Let’s be clear from the off – I absolutely LOVE Mark Bosnich. To this day, I’m still unequivocal in my view that he’s my favourite footballer of all time. I can’t imagine anyone will ever usurp him.
I first became aware of Bozzie towards the end of the 1991/92 season, shortly after he signed for Villa from Sydney United. These were still the days when the reserves would play at Villa Park on Saturday afternoons when the first team were away. My dad, still brainwashing me into a love of football, would often take me to watch.
At this point, my actual appreciation of football was under development, and it tended to be random things that piqued my interest. My love of Les Sealey already meant I was drawn to the goalkeepers, and I went along to the game in a near empty Villa Park armed with the knowledge that a new stopper was playing for the first time. At this point, foreign players in England remained a relative rarity, and the fact that the new boy was Australian made things all the more exciting somehow.
I remember little of his outings in the reserves, but evidently he must have impressed. Bosnich made a first team debut in the penultimate game of 1991/92, before establishing himself as a contender to Nigel Spink in the following campaign, making 17 appearances.
If Bosnich had impressed up until then, in the 1993/94 season he established himself as a bona fide superstar – and it all began, as many Villa legends’ stories do, in the Second City Derby.
The second round of the Coca-Cola Cup pitted Villa against arch rivals Birmingham City. The first leg took place at St. Andrews, and I was there – even if it quickly emerged that it was no place for a nine-year-old. My abiding memory from that night is being shepherded into the ground with my head buried into my dad’s coat as beer bottles were hurled at us by Blues fans.
Once I was ensconced inside the relative sanctity of the away end, it became Bosnich’s night. With Nigel Spink injured, number 13 entered the fray as substitute to deafening chants of ‘Who the f***ing hell are you?’ from the Blues’ faithful.
It wouldn’t take them long to find out. Minutes later, Birmingham were awarded a penalty, with the Bluenose’s taunts rammed down their throats courtesy of an expert save from Bozzie. It was a moment that would prove to be the first of many valuable contributions he made in Villa’s Coca-Cola Cup campaign that year.
I’m going to make an assumption that most people reading this blog are Villa fans, so I won’t relay every detail of Bosnich’s contribution to that cup win. But from his virtuoso display against Sunderland, three penalty saves against Tranmere (STILL the best game I’ve ever been to), and that vital save from Mark Hughes in the final, he demonstrated the importance of a good goalkeeper to any successful team.
I can’t put too fine a point on what a hero Mark Bosnich was to people of around my age. Every team has its main man, the player that every kid wants to be. It’s so unusual for it to be the goalkeeper. But Mark Bosnich was the one that every single one of us looked up to. I hear stories from junior football coaches today about how they struggle to find kids who want to play in goal. In my school, it was finding enough people who wanted to play outfield that was an issue.
Bozzie’s popularity was such that, come Christmas, there was a chronic shortage of goalkeeper jerseys in the club shop. On the big day, I opened all my presents, and my mom sadly explained that she hadn’t been able to get the one I wanted most of all. I remember trying to put a brave face on it when really I was crushed. Luckily, in the end, it was just a ruse. Later in the day, my dad opened a cupboard to reveal an extra present that Santa forgot…
My word. THAT shirt. I was barely seen out of it over the next couple of years. It’s actually mad that it’s so iconic, given that it wasn’t even uniquely Villa’s. Newcastle, Leeds, Blackburn, Portsmouth and more all had an identical design. But somehow, it was just synonymous with Bozzie. It still is today. Mention ‘The Bosnich Shirt’, and everyone knows you’re referring to the multi-coloured Asics number.
It only takes a look at eBay to see how important that jersey is to people of my generation. Every time one ends up on there, it’s sold for hundreds of pounds. I’m lucky that I managed to get my man-sized version a couple of years before the market went crazy. Today, I happily pair it with a matching scarf and even a face-mask in these weird pandemic times. Nothing could persuade me to part with that shirt.
Bozzie continued to be Villa’s number one for the majority of the next five years, winning the League Cup again in 1996. Controversy had a knack of finding him. Clattering Jurgen Klinsmann lead to an ill-advised attempt at humour at White Hart Lane. Off the field, his rap sheet included getting arrested hours before his wedding, and even the emergence of a certain videotape that we won’t talk about here.
Despite all this, he remained much loved and, most importantly of all, brilliant on the field- as you can see from what I still consider to be the best save I’ve ever seen live – this acrobatic effort against Coventry City:
As was a familiar story among Villa’s star players in the late nineties, it was ultimately the club’s perceived lack of ambition that led to Bosnich’s departure. With his contract set to expire in 1999, a return to his former club, Manchester United, to replace the great Peter Schmeichel was an opportunity too good to turn down.
The last time I recall seeing Bosnich play was when Villa faced United in the League Cup later that year. It was a night that saw our former hero subjected to some of the most ferocious abuse I’ve ever heard from the Holte End as Villa ran out 3-1 winners. Incredibly, that’s the last time we beat United at Villa Park.
Looking back, it seems absurd that, for a player who is so revered by a whole generation of Villa fans, his last experience of being in front of the Holte End saw him booed from the field. That’s a matter of deep regret to me. I hope there will be a day in the future when he can return to Villa Park and get the ovation he so richly deserves.
At first glance, Bosnich’s decision to join United appears justified. He was man of the match as United won the 1999 Intercontinental Cup, and also won a Premier League title medal in 2000. Despite this, for whatever reason, he wasn’t viewed as a good fit at Old Trafford. United first attempted to replace him with the comical Massimo Taibi, before the arrival of French World Cup winner, Fabien Barthez, saw him frozen out of the squad for good.
If a move to Chelsea offered a chance of redemption, it was ultimately quashed by goings-on in his personal life. One cocaine-related drugs ban later, Bosnich was sacked in disgrace.
It was a sad end to a career that had already delivered a lot, and should have promised so much more. Today, I think he’s massively underappreciated. Whenever you hear discussions about the best Premier League goalkeeper of all time, Bozzie’s name is seldom mentioned. It frustrates me, because I don’t think people realise how good he was.
From me, and so many other Villa fans, he will always get the appreciation he deserves. My icon, my hero. I’ll always wear ‘The Bosnich Shirt’ with pride.
This blog is part two of #MyFavouriteGoalkeepers, paying tribute to my 12 favourite shot-stoppers from 30 years of football fandom. Part one featured the late, great Les Sealey.
Check back soon for the next edition, which will celebrate one of the icons of the 1994 World Cup.