Tuesday 21 January 2020

'I broke Steve McMahon's nose twice in one night' - Bruce Grobbelaar

Bruce Grobbelaar during a Barclays League Division One match against Manchester City at Maine Road
Bruce Grobbelaar during a Barclays League Division One match against Manchester City at Maine Road

Simon Hughes

Liverpool in the 1980s were a relentlessly successful machine, but a new book from Simon Hughes goes behind the scenes to uncover fighting, backbiting and more

Bruce Grobbelaar 1981 -1994

Appearances: 628

Honours: European Cup, European Super Cup, League (x6), FA Cup (x3), League Cup (x3)

Bruce Grobbelaar nods earnestly. "I can tell you this because it's history and we both laugh about it," says the 55-year-old, who won more medals at Liverpool than any other 'keeper in the club's history. "I broke Steve McMahon's nose twice in one night."

It was October 1987 and Liverpool had beaten Dundee 4-0 in a friendly. There was a party at St Andrews, overlooking the golf course. "We were all having a pint afterwards and Steve got into a disagreement with (Liverpool team-mate) Barry Venison. All the Dundee players wanted to get involved, so I pulled the pair of them to one side.

"Steve blew his top and swung a punch at me. So I headbutted him and bust his nose. He whinged to (manager) Kenny (Dalglish) and the boss tried to blame me. But the receptionist of the hotel confirmed that Steve was the aggressor."

Grobbelaar roomed with Craig Johnston. "The attitude from the decision-makers was probably: 'Let's put the two freaks together.' Craig was a constant moaner. After the fight, he refused to room with me. 'You know these Scousers,' he said. 'Macca will try to get into our room and attack you.'?"

SUCCESSFUL

At 3.20am Grobbelaar was awoken by somebody knocking a lampshade outside his door. "I hid behind the door in the bathroom and watched the person creep in. Craig was right – he was canny like that. I tapped Macca on the shoulder and smacked him across the nose. He never messed with me again."

Grobbelaar, with his penetrating gaze, earring and handlebar moustache, bursts into unruly laughter. Yet for someone with such a jovial reputation, the story of his journey from Zimbabwe – or Rhodesia, as it was then known – to the summit of English football is a dark one.

"People think that because I was at Liverpool for such a long time – in a period where the club was very successful – that it was bliss all the way," he says.

"But at the start, because of poor performances, I received death threats. I played for the club through two stadium disasters then later was falsely accused of fixing matches. I loved my time there, but it would be a lie to say it was always a walk in the park."

Grobbelaar, who lives in Canada, was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1957 and his family moved to Rhodesia when he was two. "The surname Grobbelaar is roughly translated in English from original Dutch as 'clumsy', so I think I was struggling from the start to rid myself of the clown tag that plagued me throughout my career."

As he grew up, racism was everywhere. "We were taught in school that there was a fundamental difference between black people and white people – that we were superior," he recalls.

Grobbelaar's fledgling career was interrupted when he was called up to fight in the Bush War. The next two years changed his outlook on life. "How can I forget or forgive myself for killing a fellow human being, even if it was in a war? I still have nightmares. All else in life seems insignificant compared to my years in the forces.

"When you're eyeball to eyeball with the enemy, you know that one of you is going to die. But that doesn't make it any easier in dealing with the guilt. My time came when we were helicoptered into a village on the Mozambique border with the sole instruction of shooting anything that moved. One of the enemy came at me and I shot him. I felt nothing but relief at the time. To say it changed me is an understatement. From then on, I set out to live life to the full."

Grobbelaar joined Liverpool in April 1981 after a spell playing in Canada. "I had been at the club barely six months when I started to receive letters through the post. One man wrote to me saying he had been watching top-class football for more than 30 years and that if Tommy Smith were still Liverpool captain, he would have already broken my legs three times for the errors I made. That was one of the pleasant ones.

Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish were very harsh. They'd be your best friend if you were playing well and winning. But if you made a mistake, they never spoke to you. I don't think it was personal; it was a device by the older players to sort the stronger-minded players from the weaker ones."

JOHN BARNES

1987-1997

Appearances: 407

Goals: 108

Honours: League (2), FA Cup (2), League Cup (1)

John Barnes (left) was subjected to racism from opposition fans, but had been brought up with a sense of self-assurance. He understood that racism was institutionalised in the UK, but viewed it as a belief of the uneducated.

When Everton fans hurled bananas him at Goodison Park during an FA Cup tie in 1988, he responded by delicately flicking them with his heel back towards the touchline. Moments later he would glide down the wing and arch a cross for Ray Houghton to score at the Park End.

"I grew up in a middle-class family and I had no self-esteem issues at all. For someone to call me a black this or that doesn't make any sense to me. I consider people who use those words as ignorant. Why should I let it affect me when it doesn't?"

Barnes joined the club around the same time as Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge; the trio 'clicked' instantly. "That was the genius of Liverpool: recognising how a group of players that hadn't been in the same side could come together and gel instantly. Peter was different from everyone else in that he didn't drink. He'd collect the bibs, cones and balls after training had finished. Initially, there might have been a feeling that Peter was sucking up to the manager and there were snide remarks. But, gradually, people realised that was just his manner. He was a worker and unselfish.

"At Watford, I'd trained 100pc all of the time. But at Liverpool, they were 'Hey – take it easy, slow down!'

"Kenny just played five-a-side with us and didn't do much else, especially coaching. Players were left to develop alone – a natural evolution."

JOHN WARK

1984-1988

Appearances: 108

Goals: 42

Honours: League (2)

John Wark, the Glaswegian attacking midfielder, joined Liverpool in 1984, but his four years at the club were broken up by a series of injuries. "The treatment of players at Liverpool when it came to injuries was very basic," Wark says. "In fact, at times it was laughable. There was an occasion when the coaching staff were getting very frustrated with Paul Walsh because he wasn't responding to ultrasound. It was only when a maintenance guy turned up to service the equipment that it was established the machine hadn't been working."

Wark's medical before joining Liverpool was similarly basic. "They took me down to Anfield. This old fella comes in who looked more like a retired doctor than a practising one. He took my blood pressure, nodded, then I went to the door because I anticipated that I'd be going out on the pitch for a run. Instead, the doctor called me back, asked me to bend down and touch my toes. That was it. The whole regime looked a shade Dad's Army."

Wark's first training session came the following morning. "The ball came to me and I sprayed a 30-yard pass down the touchline. I was standing there admiring what a great pass it was, then (coach) Ronnie Moran marched over and gave me a right b******ing, going: 'We pass and move it nice and short here – don't ever stand there admiring what you've just f***ing done.' He was a very angry man. Then he gave a free-kick against me." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Simon Hughes' 'Red Machine: Liverpool in the 1980s, the Players' Stories' (Mainstreet Trading) is released today

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