It was difficult to be neutral about Petar Borota, the Chelsea goalkeeper between 1979 and 1981, a generally glum period of under-achievement at Stamford Bridge.
Undeniably he was a born showman, a flamboyant entertainer who could, momentarily at least, divert attention from the serial trials of a frustratingly poor side. But beyond that basic premise, opinions on the Yugoslavian international diverged sharply. Some saw him as an engaging eccentric who brought panache, colour and a streak of welcome unpredictability to an increasingly regimented English game; others had him down as ruinously erratic, an irresponsible clown who could undo the worthy graft of less frivolous colleagues while driving his coaches to distraction.
Certainly Borota was unorthodox. In an era before the influx of exotic talents from all over the world, when goalkeepers tended to restrict their activities to their own penalty areas, the swashbuckler from Belgrade was ready to indulge in a whole range of extravagant manoeuvres. Often he would dash from his box to make a clearance; sometimes he would attempt to dribble past an onrushing opponent, not always with marked success; he was known to head crosses clear instead of catching or punching them; he would swing on his crossbar, admittedly when the ball was at the other end of the field; he would indulge in feverish goal celebrations, the like of which had never been seen in England; occasionally he might storm forward when Chelsea won a corner, long before such a practice was anything like standard; and one particularly provocative party-piece was deliberately bouncing the ball off his own bar when he judged the proceedings to be a trifle dull.
Once, in a cup encounter with Southampton, Borota darted out of his area with the apparent purpose of making a hefty clearance, only to execute a sudden and unexpected backheel to his dumbfounded centre-half, the man-mountain Micky Droy. Later, when asked to explain this disconcerting ploy, the Yugoslav grinned disarmingly and replied that he had wanted to enliven the crowd, who had thus far been starved of entertainment in a notably drab contest.
But all this apparently whimsical derring-do should not detract from the fact that, essentially, Borota was an immensely accomplished performer who had excelled for two home-town clubs. First he served OFK Belgrade, for whom he made some 130 appearances between 1969 and 1975, and then Partizan Belgrade, for whom he enjoyed 77 League outings from 1976 to 1979 while rising to international status and earning four full caps.
Standing a fraction under six feet tall, Borota was muscular, courageous and brilliantly acrobatic, one of the most spectacular shot-stoppers of his day. For all his adventurous antics he took his craft seriously, preparing for games with impeccable rigour, and an incident for which he was famous in Yugoslavia – in which he dropped his cap over his goal-line, then went to pick it up while carrying the ball, thus conceding a goal – was wholly untypical of his professionalism.
He arrived at Stamford Bridge from Partizan in March 1979 as a £70,000 purchase by Danny Blanchflower, who had been recently drafted in to stop the rot at a club foundering dismally at the wrong end of the old First Division table.
In truth the eloquent, idealistic Irishman, who had enjoyed such a glorious playing career with Tottenham Hotspur but who had been out of day-to-day contact with footballers for 15 years, was an odd choice for such a muck-and-bullets assignment and neither he, nor the similarly quixotic Borota, had much hope of preventing Chelsea's relegation from the top flight as bottom club that spring. But although Blanchflower resigned the following September in despair at what he saw as the cynical values of the modern game, Borota won a regular place under the new manager Geoff Hurst, and for the next two seasons was voted the Blues' player of the year.
For all his foibles, his consistent competence helped Chelsea to fourth place in the Second Division in 1979-80, missing out on promotion only on goal difference. More impressive still, in 1980-81, during which the team declined into mid-table mediocrity, he returned 18 clean sheets, beating the club record held by his eminent predecessor Peter Bonetti.
However, at the season's end Hurst was replaced as manager by the pragmatic and experienced John Neal, who was not enamoured of Borota's style. Thus it came as no surprise in November when the 29-year-old, who had made more than a century of appearances for Chelsea, was dropped in favour of teenager Steve Francis and soon was dispatched to Third Division Brentford, for whom he never played a League game.
There followed service with several Portuguese clubs through the middle years of the decade before he left the game. A warm, genial character and a popular figure with his Stamford Bridge team-mates, even those occasionally stunned by his off-the-wall interludes, Petar Borota will be remembered as a man who polarised opinion, but who was never dull.
Petar Borota, footballer: born Belgrade, Yugoslavia 5 March 1952; played for OFK Belgrade 1969-75, Partizan Belgrade 1976-79, Chelsea 1979-82, Portimonense 1982-83, Boavista 1983-84; died Genoa, Italy 12 February 2010.
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