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Jan 16, 2009

Clown prince's reign comes to an end

Liverpool's last title winners of 1990 are receiving plenty ofcolumn inches of late. Nineteen years on, their former club has its best chance of finally succeeding that 18th championship. Many of those players are now in the media, often holding forth on what it will take for Rafa Benitez's team to emulate the success of their forebears.

Yet that team's biggest character is rarely heard from. That might be to do with Bruce Grobbelaar's residence in South Africa though most would point to another reason. On January 18 2001, the writing was on the wall, former goalkeeper Grobbelaar's long fight to recover his reputation was all but lost when London's Court of Appeal reversed a successful libel trial against The Sun newspaper.

Fervent fans of Liverpool remember their former "clown prince" as an acrobatic extrovert between the sticks during some of their club's greatest days but the majority of football followers will consider the Zimbawean as notorious for his association with match-fixing.

Grobbelaar was cleared of any charges after the collapse of two criminal trials but in launching a libel action against the might of News International, his name was eventually muddied beyond recovery.

After arriving in England in 1980 after a spell in the old NASL with Vancouver Whitecaps, Liverpool picked up the moustachioed keeper after a short spell at Crewe Alexandria. The Zimbabwean, a talented cricketer who had even been offered a baseball scholarship in the USA in his teens, won 13 major honours in 13 years at Anfield.

In 1994 that run of glory was forever tarnished after allegations that he had fixed matches while a player at Liverpool and Southampton were broken by The Sun newspaper. Journalists had obtained a video of him seemingly agreeing to throw a Saints match against his old club. Unwittingly he was being filmed by friend and business partner Chris Vincent.

Like the footballer, Vincent had served in the Rhodesian army in the civil war that preceded the formation of the new state of Zimbabwe and the two had been close until Vincent, in financial trouble after the failure of a joint venture in a safari park, had been persuaded to do a sting on his compatriot by a pair of Sun hacks.

The tabloid based its bestselling front-page splash on the allegation, gleaned from the tapes, that the goalkeeper had taken £40,000 to make sure Liverpool lost 3-0 to Newcastle in November 1993 and that he had sacrificed a potential £125,000 by inadvertently making a save during Liverpool's pulsating 3-3 draw with Manchester United in January 1994. The revelations led to a police investigation that pulled in two other players, John Fashanu and Hans Segers, both of Wimbledon, and a Malaysian businessman in Richard Lim, said to be the link-man behind a Far East fix.

The first trial had ended in deadlock in March 1997 and been ruled a mistrial when the jury failed to reach a verdict, at a cost of £10m to the taxpayer. The second trial, ending in August 1997, saw all four cleared of all charges. An FA enquiry in December of that year saw Grobbelaar, by then 40 and at the end of his football career, given a six-month ban, suspended for two years, after he admitted he had helped a Far East betting syndicate to forecast the result of matches.

A defiant Grobbelaar decided that The Sun would be made to pay for what he saw as the vindictiveness of a newspaper that he "wouldn't even wipe my f**king arse with". In July 1999, a jury agreed that, on the balance of probabilities, the The Sun had failed to prove their claims.

Grobbelaar claimed that while Vincent had been videoing him he had been in the process of staking out his now sworn enemy and had been ready to take evidence of his compatriot's wrongdoings to friends in the police. During the discussion taking place in the video he claimed he had been only been going along with Vincent to find out more before he could shop him to the authorities.

He later explained these actions in the terms of his time as a soldier during the Rhodesian Bush War: "I should have confided in them. Why didn't I? Because I was returning to my days in the bush. As a tracker, you are out in front, doing your own thing, trying to find people...By accepting the money, I was doing the same - attempting to discover exactly what was occurring with Vincent." Grobbelaar took home £85,000 in damages with The Sun having to pay his £500,000 costs as well as their own. The newspaper chose to appeal, and though it had now lost the services of fabled barrister George Carman, who had acted for them in the original trial but subsequently died on the second day of 2001, it was successful. On appeal, the jury's verdict was overturned on January 18 2001 with Lord Justice Simon Brown saying the jury's verdict at the High Court hearing of August 1999 "represents a miscarriage of justice which this court can and must correct" and "I come at last to consider the probabilities of the case, and it is at this point that to my mind Mr Grobbelaar's story falls apart".

The overturning of the initial verdict on the grounds that it was "perverse" was a groundbreaking development that has occurred very rarely in British judicial history, and it was a decision the original plaintiff said had "flabbergasted" him. "I have never done anything in football to taint the game and I stand by that," he told press outside the court.

Only one option for Grobbelaar to clear his name remained, the House of Lords, the highest legal entitty in the land. A petition to get his name cleared secured him his final day in court in October 2002. He was successful in getting the verdict returned to its initial outcome. Though this was a truly Pyrrhic victory. The legal firsts of the case continued when four out of five law lords chose to overturn the previous verdict but took the step of awarding him just £1 in damages.

By terms ot the law, Grobbelaar had been libelled but the minimum amount of damages were handed to him because he had no reputation to defame, having in the video admitted taking bribes. The remaining law lord had agreed with the Court of Appeal's decision.

Lord Millett said: "By his own conduct, Mr Grobbelaar has destroyed the value of his own reputation, and this is sufficient to disentitle him to any but nominal damages." The law lords did not believe he had let in the goals in the offending games but said that he had acted "in a way in which no decent or honest footballer would act".

Made to pay costs of over £1m, Grobbelaar's finances joined his reputation in being in tatters. Unable to pay back the money he now owed to The Sun, he was soon declared bankrupt.

Grobbelaar had once stated that he wanted to "one day return to Anfield as the manager of Liverpool FC", an ambition that now seems as likely as him walking on the moon. With outstanding debt orders against him in the UK, he was forced to pursue his coaching career in South African football, with little success. His rare appearances in Britain come in charity matches for his former team, where he is still welcomed by a club with an understandable antipathy towards the publication that brought about his downfall.

As ever with this strong character who has always lived life on his own terms, just as he played, he has expressed little regret at what ended his time in England save to repeat mantra-like a side of the story he continues to stick to, while still railing against the country's legal system: "The Britons bankrupted me. I came to their country with £10 in my pocket and they gave me £1 back. But in between I had one hell of a ride."

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