US & World

Grobbelaar: Football saved me after trauma


Bruce Grobbelaar last donned a Liverpool shirt in 2016 for a legends game

Former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar says football “saved him” after he was forced to kill opposition fighters while serving in the army.

Grobbelaar, 60, fought in the Rhodesian Bush War in the 1970s and says he still experiences “cold sweats” when reminded of his experiences.

Zimbabwean Grobbelaar made 440 appearances for the Reds and won 13 major titles during a 13-year spell.

“You’re not the same person once you have done it,” Grobbelaar said.

“You have to live with the consequences for the rest of your life.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Grobbelaar speaks to BBC World Service about match-fixing allegations, the Heysel disaster, having a dart thrown at him on the pitch, Liverpool’s unique way of handing out medals and how an umbrella almost cost him his move to Anfield.

‘Football took my mind off war’

Grobbelaar was conscripted into the army for an initial 11-month period and was immediately sent into the bush war – an uprising against white rule in Rhodesia, a country which later became Zimbabwe in 1980.

He worked as an enemy tracker and saw three friends die during the war, as well as being forced to kill himself.

“The memories have subsided somewhat, but there are times when you are with your mates back in Africa and they particularly like to speak about it. I don’t,” he says.

“After that, for about a two or three-week period, I do get cold sweats and wake up with those feelings again.”

Grobbelaar credits football with keeping him alive after his conscription ended, moving to Canada to join the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1979 before his switch to Liverpool two years later. He also played for Southampton and Plymouth.

“Over the years, I am very lucky that I didn’t submerge into a form of depression, because football saved my life really,” he says.

“Once I came out of the military, I had football to fall upon which took my mind off those incidents.”

‘I was running to do my warm-up with an umbrella’

Grobbelaar supported Derby County as a youngster but switched his allegiance to Liverpool due to the Liver Bird’s representation as a cormorant – a type of African bird.

He spent 13 years at Anfield but almost blew his first opportunity to impress then-Reds manager Bob Paisley while on loan at Crewe from the Whitecaps.

“I was playing for Crewe against York City and Bob Paisley and Tom Saunders came to watch that game,” he says.

“When I ran in from the warm-up, our manager was shaking his head. I said ‘what’s the matter?’ and he said ‘those two very important people came to watch you play’. They had then gone to watch Stoke City play Port Vale instead.

“It was maybe because I was running outside with an umbrella to do my warm-up because it was raining.”

He eventually signed for Liverpool the following year and went on to win six league titles as well as three FA Cups and one European Cup, but the club’s coach had a way of making sure his team-mates didn’t get too big-headed from their success.

“Ronnie Moran kept all the medals, and on the first day of pre-season he would bring a cardboard box with them all in. He put it on the bed and said ‘pick up a medal if you think you deserved it last season’,” Grobbelaar says.

“A lot of guys had to ask the boss if they had played enough games to pick out a medal.”

‘None of the players wanted to play at Heysel’

Grobbelaar was Liverpool’s number one during both the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters, and revealed the former was the first and only time his mother saw him play live.

Thirty-nine fans were killed when fans were crushed against a wall that then collapsed during the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, after crowd trouble culminated in a surge by Liverpool supporters towards the Italian team’s fans.

“None of the players wanted to go out and play. We were asked by Uefa to go out because they thought the fighting would escalate if not,” Grobbelaar says.

“I remember a lot of people coming through asking for towels and water, we kept giving them it so they could try to revive people.

“I remember going out onto the pitch and picking out two knives that had buried into the grass; they had been thrown onto the pitch by the Juventus fans and they were stuck in the middle of the six-yard box.”

Grobbelaar went on to play in many more intimidating atmospheres throughout his career, and was the target of many objects thrown from crowds.

“I’ve had a lot of things thrown at me. A lot of coins that had been sharpened, billiard balls, and I had a dart thrown at my back at Burnley,” he says. “And potatoes with razor blades.”

‘Match-fixing allegations took 12 years from me’

Grobbelaar’s achievements during his playing career were overshadowed when in 1994, it was alleged he had accepted money to throw matches.

He was ultimately cleared at court and still denies the allegations, but says the period blighted his career.

“From start to finish, it went on for about six years, and then it took six years for my marriage to end. It took 12 years,” he says.

“I moved to Southampton and when that story broke, they asked me six times if I had done it and I said no. I played 80% of the 1994-95 season, we ended the season in 10th.

“[Manager] Alan Ball moved the next year, and my contract was for three years, but in the second year, Dave Merrington didn’t play me until the last six games when I helped them to stay in the league.

“My third manager was Graeme Souness, and he told me I must go.”



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