Bruce Grobbelaar: Tears of a clown
He was eternally unpredictable, yet Bruce Grobbelaar spent more than a decade as the goalkeeper of one of the world's most famous football clubs and won a European Cup, six league titles, three FA Cups and three League Cups. Though his reputation has been severely tainted by a match-fixing scandal, his eccentricities may yet be his lasting legacy.
Grobbelaar was born in Durban, South Africa, in October 1957, but at two months old he moved to Rhodesia after his father accepted a job on the railways. He came to class himself as Rhodesian - and later Zimbabwean following independence in 1980 - and would fight for the Rhodesia Regiment in the Rhodesian Bush War. He wrote in his autobiography that, at 18, "I killed my first man".
By that stage, he had already played football for Highlanders FC in Bulawayo and Highlands Park in Johannesburg, but the experience of battle changed the way he approached the sport. "A lot of my colleagues have been injured, maimed and a lot of them have been killed," he told LFC.tv's 60 Minutes. "If you can stay alive and enjoy life, that's the whole heart and soul of life. That's why I played with a smile on my face all these years."
In 1979, Grobbelaar signed up with Vancouver Whitecaps in the NASL after impressing at a scouting camp in South Africa. He had been second-choice at the club initially - former Wolves goalkeeper Phil Parkes was established as the No. 1 - and to gain first-team experience agreed to a loan spell with Crewe Alexandra in December that year. Crewe were rooted to the bottom of the Fourth Division at the time of his arrival, but results improved significantly in the second half of the season, even if they finished third from bottom and survived relegation only through the re-election process. Grobbelaar wasn't the only factor - manager Tony Waddington made some fairly extensive changes at the club - but he may have been the most significant. "He's the best goalkeeping prospect I've ever seen," Waddington told the Sunday Express in March 1980.
Crewe represented Grobbelaar's first real chance to make a name for himself, and he revelled in it. During games, he would chat to fans and dribble the ball right out of his goal. Before one match, he ran onto the field with his cap, gloves, chewing gum and a grotesque face mask, which he had intended to use to intimidate the opposition. In the final game of the season, Grobbelaar sealed a 2-0 victory over York City by firing home a penalty. The football world was taking notice and, when Liverpool scout Tom Saunders saw him playing at Crewe, he was not to be forgotten.
Grobbelaar ultimately returned to the Whitecaps in 1980, becoming the club's first choice, and continued his antics in Canada. He once arrived at Vancouver airport wearing a fake plaster cast on his arm and leg, prompting the media to report that he had a serious injury, only for Grobbelaar to play the following day in an important league game.
In March 1981, he returned to England when Liverpool paid £250,000 for his services to provide an understudy to England goalkeeper Ray Clemence. As manager Bob Paisley later explained: "My plan in signing Bruce was the tried and trusted one at Liverpool of grooming him in the reserves for a couple of years as a gradual successor to Ray, who was about to reach his 33rd birthday, but Bruce, never short on confidence, told Ray he'd have his place before the end of the season. Ray said to me about Bruce: 'Who does this fellow think he is?'" Clemence subsequently asked for a transfer and was allowed to join Tottenham Hotspur; Paisley felt his request was the direct result of Grobbelaar's presence.
In the 1981 pre-season, Grobbelaar was given his introduction to the first team. On August 8, Grobbelaar was inspirational in a 3-0 win at FC Zurich, yet also managed to entertain the fans by juggling the ball and swinging on the crossbar. "They call him a clown, but he'll have the last laugh," Paisley said. However, on August 22, in a 5-0 win over Home Farm in Dublin, the manager decided the joke had gone too far. "He is a lively character and I never want to take that away from him, but in the middle of that match he did a couple of handstands and had the crowd roaring," Paisley said the following month. "I told him that such a stunt might affect the concentration of the rest of the team and that he should save his tricks for testimonial matches."
Grobbelaar remained Paisley's first-choice 'keeper ahead of Steve Ogrizovic when the season got underway, but serious questions were soon being raised over his erratic displays. On November 4, Liverpool beat AZ 3-2 to reach the European Cup quarter-finals with a 5-4 aggregate victory - given that the Reds had conceded only four goals in nine games when winning the competition the previous season, it was not the most convincing display. "Liverpool are not happy in defence," AZ coach George Kessler said afterwards. "They are afraid for their goalkeeper." The defence were certainly having to adapt: Alan Hansen, in the book A Matter of Opinion, said Clemence had been a "great communicator" but that "Bruce rarely said anything during a match. Even if you were going for a ball which he intended taking, he would just come for it and clatter you out of the way".
The following month, Liverpool were beaten 3-0 by Flamengo in the World Club Championship in Tokyo and, by Boxing Day, they had slipped to 12th in the First Division. Paisley stood behind his goalkeeper, and the Reds finally found their form in the league at the turn of the year, but Grobbelaar remained prone to error. In the quarter-finals of the European Cup against CSKA Sofia in March, Liverpool had led 1-0 from the first leg but ultimately crashed out of the competition when Grobbelaar's error in the 79th minute of the second leg led to an equaliser and a way back into the match. Later that month, with the Reds trailing 1-0 in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, three Everton fans ran onto the pitch dressed as jesters at half-time and taunted him with a "Bruce the Clown" placard. Grobbelaar did have the last laugh that time as Liverpool went on to win 3-1. "It was a bit ironic feeling," he later recalled. "They spurred me on to play one of my best games in a derby game."
For the most part, Grobbelaar repaid Paisley's faith in the second half of the season, and Liverpool won the League Cup in March and, after going unbeaten in their final 16 games of the league campaign, the league title. "Last year I was standing out on my own in regard of him," Paisley said in September 1982. "Now he has come good."
The manager's words were perhaps premature - Grobbelaar was still prone to errors. In the 1982-83 season, Liverpool again exited the European Cup at the quarter-final stage as a result of a goalkeeping error: Grobbelaar dropped a cross in a first-leg 2-0 defeat at Widzew Lodz and ultimately succumbed to a 4-3 aggregate defeat. As in the previous year, though, they won the League Cup and then the league.
Paisley stepped down that summer, and was replaced by his assistant, Joe Fagan; Grobbelaar had thus lost his most vocal supporter during those troubled early years. Even so, he raised the standard in the 1983-84 campaign, and Liverpool retained the League Cup and the league and, for the first time since Clemence's departure, reached the European Cup final.
That final, against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, was to provide the most memorable moment of his Liverpool career. The match had finished 1-1 after extra-time, with Grobbelaar making some fine saves, and went to penalties. "Look, Bruce, don't worry about how it is going to go," Fagan had told him ahead of the shootout. "No one is going to blame you if they score all five." He added: "Tell you what, lad, just try and put them off. You'll think of something."
Liverpool took the first penalty, which Steve Nicol missed. Agostino Di Bartolomei then scored for Roma before Phil Neal converted for the Reds. Bruno Conti - a 1982 World Cup winner - stepped up to take Roma's second, at which point Grobbelaar, as he described it, "started doing a '60s disco dance, where you put your hands on your knees and keep crossing them over. Don't ask me why. I always did like doing things differently, and, as I had to keep my feet still on the line, there weren't many options. It worked anyway. He blazed the ball over". Graeme Souness, Ubaldo Righetti and Ian Rush then converted their kicks before Francesco Graziani - another experienced Italy international - stepped up looking to level the scores. "I turned round to the photographers behind the goal and started biting the net," Grobbelaar said. "I remember thinking, 'This is like spaghetti. I know - I'll do a spaghetti legs on him! So I just let my legs go all limp, as if they were strands of spaghetti." Graziani also missed his kick, and Alan Kennedy stepped up to win it for Liverpool.
He began the following season with a superb performance in the 1984 Charity Shield against Everton, though his own goal that day did result in a 1-0 win for the blue half of Merseyside. Fagan defended him - "If it wasn't for Bruce, it could have been a lot worse" - but did not show Paisley's patience when Grobbelaar failed to perform in the early part of the season. After a 2-0 league defeat to Sheffield Wednesday the following month, Fagan put the blame squarely on Grobbelaar, who said: "I was the worst I've ever played for Liverpool and the criticism was well deserved." In November, Liverpool exited the League Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham in the third round, and Fagan said afterwards: "I'm unhappy with Bruce - the goal was his fault."
It was a disappointing season on the domestic front: having seen their four-year League Cup dominance come to an end, they exited the FA Cup at the semi-final stage to Manchester United while, in the league, they finished 13 points behind Everton. In the European Cup, though, they returned to the final and would face Juventus at the Heysel Stadium.
Liverpool lost 1-0 that night, Michel Platini's penalty the difference, but the football scarcely mattered as crowd trouble led to the deaths of 39 Juventus fans, and ultimately saw Liverpool banned from European football for the next six years. For Grobbelaar, who had viewed football as a joyous counterpoint to the needless deaths of war, the tragedy had a deep impact. "I play football for enjoyment and what happened sickened me," he said that later that summer. "Before I went on holiday I was not sure that I could continue to get fun out of football but I feel that, if everyone sticks together, we might still get things right and put a smile back into the game."
Kenny Dalglish took over as player-manager for the following season, and Grobbelaar endured a difficult time. In February 1986, he made mistakes in three successive games - against Manchester United, York and Everton - and, when asked if the goal in the Merseyside derby had taken a deflection, Dalglish dismissively replied: "So he says." In March, Grobbelaar said: "If I keep dropping clangers, all the talk about me leaving Liverpool will come true."
He remained at the club but, for a variety of reasons, the 1988-89 campaign was to prove particularly painful. He had struggled with injury that year, but he was in the Liverpool side that played Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. Grobbelaar had been among the first players to become aware of the tragedy that was unfolding, and Dalglish wrote in My Liverpool Home that he had been "badly affected" by the events that day. Grobbelaar, who had suffered nightmares since his civil war days, was forced to face death first-hand once more and in 1999 he told The Guardian: "You are lying down by yourself and thinking about your football career and the three things you remember are Heysel, Hillsborough and the war."
Liverpool did win the FA Cup that year but, on the final day of the season, Grobbelaar was beaten by Michael Thomas' injury-time goal as Liverpool lost the title in the most dramatic of circumstances. Dalglish, suffering under the pressure of all that had happened, resigned as manager in 1991, and Graeme Souness, Grobbelaar's former team-mate, was appointed after a successful spell at Rangers. Souness brought David James to the club in 1992 and, while Grobbelaar remained first-choice, his position was under threat. He was sent off in a Cup Winners' Cup 4-2 defeat at Spartak Moscow in October 1992, and Souness - whose anger towards the officials that night led to a five-match UEFA ban - described Grobbelaar's error as "diabolical". Mike Hooper was brought in as a replacement and kept his place, and in December it appeared Grobbelaar would be moving on. "I am sad to realise there is no future for me here," Grobbelaar said. "Life is too short to sit around doing nothing."
Stoke took him on loan in early 1993 - manager Lou Macari wrote in Football, My Life that he was "a bit of a gimmicky signing, but he captured the crowd's imagination with those silly wobbles he did with his legs" - before returning to Liverpool amid a 'keeper crisis. Grobbelaar, though, rebelled by going off to play for Zimbabwe on a three-week tour and revealed he had significant issues with Souness. "I fear I'll never play for Liverpool again while he is manager," he said.
Surprisingly, he won back his place in May and began the following season as first-choice, but before long James was the club's No. 1. Roy Evans replaced Souness in January 1994, and a couple of months later Grobbelaar was urging Liverpool to give him a long-term deal - "I fear for the future of this club if they don't re-sign me" - but he ultimately rejected a one-year extension and departed for Southampton.
In November 1994, there was a significant development: The Sun accused Grobbelaar, Hans Segers, John Fashanu and Malaysian businessman Heng Suan Lim of match-fixing, as covered here. He stayed upbeat - he used his cap to collect fake notes thrown from the stands in his first match after the allegations - and remained in the first-team, but after playing only twice in the 1995-96 campaign he moved to Plymouth Argyle in the third tier. By 1997, with his courtroom activity taking centre stage, he found himself making a series of short, unsuccessful moves around English clubs. In 1999, he returned to South Africa to manage Seven Stars but did not last long, and ended up managing six teams over the following five years.
Football brought much misery on Grobbelaar. He witnessed two of football's worst tragedies first-hand, and the match-fixing case ultimately left him bankrupt. Even so, he had always made the most of his time on the field, and it is clear that playing the clown allowed him an escape from his demons. "People ask me why I can still smile on the pitch when we're losing," he told the Daily Express ahead of his 500th Liverpool appearance in November 1990. "I tell them that if you lose your smile and stop being happy, you should find yourself a plot in the graveyard."