Interview: Bruce Grobbelaar on how Scots shaped his career

In the dim and distant 1980s, when newspapers were less inclined to carry in-depth features and interviews, autobiographies were the main way to learn about a footballer's life.
Bruce Grobbelaar in Liverpool, promoting his new autobiography, Life in a Jungle. Picture: Christian TrampenauBruce Grobbelaar in Liverpool, promoting his new autobiography, Life in a Jungle. Picture: Christian Trampenau
Bruce Grobbelaar in Liverpool, promoting his new autobiography, Life in a Jungle. Picture: Christian Trampenau

They had awful, punning titles, and most of them are stacked in a bookcase in my childhood bedroom. Tall Dark and Hansen, No Half Measures and Life at the Kop are purporting to be the work of Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Phil Neal respectively.

Looking back, they were nearly all terrible. But only one of them, as far as is known, earned a rebuke from a despotic president. More Than Somewhat, Bruce Grobbelaar’s first volume of memoirs, stood out, both for its curious title and the fact the subject dealt with rather weightier issues 
than Souness explaining how Kenny Dalglish thought his compatriot must be a homosexual because he used a hairdryer when they shared a room at Liverpool.

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Grobbelaar’s tome dealt with death: senseless death in the Rhodesian Bush War of independence, some of it inflicted by Corporal Grobbelaar himself, and equally senseless death in a football stadium in Brussels. His crime in the eyes of Robert Mugabe was referring to the so-called enemy in his first book, published in 1986, as “guerrillas” rather than “freedom fighters”.

Mugabe confiscated his passport, leaving Grobbelaar rootless and wondering whether he might end up playing for England, Scotland or another of the home nations, providing Fifa was willing to play ball (they weren’t).

Grobbelaar was handed his passport back a few years later because he was needed for a vital World Cup qualifier against Egypt. It turned out to be a temporary arrangement after Grobbelaar tangled with Mugabe once more.

“In 2007 the last president called me to come out to help the Zimbabwe Warriors,” says Grobbelaar pointedly, with reference to Mugabe. “I said to him we needed to talk about remuneration, which should be paid in foreign currency. He replied: ‘We have a problem with foreign currency’.

“I said: ‘Yes I know, because you are stealing every single penny coming into the country and putting it in your bank account. He said: ‘What? I said: ‘You hear me. You are the thief of this country. Your money goes into bank accounts in Singapore, Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. He said: ‘How do you know that? I said: ‘I know the person who is taking it for you’.

“He suggested I did not come back. So from 2007 I did not go back until the start of this year, after the so-called ‘silent coup’.”

He is now in dialogue with President Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor, and has been given two roles by the ruling Zanu-PF party: environment and tourist secretary in North America and secretary for investment in Europe. So he is confident something can be arranged regarding another passport, even if it’s taking longer than he would like.

His heart always remained in Zimbabwe. He yearns to hear the sound of grasshoppers at night and taste an ice-cold Zambezi beer. Africa is in his soul, in his outlook and, it must be said, in his sense of time keeping. “Growing up in Africa teaches you to become patient,” he writes towards the end of Life in a Jungle, published this month.

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A midday appointment yesterday is pushed back further and further until it risks becoming the Sunday Interview. Life in Liverpool’s trendy Baltic Triangle neighbourhood, where we meet at the office of his publishers, is very different to life in a jungle. Liverpool has changed to accommodate the frappe-drinking crowd. Grobbelaar, too, is a different man.

“I think the tone in this one is a bit softer,” he says when he asks if I enjoyed his first autobiography [it was over 30 years ago Bruce!]

“The other one was a bit harder in tone,” he says. “In the Eighties I was brash. I said things and it upset a lot of people. I have now looked into my soul and calmed down all these years later and after all that’s happened to me.”

His ghostwriter, the Norwegian author Ragnhild Lund Ansnes, is female. Veteran tabloid writer Bob Harris penned the first one. “You get a different emotion with a woman compared to a man,” says Grobbelaar.

Unbelievably, Grobbelaar’s new book, which brings his eventful life up to date in ways he will wish he didn’t have to, must deal with a second stadium horror. Grobbelaar was defending the goal at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium at Hillsborough. It’s clearly affected him to the extent that his signature now incorporates a ‘96’ motif, in honour of the number who died in such an avoidable tragedy.

It is a lot of death for one man to cope with. He later got involved with things he would regret. If his explanation still seems a little implausible, perhaps he can be partially excused. It’s not often in this job that you interview someone who has killed people.

Grobbelaar has always, he says, lived for today rather than tomorrow, a philosophy that didn’t serve him so well when accepting brown envelopes from unscrupulous businessmen.

Not thinking about consequences was, he says, partly the reason why he got involved in a long-running, complicated match-fixing case involving John Fashanu and fellow goalkeeper Hans Segers, among others, following a sting operation by the Sun newspaper. Grobbelaar was eventually cleared of all charges, winning damages of just £1, before having to declare bankruptcy after losing a libel case against the Sun on appeal. He now has a very dim view of the justice system.

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“People in high places can let it go on a long time,” he says. “I was away at the time when I finally got cleared. I was in South Africa when I heard I had got damages of a pound – in cheque form. I still have it.

“As regards the 96, there are a lot of people still pushing things under the carpet. People in high places and their colleagues make sure it will run a long time. Why? Because they are trying to hide things.

“The 96 families and the whole of Liverpool need justice. They are not going to stop. However long the government or whoever wants it pushed to one side, they are not going to stop. So please deal with it now and make it better for everyone. It could get ugly.”

He is deeply suspicious of 
authority, understandably so given his background.

If it wasn’t for Scots, then Grobbelaar might well never have made it as footballer. They are strewn throughout his book but nowhere are they more prevalent than in his formative years, growing up in Harare, then known as Salisbury.

A Scot, Dave Russell, was the first to scout him for an all-white team called the Salibury Callies, formed in the early 1960s. The majority of the players were either Scots or from Scottish descent.

Russell had walked past the school where Grobbelaar was playing with two friends. “I noticed this fellow on the road in a white car,” he recalls. “About 15 minutes later he had climbed the fence and started walking towards us. He said, in a deep Scottish accent: ‘Listen son, I would love you to come to Salisbury Callies’.”

Grobbelaar told him he would have to ask his mother, so they walked round the corner to their address on 99 Livingstone Avenue, named after David Livingstone, and got her (eventual) assent. The manager, another Scot called Dick Blackley, handed Grobbelaar his debut when he was only 14.

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“Dick was between a Kenny Dalglish and a Bob Paisley. He never said too much. He would say: ‘You know your roles in the team, get out and play’. Callies wore Rangers blue tops and the keeper wore Celtic green. I remember making my debut in the first team and we got beat 3-1. I made a hash for the first goal. All you hear in a Scottish accent: ‘Get that green shirt off your back, nipple pink colour is more suited to you!’”

He got another chance, replacing the former Hibs player Walter Lowrie due to injury against the Bulawayo-based Matabeleland Highlanders and doing well enough to secure a loan deal to play for the Highlanders following Lowrie’s recovery. He got paid a $450 signing on fee. “My first brown envelope,” he notes ruefully in his new book. “It would not be my last”.

They were an all-black team bar one player – centre-half Martin Kennedy, a Scot of course. Grobbelaar’s first serious girlfriend around this time, Jean McDougall, was from, well, you guessed it.

So it’s with little surprise when, having travelled 250 miles from Edinburgh to see him yesterday, I’m casually informed of Grobbelaar’s plans for the weekend. They involve lunch in Edinburgh and then a trip to Carnoustie to play in a Sir Steve Redgrave charity golf event.

Grobbelaar might even have joined Celtic but claims religion got in the way. Not his – his father, Hendrik Gabriel, he recounts, was a mix of everything by the end: Dutch Reform, Anglican and Presbyterian. But that of his mate Graham “Budgie” Shearer, another Scot, who was also asked to go on trial. “He was the wrong religion, Protestant, we didn’t go.

“We were going to go as apprentices. We even had tickets! Our coach went on holiday with his missus to Scotland instead with the two tickets.”

Grobbelaar’s upbringing was happy, for the most part, if a little chaotic. His mother, Beryl, once broke his nose after punching him for stealing Scotch from the house.

He was transferred from Callies to Chibuku, another black team, for $3,500, a record for a teenager. Callies used the funds to pay for a new cocktail bar.

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Scots continued to feature in his early career – at West Bromwich Albion, where he played with Willie Johnston, and then at Vancouver Whitecaps, where he played with…Willie Johnston. Once, after a game in San Diego, they ended up in the Mexican border town of Tijuana. Johnston went missing with another team-mate: “They flew back from Las Vegas. I have no idea how they got to Vegas.”

He was at Vancouver Whitecaps when he was called up to play international football for the first time. John Rugg, a former Queen of the South and Berwick Rangers player from Edinburgh, recruited him for Rhodesia’s first game since being reconstituted as Zimbabwe, a World Cup qualifier v Cameroon in 1980.

“He was a father figure,” recalls Grobbelaar, now 60. “And a brilliant statistician, before his time. He looked at he stats of all the players and worked out who had the best stats at the time and picked them. He could see if players were losing momentum in the game and give them something else to work on, so in the next game you could see the players had picked up another 15 minutes’ worth of energy.”

During his later passport problems, Bobby Robson made an approach to see if he would play for England. He was excelling for Liverpool by this stage, having been bought from Crewe Alexandra by Bob Paisley. This was despite the Liverpool manager leaving before kick-off at a Crewe game after seeing Grobbelaar’s warm-up routine, which included sitting on the crossbar. On this particular occasion, since it was raining, he also walked out on to the pitch with an umbrella. Paisley left to watch a match at nearby Port Vale instead.

The Liverpool manager was persuaded to have another look. Grobbelaar became a fixture during one of the great eras, winning, among 13 major trophies, the European Cup on a wild, memorable night in Rome in 1984. He might have another medal had he not ensured rival reserve goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic was given his place on the bench for the 1981 final in Paris against Real Madrid, reasoning he deserved it more. It seems a mature decision from someone so young.

“Where was I young? Not in the head I wasn’t,” counters Grobbelaar. “Negotiations were very easy at that time. I was happy to be living. Even today, it is a blessing you are alive.”

He was due to take the fifth penalty v AS Roma but was so busy celebrating Graziani’s skied effort that Joe Fagan got Alan Kennedy to take it instead. He is nevertheless forever associated with this shootout due to his “spaghetti legs” routine in an attempt to put the AS Roma players off.

Of course, it might have been Dundee United they faced that night. Paul Sturrock is still writing letters to Uefa in an attempt to get some kind of official recognition that United were cheated out of the final by a corrupt referee. Grobbelaar is sympathetic and has a theory that might, or might not, be related to his own involvement with corruption charges.

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“I don’t think Uefa would have liked Scotland v England in Rome,” he says.

“I can understand [Sturrock’s point]. I have said it from the start. Going through my time as a coach in Zimbabwe and in South Africa, I know for a fact if there is anything dodgy in a game, look at the three people in black. They are the catalyst. It has been proven in Africa time and time again that the three people running the game have been paid off.”

Discussion about this game in Rome leads inevitably to another Scot, Graeme Souness. The midfielder was an inspiration all through that season and as skipper lifted the trophy in his final game before joining Sampdoria. Grobbelaar has no doubt: the finest player he has ever played alongside. Better, even, than his old pal Kenny Dalglish.

“You could ask him to play any position and he would,” he explains. “Kenny could only play probably three or four positions. He could not play anywhere along the back for example. Souness could do everything. If his hands were bigger and he was a bit taller he might even have played in goals as well, so I am quite lucky!”

As a player, supreme. As a manager? Here Grobbelaar’s love affair with Scots turned sour. Souness was seemingly intent on replacing his old team-mate, who was targeting previous No 1 Ray Clemence’s record of 470 league games. Not that Souness seemed to know, or care, persisting with the erratic David James.

“His geography was not very good,” complains Grobbelaar. “I was out in Zimbabwe playing for the national team and the team were in Italy doing so-called high altitude training.

“I asked him how high it was where they were? He told me they were 2,000 feet above sea level. I said: ‘Why am I coming down 3,700 feet to do high altitude training then? Zimbabwe is 5,700 feet. I am doing it right here.’ We disagreed on that and many other things, especially going away to play for my country.”

But he has no wish to add Souness to a list of enemies headed by the ousted Mugabe. “As a manager, I never liked him,” Grobbelaar adds. “But he’s not a bad lad.”