By Ryan Ferguson
In beer gardens and pubs up and down the land, diehard Tranmere fans congregate to sing and subdue their pain on awaydays. At these gatherings, the name of one folk hero is still sung in reverential tones, nineteen years after his minimal and fleeting cameo at Prenton Park. Ivan, Ivano! Ivan, Ivano! Ivan, Ivano! Ivano Bonetti!, we chant, recalling happier times and bigger dreams.
The younger, more causal supporters get involved without necessarily knowing the full tale, or even who Bonetti was, let alone why he had such an emotional impact with fans. Thus, it’s time to retrace one of the quirkiest chapters in Tranmere’s long and absorbing history; the one where a suave Italian rocked up to Birkenhead and embodied our Premier League ambition for a few short months in the mid-90s.
With a shaggy perm and a knowing scowl, Ivano arrived in ’96, already a whirlwind, already an icon. The son of Aldo Bonetti, a star at Brescia, and the brother of Dario, a centurion with Roma, Ivano grew up with football in his veins. He was taken on by Brescia, his hometown club, in the 80s, before embarking on an incredible voyage around the world as football’s most elusive, mercurial nomad. Ivano eventually represented twelve different clubs in the span of twenty-one years, never playing more than seventy games, never scoring more than three goals, but always remaining an irresistible enigma.
In his native land, Bonetti was considered a misunderstood mystery; a genius lost in an idiot’s body. He played for a slew of Italian clubs, notably the juggernauts of Genoa, Juventus and Sampdoria, but never really delivered on his enormous potential. He had an abundance of natural skill, and could nutmeg his way out of a phone box, but Ivano’s career would always be unfulfilled.
In 1995, having outstayed his welcome across large swathes of Italy, Bonetti had a Eureka moment: he would journey to England and start his maverick tour all over again. In due course, Bonetti’s agent arranged a deal between Torino and Grimsby Town. But before the transfer could be consummated, a £100,000 fee had to be paid to a US firm that somehow owned the rights to Ivano’s image and services. Grimsby couldn’t afford such a bounty, so Bonetti and the fans split the bill in half, paying £50,000 each and forcing the deal to completion.
This created an instant bond between Ivano and his adoring public that endured through a turbulent season of stupendous skill and annoying antics. He scored the winner against West Brom. He tore Tranmere to shreds with a virtuoso performance. He fascinated fans all over the country. Yet, there was always another side to Ivano Bonetti. On the ball, he was languid and lyrical. But off the ball, he was shy and sluggish about defensive work, especially in winter, especially in Grimsby. In all honesty, you never knew what to expect from the guy.
One day in February 1996, another chapter of Bonetti’s weird and occasionally wonderful career ended in acrimony. Following a 3-2 defeat away to Luton Town, Grimsby manager Brian Laws took exception to Ivano’s lack of effort and unwillingness to listen during a debrief. According to legend, Laws hurled a plate of chicken wings at his neurotic talisman, fracturing his cheekbone and instantly causing a scandal.
Before long, Bonetti packed his bags and left Grimsby, his name forever linked to the strangest football injuries of all-time. In the summer of 1996, the Italian began searching for a new club and, in Tranmere manager John Aldridge, he found a devout admirer. Aldo called Bonetti the “chief culprit” of Grimsby’s impressive performances against Rovers the previous year, and immediately placed the silky forward atop his offseason shopping list.
After much negotiation and boardroom haggling, Bonetti finally signed for Rovers as Aldridge prepared for his first full season as Prenton Park boss. Ivano became the first Italian player in Tranmere’s history, instigating a tidal wave of interest around Birkenhead.
“When we played at their place, you could see how the crowd was lifted whenever he got the ball,” said Aldridge at an introductory press conference. “He has so much skill, it’s unbelievable.”
In turn, Bonetti was quick to enamour himself with Aldo and the Tranmere faithful. “I admire John Aldridge because he is known throughout football,” said the Italian through a translator. “I also like the style of play, the passing game building from the back, that I see Tranmere trying to play.”
“I have been very impressed by the club’s ambition,” Bonetti continued. “I’m still very ambitious and want to play for a club that will be fighting to get into the Premiership.”
Indeed, at that time, Tranmere were a comparative juggernaut of the second division, always pressing up against the glass basement of the nascent Premier League. Rovers won promotion into the second tier in 1991 and, with strategic investment from Peter Johnson and legendary management from Johnny King, somehow managed to reach the playoffs on three successive occasions. Unfortunately, despite a squad brimming with international quality, Tranmere lost each time, as Swindon, Leicester and Reading emerged victorious.
Despite a disappointing mid-table finish in 1995/96, there was still a groundswell of belief that Tranmere Rovers could become a Premier League club. Prenton Park had been redeveloped into a marvellously modern arena, and Aldridge succeeded King in the dugout towards the end of the aforementioned campaign. The summer of 1996 was the first opportunity for him to mould a squad in his own vision, and begin driving the club towards new heights.
In many respects, then, Ivano Bonetti would come to embody Tranmere at this time: full of elite potential, but never quite able to put it all together in one moment of defining glory. Rovers finished 11th in his lone season at the club, a fitting legacy for such a frustrating star. Nonetheless, he became an instant folk hero; a genuine fan’s favourite whose trademark flamboyance still resonates today, two generations later.
There was an inherent humour and awkwardness in a guy that had played against Maradona, Van Basten, Barasi and Baggio suddenly representing Tranmere Rovers, a cult club nestled close to the River Mersey. Bonetti played for Sven-Göran Eriksson at Sampdoria and Giovanni Trapattoni at Juventus before joining Aldo at Rovers, where he would play at Carrow Road, Bramall Lane and Burnden Park rather than the San Siro, Stadio Olimpico and Stadio delle Alpi.
Tranmere fans couldn’t believe that Ivano Bonetti, a flashy forward who played against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona at Wembley in the 1992 European Cup final, would actually don their beloved white jersey just four years later. The equivalent today would be Andrea Pirlo or Carlos Tevez rocking up to Prenton Park in 2020, a simply unthinkable notion.
Ivano was rightly treated as the new messiah upon arrival. It didn’t matter how good he was. In fact, many will still tell you he was crap. But Ivano Bonetti was a heroic figure prone to mythology, regardless of ability. He was like our own personal Lock Ness Monster; somebody in whom only we believed and who stood as our avatar of difference. Tranmere had a player with two Serie A winners’ medals, and the whole world was going to hear about it..
Bonetti made his Rovers debut on 17th August, 1996, away to Southend before 4,264 at Roots Hall. The Tranmere lineup that day was Coyne, Stevens, Teale, O’Brien, Rogers, Morrissey, McGreal, Cook, Bonnetti, Irons and Aldridge. Ivano had to wait four more days for his first Tranmere goal, which came away to Shrewsbury in a League Cup tie.
Bonetti’s home debut came against Grimsby, of all teams, and Rovers built it up into something of a frenzy. Ivano graced the front cover of the match programme, which carried his story in great detail. Physio Les Parry even got in on the action, acknowledging in his notorious column that “I’ll be able to write what I like about him when he gets injured because the daft Walter Matthau lookalike doesn’t speak any English.”
The Grimsby game passed off without incident, but Ivano’s finest performance as a Tranmere player came on 4th October, 1996, when he destroyed Portsmouth in a thrilling 4-3 home win at Prenton Park. Ivano played a sumptuous cross for the first goal, before scoring a late winner at the Cowshed end to settle a seesaw encounter. The home crowd was electrified by his performance of skill and guile.
Unfortunately, it was all down hill from there for Bonetti at Tranmere. By late October, he was banished to the reserves after falling out of favour. His final game for Rovers was a 3-1 home win over Norwich on January 28, 1997. In total, he made just 15 appearances for the club, four as a substitute, and only played a full ninety minutes on eight occasions. But to look too deep into those statistics is to miss the point entirely. Tranmere fans loved Ivano Bonetti for what he represented in a spiritual sense; for what he could have been, not what he actually was.
In 1997, Bonetti resurfaced at Crystal Palace for a brief spell, before returning to Italy for another stint at Genoa. Ever one for bizarre, whimsical, knee-jerk expeditions, Ivano then packed up his kitbag and ventured to Dundee, where he played for two years and was somehow allowed to manage following retirement. The guy even wore a cream designer jacket on the touchline at Dens Park! What’s not to love?
When that experiment ended painfully, Bonetti returned home and was the Director of Football at Pescina Valle del Giovenco between 2004-2010, predictably leading the club from Serie C2 to bankruptcy in the space of six years.
Ivano was last seen fronting a company called Footgolf last summer. As the name suggests, this is a hybrid sport of golf and football, which is particularly popular in his homeland.
Ultimately, in the long history of Tranmere Rovers, Ivano Bonetti is still totally unique. We’ve never encountered such an enigmatic artist; a player with the ability to so beguile and frustrate in equal measure. However, Bonetti’s impact was felt more off the pitch, where Rovers fans opened their hearts to this shaggy-haired magician.
All these years later, I just hope Ivano knows how beloved he was, and still is, at Prenton Park. He’s welcome to join us on the terraces or in the pub any time, where we’ll sing his wonderful name long into the night.