Last laugh on the Clown Prince

With his macho-man moustache, his derisive grin and his wobbling knees, Bruce Grobbelaar went through the 1980s as the pantomime villain of big-time football.

While he and his Liverpool teammates were mopping up six league championships in nine years, the Zimbabwean became the green-shirted destroyer of other men’s dreams, a goalkeeper whose antics concealed a tradecraft and a courage that provided the foundation for a decade of almost unbroken success.

Grobbelaar’s name came up a few days ago, when Liverpool were drawn to meet Roma in the next round of this year’s Uefa Cup.
Commentators instantly evoked memories of the night, 17 years ago, when the two clubs met in Rome’s Olympic stadium in the final of the EuropeanCup, Liverpool leaving as champions after winning an agonising penalty shoot-out.

Grobbelaar was at his best on such occasions, his earlier service as a scout in the Rhodesian army, tracking the movements and dodging the bullets of Robert Mugabe’s guerrilla fighters, being popularly supposed to have enabled him put mere penalty kicks with plastic-coated footballs into proper perspective.

Yet if Grobbelaar was vital to the triumphs of Liverpool’s greatest era, so was he also present on its most tragic occasions: the night in the Heysel stadium when 40 Italian fans were crushed to death before the start of the 1985 European Cup final, just as the team were preparing to defend the title they had won for the fourth time the previous year; and the spring afternoon at Hillsborough in Sheffield four years later when 94 of the Anfield club’s supporters died before an FA Cup semifinal.

Like his teammates, the usually flamboyant Grobbelaar conducted himself through those dark days with notable sensitivity and decorum. But his conduct was not always so admirable. His body check on the hobbling Gordon McQueen of Manchester United in the last minute of normal time in the 1983 League Cup final, the sort of thing known in the game as a “professional foul”, was thought to be the worst of its kind since Toni Schumacher of West Germany crashed into Patrick Battiston of France in the 1982 World Cup semifinal—but it kept Liverpool in the game.

Instead of being sent off, as he deserved, Grobbelaar was still on the pitch to see his team win 2-1 after extra time. It was an ungallant victory and unworthy of the club’s distinguished manager, Bob Paisley, who was taking them to a Wembley final for the last time. In Rome the following year his decision to disturb the concentration of Francesco Graziani during the penalty shoot-out probably won Liverpool the European Cup for the fourth time.

By wobbling his knees on the goal line in a parody of stark terror as the veteran striker prepared to take his kick, Grobbelaar seemed to provoke the Italian into a wild miss. Grobbelaar’s action, although effective and to some extent amusing, undeniably contravened any definition of sporting etiquette.

When Grobbelaar’s powers eventually declined, so did Liverpool’s. At 34, after 12 years with the club, his departure from Anfield coincided with the rise of Manchester United. His relationships with his team-mates may not have been uniformly cordial; several years later, at least one refused to appear as a character witness at his trial.

Barely a year after removing his kit from the Liverpool boot room for the last time, Grobbelaar became the central figure in a scandal concerning allegations of match fixing, involving Far East betting rings and Grobbelaar’s business partner, that looked as though they might shake the game to its foundations.

Now, following the appeal court’s reversal of the verdict in Grobbelaar’s libel action against The Sun, it threatens to do so again—particularly in a climate in which, after the Hansie Cronje story, the public no longer clings to a naïve belief in the natural probity of sports stars. Ironically enough, while Grobbelaar’s lawyers have been doing battle with Rupert Murdoch’s representatives, the former goalkeeper has been earning his living in South Africa, coaching Supersport United.

The club, formerly known as Pretoria Callies, rechristened itself after it was purchased by M-Net, whose Supersport channel carries Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports programmes in South Africa. His time there has represented something of a return to his roots. Although he is a Zimbabwean, his grandfather was born in Cape Town, a British stronghold during the Anglo-Boer South African War, during which his great-grandfather was a fusilier in the British army.

Grobbelaar himself was born in Durban in 1957. After his service with the Rhodesian African Rifles in the war of liberation he made his way to Canada, where he played for Vancouver Whitecaps. He had ambitions to play in England, however, and after a brief loan period with Crewe Alexandra (for whom, curiously, he scored his only league goal) in 1979-80 he was bought by Paisley for Liverpool for a fee of £250 000.

He was 22 when he arrived on Merseyside, and his chance was not long in coming. At the start of the 1981-82 season he made what was to be the first of 627 first-team appearances for the club. For his first five seasons, in fact, he missed not a single league match as a member of a team graced by such great players as Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Graham Souness and John Barnes.

Eventually he was earning about £4 000 a week—a top wage for the era—and living with his wife, Debbie, a former air stewardess, and their daughters, Tahli and Olivia, in a £250 000 house on the Wirral. His spell at Anfield, where he also won three FA Cup winner’s medals, represented Grobbelaar’s only extended sojourn at any football club. After his departure in 1993, following his refusal of a one-year contract which he described as “an insult” and “like a slap in the face”, his curriculum vitae over the remaining six years of his playing career reads like an extended plunge into the nether regions of English football.

A loan period at Stoke City was followed by spells at Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Oldham Athletic, Oxford United (where he lasted less than a week), Sheffield Wednesday (another loan period, shortly after he was found not guilty of all charges in the retrial of the match-rigging case), Oldham Athletic, Chesham United (for whom he turned out in a 7-1 victory over Brackley in the Ryman League in August 1998, in front of a crowd of 100), Bury, Lincoln City (who released him two days before Christmas 1998), and, finally, Northwich Victoria, another non-league side, where he was signed in October 1999 as a non-contract player to provide temporary cover for their suspended regular goalkeeper.

So far behind football’s front line had Grobbelaar fallen that in 1998 he offered his services to Northern Spirit, an Australian league team. Spirit, however, rejected the 40-year-old former European champion, preferring instead to buy Zeljko Kalac, the number two keeper for Australia. While his libel action took its course, Grobbelaar returned to South Africa. His first port of call was Cape Town, where he managed Seven Stars before moving north to Supersport United.

Last weekend in the Caledonian stadium, the former home of Arcadia Shepherds, the former hero of Anfield’s Spion Kop watched as his team, named after a cable TV channel, beat Santos, a team named after the Brazilian club that nurtured Pele, the international symbol of all that is pure and admirable about football—the man, indeed, who called it “the beautiful game”.

“My ambition,” Grobbelaar told Simon Kuper of The Observer almost two years ago, “is to manage Liverpool.” Until last week, he might even have believed it possible.

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