“I was 15 years in Serie A then for me to come over to a different county and have another experience was great. It happened in Grimsby. I tell you what, it couldn’t be better than that.”

We begin with the end. The day a passionate Italian love affair was brutally brought to a bloody conclusion. The afternoon an angry manager lost his head at Hatters HQ. Luton 3-2 Grimsby Town was not a great game. Rather it was the nadir of one of Grimsby Town’s greatest stories which revolves around one man – Ivano Bonetti.

The name probably rings a bell. There’s a good chance you’ve read it in relation to famous dressing-room bust-ups between player and manager. Or indeed in an article about weird and wonderful footballing injuries.

Bonetti was the Italian winger who ended up with a fractured cheekbone when the Grimsby manager Brian Laws threw (delete as appropriate) at him following defeat at Kenilworth Road:

a) A chicken leg

b) Chicken wings

c) Chicken sandwiches

d) A plateful of some form of chicken-based snack

In reality, you can delete all of the above. Poultry did not cause the plasma. Instead it was another P – “a punch, pure and simple” as then-manager Laws has since described it. However, let’s not let that truth get in the way of what was a good story.

Bonetti, speaking 20 years later from his home in Rimini on Italy’s east coast, goes further. Meraviglioso – variously translated as wonderful, marvellous and wondrous – is how he describes his time on the north-east coast of Lincolnshire.

“On the first day I arrived in England I arrived at the ground in Grimsby and I saw the lights were on and that there must be a match,” Bonetti – who joined the Mariners in September 1995 – says. “When I went in to the ground it was a reserve game and the manager asked if I wanted to play. I said, why not? It was the right choice.”

Whether it was the right choice or the only one – Laws has suggested that “Grimsby was just about his last port of call” having been “shopped around a number of clubs” – Bonetti chose to stick around. The Mariners were one of the mainstays of the old First Division (that is, the second flight) in the mid-90s but it was still a far cry from Bonetti’s heyday.

Just three years before his arrival at Grimsby the Italian had started for Sampdoria against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the 1992 European Cup final. “I remember that we lost in extra time from a free-kick from Ronald Koeman,” Bonetti says. “It was a fantastic year for us.”

Bonetti’s illustrious backstory and the juxtaposition with his life at Blundell Park was certainly great copy for journalists. Glenn Moore, writing in the Independent on Saturday 2 December 1995, focused on the fact that 10 years previously Bonetti had been playing for Juventus against the South American club champions in the Intercontinental Cup in Japan. “Today he plays for Grimsby against Charlton Athletic in the Endsleigh League First Division in Cleethorpes. The shirt is still black and white stripes, but that is where the resemblance ends. Juventus, 23 times Italian champions, were the first club to win all three European competitions. Grimsby, who last played in the top flight 47 years ago and never won it, do not even send much of a fishing fleet into Europe these days.”

Moore, understandably, drew unfavourable comparisons between where Bonetti had been and where he found himself. But in his fishing flippancy he actually catches one of the more remarkable elements to the story.

Grimsby featured in Channel 4 documentary Skint in 2014. The series focused on deprived areas of the UK and some parts of the show’s trailer tells you plenty about the boom-bust history of the town.

“Money, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. It was just party time. A brothel in every port,” it begins – referencing Grimsby’s happier, more prosperous days. At its post-war high 6,800 fishermen on 700 vessels were catching up to 20,000 metric tons of fish a day out of what was the largest fishing port in Europe.

“But when Grimsby’s biggest industry went so did a lot of the jobs,” the trailer continues. “Everyone says it’s dead easy to get a job, but there is no work. But they are fighters on the east marsh, it’s hard to drag them down.”

Grimsby is regularly named among the most deprived towns in the UK and has had some of the country’s worst unemployment levels since the British fishing industry collapsed. While Bonetti was strutting his stuff at Blundell Park, the town was struggling due to the after-effects of both the Cod Wars, settled 20 years previously in favour of Iceland, and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It’s fair to say the establishment of a 200-nautical-mile exclusive Icelandic fishing zone had devastating ramifications 2,500 miles away in Lincolnshire.

The economic struggles of the town illuminate the extent of the Bonetti love affair. The rights to his “services and image” were owned by a US management company, New York’s World Soccer Promotions. When the Mariners wanted Bonetti to stick around until the end of the season the US company wanted payment for the privilege. The only problem was that Fifa rules forbade Grimsby from negotiating with the company. And so, as they had before and would go on to do subsequently (more of which later), the people of Grimsby put their hands in their pocket. The Ivano Bonetti Fund raised £50,000 through a variety of methods such as collection buckets in the ground at match day and a share of the profits from a pizza that bore the winger’s name at what came to be his favourite Italian restaurant in the town – the Italian Affair on Wellowgate. Bonetti, remarkably, stumped up the rest of the cash himself.

“It is incredible for me,” Bonetti said at the time. “For 15 years in Italy I played alongside big-name foreign players, now I find I am the big-name foreigner in a town which did not know I existed two months ago.”

“It’s typical of working-class areas across the country,” says Nigel Lowther – who covered the Mariners for the Grimsby Evening Telegraph in the 1990s and now edits and part-owns the Cleethorpes Chronicle – a local newspaper which has Blundell Park on its patch as Grimsby Town play in neighbouring Cleethorpes. “It’s a very generous area with big-hearted people. There is a real sense of community and the football club adds to that. It is the only professional sports club in the area and people are generally proud of this area. It was unusual to have someone of his artistry playing for Grimsby Town. [The fans’ fundraising to help sign Bonetti] just showed what a massive impact he had in such a short space of time.”

That impact is underlined by the comments of Steve Plowes, the editor of the Grimsby fanzine Sing When We’re Fishing, from December 1995 – slap bang in the middle of what he described as Ivanomania: “He has galvanised the place. It is like love. Suddenly you fall for someone and you are sitting in a room holding a bunch of flowers. Supporters are turning up in Italian mafia-style suits, they are carrying Italian flags. It’s wonderful.”

“It was a fantastic story because it looked like I was going to have to go away and they raised the money to keep me there,” Bonetti remembers.

For those on the terraces, this long-haired Italian provoked feelings akin to a teenage romance. The dressing-room at times resembled the disapproving parent.

Jamie Forrester, a diminutive forward who scored twice in the ill-fated defeat at Luton, remembers that disparity. “There was a bit of an us and him attitude,” said Forrester, who had spent time on the continent with Auxerre before joining Grimsby and subsequently went on to play for a host of Football League clubs including Scunthorpe United and Northampton Town. “We were quite a tight dressing-room at that time and I would say it disrupted it. As a player you’d be thinking ‘why is he turning up 30 minutes late and not getting fined when we would have been?’”

Forrester also remembers the Italian’s positive impact, saying, “He certainly added to our team and we had some great wins like the Luton game – he provided a lot of goals that day.”

Forrester is not talking of the infamous Luton defeat, but a happier Hatters memory. Two matches against the Bedfordshire outfit arguably sum up Bonetti’s all-too-brief stay.

A month before the 3-2 defeat at Kenilworth Road, Luton were put to the sword at Blundell Park in an FA Cup third round tie. Bonetti stole the show in a 7-1 victory – one goal shy of Grimsby’s record win in the competition, an 8-0 win over Darlington in 1885.

Watching the highlights 21 years on, Bonetti, despite his advancing years (he was 31), looks sharp. He created both of Forrester’s goals, the second coming when he outpaced the Luton defence to run onto a Gary Croft through-ball, before delivering a pacy, pinpoint cross that was asking to be converted.

“He had a fantastic left foot, the like of which we have not seen since at Blundell Park,” Lowther remembers. Grimsby Town legend John McDermott, a veteran of 754 games for the Mariners, has the same memories. “Bonetti was a great player, he really was,” McDermott said in his book It’s Not All Black and White. “He had powerful legs on him and a great left foot. He didn’t speak very good English so he would whistle for the ball if he wanted it. Ivano had great ability and when he was on song there was no one else like him.” 

The 7-1 Luton defeat was one of those days. Bonetti’s goal that afternoon, one of the four he racked up while at Town was an emphatic finish at the far post, fired high into the Hatters net, leaving the giant American keeper Ian Feuer with no chance.

The “mercurial Italian was wowing the fans with his silky wing play” reads a flashback feature on the Grimsby Town club website. Unfortunately, mercurial is not always solely positive. Its synonyms – changeable, unpredictable – offer a suggestion to the curse that came along with Bonetti’s gifts.

“He was a bit of a diva, to be fair,” says Forrester. “He was a good player, technically very good. You would describe him as a luxury player. He didn’t do a lot of defensive work.”

Grimsby were on the defensive early during the 3-2 Luton defeat, falling behind after just seven minutes to a 25-yard Graham Alexander effort that eluded goalkeeper Paul Crichton. The Kenilworth Road pitch for the February 1996 clash was a far cry from the artificial surface Luton had used between 1985 and 1991.

The conditions were such that Bonetti and Forrester were able to recreate the Jürgen Klinsmann belly first mud-sliding goal celebration. The Italian’s free-kick after 17 minutes, headed down by the lanky defender Mark Lever and converted by Forrester, cancelled out Alexander’s effort. Before the half was out, Bonetti had survived a penalty appeal for handball and taken a tumble following a skirmish with Steve Davis that saw the Luton captain yellow-carded.

It was the second half that was to make Laws see red. Bonetti was now being booed every time he touched the ball but, ironically, given what was to come, it was not the Italian who initially provoked Laws’s ire. After 58 minutes, Forester scored his fifth goal of the season – and a fourth in as many weeks against Luton – to put the Mariners 2-1 up.

“From that seemingly unassailable position we fell apart,” Laws said in his 2012 autobiography Laws of the Jungle: Surviving Football’s Monkey Business.

The Bulgarian Bontcho Guentchev and the substitute Dwight Marshall profited from the Grimsby players’ second-half switch off, scoring a goal apiece to turn the contest on its head.

Grimsby legend McDermott – in the stands with food poisoning – picks up the story at 2-2. “Lawsy was shouting out orders for everyone to keep it tight and get the ball in the corners. Ivano wasn’t that sort of player though. He was caught in possession fannying about with it in a dangerous area and next thing you knew Luton went up the other end and scored a late winner.”

McDermott and the other players watching from the stand knew the manager would be seething, but Laws insists his primary concern on returning to the dressing-room was “what I was going to say to Vance”.  

Hindsight is always 20-20 but it’s easy to argue a Laws-Bonetti bust-up was inevitable when you study events of the previous week. Three days before the Luton clash, Grimsby played a fourth-round FA Cup tie against Premiership outfit West Ham at Upton Park.

The player-manager Laws had switched from right to left-back for the Hammers clash meaning he got first-hand experience of his mercurial Italian. With Grimsby 1-0 up – thanks to a goal from Laws himself – Bonetti wasn’t “helping our cause”.

“He kept giving the ball away and in the second half, when we were under real pressure, I needed him back to help me in defence,” Laws says. “He wasn’t always there.”

West Ham eventually equalised through Iain Dowie. With the Mariners under the cosh, Laws substituted Bonetti in place of a defender. In a portent of what was to come the gloves came off, Bonetti’s this time, thrown in a fit of pique en route straight to the Upton Park dressing-rooms.

Fast forward three days, and 35 miles, to Kenilworth Road and sparks are about to fly. Professional sport is no picnic – especially in the aftermath of a frustrating victory. “No other player was tucking into the food provided,” Forrester remembers. “When you lost a game you just sat down and waited for your bollocking. There was no chicken in the room, though, it was sandwiches. I would argue what happened after the game was a cultural thing.”

Cultural maybe, but certainly not cultured. “A highly imaginative version of events has been passed down in folklore,” Laws wrote in a chapter of his memoirs entitled Bonetti and Me: The Truth at Last. “I was the barbarian boss who flung a tray of chicken wings at one of his own players and put him in hospital requiring surgery for a fractured cheekbone. Actually, it was worse than that. I THUMPED HIM! I caught him with my mean left hook!”  Laws goes on to say that it was Bonetti who had thrown the first punch and indeed the sandwiches.

“The truth is I took some chicken and he saw food in my hand and said some bad word – ‘We have lost and you are eating.’ Then he punched me,” Bonetti said. “It was a big mistake because we could have had a fantastic season and it affected it. After the accident it compromised the rapport. The season was finished on that day.” 

The question of who started it remains up in the air, it seems. Bonetti’s assertion that the season was doomed from there on in is without question. After a 1-0 win over Tranmere on November 25, Grimsby sat second in the table. They ended the campaign in 16th.

A promotion push wasn’t the only dream to die that day. While the Grimsby assistant Kenny Swain mopped (a bib was his method of choice to try to get Bonetti’s blood off the changing room floor), McDermott moped. Not because of any concerns about matters on the field though. Prior to the punch-up the original post-match plan was for Bonetti, McDermott, the captain Paul Groves and the midfielder Craig Shakespeare to go to Bonetti’s house on Lake Garda for a weekend paid for by the Italian.

“There was total commotion – here was our best player with blood pouring out of his face,” McDermott said. “But I have to confess, all I could think about was what was going to happen to my weekend in Italy. We were there with our suitcases all packed. I felt like saying to Ivano, ‘Come on man, it’s only a scratch – what’s up with you?’”

McDermott later found out the Italy plan had featured a limo to and from the airport followed by a millionaires’ party on Lake Garda with the likes of Gianluca Vialli and Gianluca Pagliuca, Bonetti’s mates from his Sampdoria days. That dream never materialised. The Bonetti bubble had spectacularly burst. As Laws put it, “the shit had hit the fan”.

A front-page headline in the Sun read: “COULD YOU WORK FOR A MAN WHO DOES THIS?” The answer, ultimately, was no. Bonetti left Blundell Park for Tranmere Rovers at the end of the season.  

Four days after the infamous incident, he had been back on the pitch at Blundell Park but only for a PR stunt – a painful handshake between Laws and Bonetti ahead of the FA Cup fourth-round replay against West Ham. The handshake was meant to prove to the fans that all was well. It clearly wasn’t, but it didn’t stop Grimsby producing arguably their performance of the campaign to beat the Hammers 3-0. Forrester was again on the scoresheet and, while McDermott’s heart was still on Lake Garda, for others life after Bonetti had begun.

“At that time if we won it felt like it was because of Bonetti and if we lost it was down to us,” Forrester says. “So when we beat West Ham without him the lads were pleased because we felt it showed it’s not all about Bonetti.

Lowther argues the terraces took a lot longer than the dressing-room to move on. “People do harp back to those times,” he says. “I think it is those times that kept the enthusiasm in the club while they were in non-league. They have been absolutely focused on getting those moments back.”

There is an irony to Lowther’s argument regarding the power of Bonetti’s memory in that the fans themselves had to pay for the privilege of finally moving on. Twenty years after helping purchase the Italian the supporters, so fed up of watching their now-Conference team miss out in the play-offs, launched Operation Promotion. Rallied by supporters’ group the Mariners Trust, a target of £20,000 was set to give the manager Paul Hurst some cash towards a transfer kitty to help get Town back into the Football League. The methods were more sophisticated – an online crowd-funding campaign compared with the Bonetti buckets – but the outcome, and the underlying message it revealed about the Town, were the same.

True to their Bonetti form of two decades previously the Grimsby faithful went above and beyond in the summer of 2015, raising £110,000 with more than 2,000 supporters pledging money. “I already knew how important this club is to the fabric of the area, but it has been incredible to see,” Hurst said at the time, echoing the comments of Lowther.

That cash helped, among others, another left-footed would-be talisman to arrive in north Lincolnshire. Omar Bogle arrived from the Conference North rather than Serie A and despite his more humble origins with Solihull Moors his impact has been similarly sizeable. After 16 league goals in the regular season, two more at Wembley in Grimsby’s 3–1 play-off final victory over Forest Green Rovers in May 2016 secured promotion to the Football League after a six-year absence. In their fourth-consecutive play-off appearance the Mariners were finally back.

In 1976 Grimsby fans paid a chunk of the £10,000 needed to sign Joe Waters from Leicester City – an inspired investment in a player who went on to become a club legend, making over 400 appearances and leading the Mariners to successive promotions.

Forty years on Bogle has spent a good chunk of the 2016-17 campaign as the country’s leading scorer and could be set to turn the original Operation Promotion cash into a huge profit from a sizeable transfer fee.

Sandwiched – sorry – in the middle of these two talismanic Town players is the hugely gifted Bonetti. His story lacks the staying power of Waters or Bogle – the Italian only played 19 league games for Grimsby. But the level of affection, appropriately given the Italian spends much of his retirement playing footgolf, is firmly on a par with the other two

“I feel I was an important person for everyone in Grimsby,” Bonetti concludes 20 years later. “Everyone was asking me if I was happy and everyone tried to help me. It was a beautiful story.”

Beautiful, yet all too brief. In many ways the Bonetti story mirrors that of Grimsby’s so-called “three-day millionaires”. During the town’s heyday in the 1950s, returning fishermen were well known for their 72-hour spending sprees. While back on dry land they always looked a cut above the rest – the trawlermen were well known for their extravagant suits –they just never stuck around for long.