Daniel Timofte’s penalty was crucial.
He again performed well at the 1994 World cup in USA. Just before that competition, Lou Macari, who was an unsuccessful and unpopular Celtic manager, released Bonner who was then on the verge of joining Tommy Burns at Kilmarnock. However, when Macari was sacked and replaced by Burns, Tommy didn’t hesitate to ensure Packie’s career at Paradise continued. Happily, at the end of the following season, Bonner again picked up silverware, for the first time in 6 years, with the 1995 Scottish Cup , following a 1-0 win over Airdrie.
Bonner remained at the club for another 2 years, although he made no more first time appearances. Packie Bonner played 641 games for Celtic and won 4 Leagues, 4 Scottish Cups and a League Cup. Only 4 players in Celtic’s history have played more games. Packie will also be remembered with affection by Celtic fans. As a TV pundit, he does not engage in petty criticism of our great club, unlike several other ex Celts.
*Pat Bonner was scheduled to appear at CQN 11 on Friday 13th March but at the last minute he was unable to attend.