Bruce Grobbelaar is the very epitome of the term ‘character’. In a career lasting more than twenty years, thirteen of which were spent between the sticks at Liverpool, he divided opinion like very few who went before or who have gone since.
A quick glance at the list of honours won by Grobbelaar and one can’t help but be impressed. Six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups and a single European Cup were amassed between 1982 and 1992 in the colours of the Anfield men, leaving Grobbelaar out on his own as the most successful goalkeeper in the history of the English game, ahead even of Peter Schmeichel in terms of trophies won.
Clearly, nobody can earn a list of honours of this scale without having something special in the locker and without being a very elite player. And yet…..Grobbelaar doesn’t receive the plaudits one would ordinarily expect of a recipient of such prizes.
The reasons for this are perhaps complex.
Born in 1957 in Durban, South Africa, as a schoolboy and youth Grobbelaar was a talented sportsman, excelling in both cricket and basketball.
Preferring to play football, Grobbelaar was beginning to make his way in the game when he was conscripted into the Rhodesia army through National Service. This was no marching-around-barracks type of National Service, as it was at this time that the Rhodesian Bush War, or Fight for Independence, was raging. Grobbelaar was charged with the duty of fighting for Ian Smith’s white-minority government against Robert Mugabe’s African National Union in the bush.
The horrors of the atrocities Grobbelaar not only witnessed but by his own admission, took part in have lived with him to this day and one can only wonder at the effect they must have had on him.
Upon his discharge, Grobbelaar was able to pursue his footballing career. This took him initially to Canada and the Vancouver Whitecaps, and then to England, where after a trial at West Bromwich Albion failed to result in a contract, Crewe Alexander stepped in and gave Grobbelaar his bow in league football.
Grobbelaar played two-thirds of a season for Crew before being spotted by Liverpool scout, Tom Saunders. Saunders recommended him to Bob Paisley and in March 1981 he signed for Liverpool as cover for the legendary Ray Clemence.
It was anticipated that Grobbelaar would serve an apprenticeship of at least two years in the reserves, but Liverpool and the football world, in general, were taken by surprise when Ray Clemence suddenly announced that summer he wanted to leave the club.
Quite why Clemence decided to leave Anfield when he was at the peak of his career and a year before the World Cup has never been explained, despite the abundance of rumours abound at the time and since. Nevertheless, Grobbelaar was now thrust into the spotlight and it was to prove to be a baptism of fire.
That season, 1981-82, was a struggle for both Liverpool and Grobbelaar in particular. The defence was shaky and having played for so long in front of the dependable Clemence, it collectively found it more difficult to adapt to both the style and antics of Grobbelaar. Whereas Clemence would organise the defence but not usually be seen coming for crosses outside the six-yard box, Grobbelaar would not hesitate to come for balls as far out as the penalty spot and beyond.
Grobbelaar’s handling and positional sense was also found wanting in those early months and matters came to a head on Boxing Day 1981 when Liverpool were comprehensively beaten 3-1 at home by Manchester City with the ‘keeper at fault for at least two of the goals. Grobbelaar’s place was under jeopardy and had there been a viable alternative in the transfer market at the time, his Liverpool career would likely have ended then and there.
As it was, Liverpool and Paisley were forced to preserve with Bruce and matters did improve in the second half of the season as the league title and League Cup were won.
This was to be the last time for several years that Grobbelaar’s place was to come under threat as the side continued to clean up both domestically and abroad. However, this did not mean Grobbelaar was suddenly immune to high-profile gaffs. In successive seasons mistakes by the man in green were ultimately responsible for Liverpool’s elimination from the European Cup, and at one point Bob Bolder was signed from Sheffield Wednesday with the view of seriously challenging Grobbelaar for a place in the starting line-up.
In 1985-86, with Bolder packed off to Sunderland, Grobbelaar once again came under pressure. By now Kenny Dalglish had taken over as Liverpool player-manager and was keen to stamp his own style on the side. The season didn’t start particularly well and after some more inconsistent performances, Grobbelaar was warned he ‘wasn’t in a strong position’. Unfortunately, or fortunately, with the experienced Bolder sold Liverpool only had the relatively inexperienced Mike Hooper, a recent acquisition from Wrexham, as back-up and so Grobbelaar survived.
Two almighty clangers in successive games in February 1986 against Everton and then Tottenham, looked to have derailed Liverpool’s title bid, but a strong run towards the end of the season put the Anfield men back in contention for the league and cup double.
After making his debut in August 1981 it wasn’t until five years later that Grobbelaar finally missed a match. Injured in the 1986 FA Charity Shield against Everton, Grobbelaar missed the first few games of the league season. He was also injured towards the end of the season and so missed the run-in that saw Liverpool concede their title to Everton.
Around this time Glasgow Rangers manager Graeme Souness attempted to sign Grobbelaar for his Ibrox Revolution only to be knocked back by Dalglish. Ex-playing colleagues, Souness and Grobbelaar would have to wait another few years to be reunited.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Grobbelaar was part of the furniture at Anfield and his eccentric ways, showmanship and occasional mistakes were all part and parcel of what was expected from him. He was popular on the terraces without ever being truly adored. This was perhaps partly due to his unreliability and also his somewhat aggressive manner. Many were the time when he could be seen raring up on his teammates for real or perceived mistakes.
High profile examples included instigating a pushing match with left-back Jim Beglin in the 1986 FA Cup Final and an on-field punch-up with Steve McManaman in a Goodison Derby a few years later.
After Dalglish left the club and Souness was appointed in his stead, Grobbelaar came under serious pressure for his place. The two men clashed repeatedly and eventually, it became clear that Grobbelaar’s time at the club was drawing to an end. Souness signed David James from Watford as Grobbelaar’s eventual successor, and also gave Mike Hooper a significant number of games. However, Grobbelaar actually outlasted Souness at Anfield by a matter of months before Souness’s successor, Roy Evans, gave him a free transfer and he signed for Southampton.
After two seasons on the south coast, Grobbelaar played a further one for Plymouth Argyle before becoming a footballing nomad and signing for a host of lower-division and non-league clubs on short term contracts.
After leaving Liverpool, Grobbelaar became embroiled in a scandal unprecedented in English sport when he was charged with taking bribes to lose matches. In an undercover sting perpetrated by a national newspaper, Grobbelaar was filmed and recorded talking about letting in goals for money. On the tapes he could clearly be heard admitting to taking money for playing badly in games involving both Liverpool and Southampton and so was arrested and charged.
The evidence, which included Grobbelaar boasting how he could make up to £40,000 per game, seemed on the surface to be pretty damning. Grobbelaar was also filmed on video accepting a packet of cash.
In his defence, Grobbelaar claimed he was merely playing along with the idea of fixing matches in an attempt to lure his former business partner, with whom he now shared bad blood, into admitting that he was the one who was up to no good and committing crimes. It seemed a flimsy defence and it was one that the jury couldn’t agree upon at the time.
A retrial was ordered after a hung jury and this time Grobbelaar was acquitted on all but one of the charges. The second jury had also been unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charge and so the judge in the case ordered that a verdict of not guilty be recorded.
Grobbelaar walked out of the courtroom a free man, if not quite vindicated. Many found his conduct to be questionable at best and felt that any man admitting to, and accepting money for, deliberately letting in goals had at least a case to answer. It was then that Grobbelaar decided to pursue a claim against the newspaper for libel and so another series of court cases ensued. Grobbelaar won the first trial, lost the appeal, and then finally prevailed in the House of Lords.
The judgement in the final hearing, however, was damning. Despite finding for Grobbelaar, the Law Lords found that Grobbelaar’s conduct had been so unbecoming that compensation was reduced to a token £1. Grobbelaar was also obliged to pay all legal costs and when he was unable to do so, he filed for bankruptcy.
To this day opinion is split between those who steadfastly believe Grobbelaar’s version of events and harbour no doubts about the man’s honesty and integrity, and those who merely give Grobbelaar the benefit of a very big doubt.
A career in coaching, mostly back in South Africa, followed Grobbelaar’s playing career and today he is a frequent face at Anfield where he is, in the main, fondly remembered.