Sunday, 7 March 2010

An evening with Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar

Probably the most surreal moment of my life to date. Never, either since, or before moving to Toronto, did I envisage that I might perhaps one day find myself basking in the presence of Bruce Grobbelaar -a true Liverpool football legend. Such was the disbelief that he would be making an appearance at Scallywags on Yonge and St Clair in Toronto, that I almost declined the invitation. I had come to the conclusion that, even if he did show, it would probably be a flying visit to the bar, where he would summon flutes of champagne from the eager to please Liverpool fans, only to then nonchalantly drop them at his feet demanding they be swept up immediately. Then, after signing a few photo's and disposing of yet more flutes, he would be whisked away out the back door into a parked limo full of models.

I couldn't have been further from the truth. After begrudgingly stumping up the paltry $15 cover, which in retrospect is embarrassing that I deemed the event over priced, I took my seat along with the rest of the Liverpool fans, still in a state of denial of what was to come. The assembled crowd was a mix from the everyday Liverpool supporter brimming with anticipation, to the out right bizarre. The bizarre ranging from an uncanny look-a-like, who's resemblance had many supporters questioning, "Is that him?" to the disconcerting looking England supporter, who sported a knock of England shirt circa 1989, and a knitted Wombles hat. You know, the kind of thing you expect to see everyday in your local.

At exactly 8pm, true to his word, and amongst whispered excitement towards the back of the bar, Bruce Grobbelaar had arrived to rather modest fanfare. Gradually, he made his way through the bar, politely chit chatting with supporters, signing pictures and posing for photos. At this point, the two friends that had invited me, Mark Fitzpatrick and Travis Fourie, thought this would be an opportune time to get a photo with the legend, and a signature. Only problem being, that building up the courage to approach him was like plucking up the nerve to ask your first date out. Truly pathetic. So, armed with a few quick gulps of dutch courage, we, or should I say I, made our way over and nervously asked, "please Bruce, if you wouldn't mind me quickly taking a picture before you go on stage?" He had seen all the blushes before, and dutifully obliged, before taking to the stage with the bar packed to the rafters.

Instantly, the eccentric character on the field I had come to recognise while growing up, had transferred that unpredictable energy from the confines of the 18 yard box (and more often than not, beyond) to the stage. This was not to be a dull, bland, subdued ex-pro telling tales from yesteryear.

Bruce started off talking about his harrowing experience in the Rhodesian Bush War, in which he did two years of service. And, after being in fear of his life, he eventually fled to the safe haven that is Canada, where he played for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Two facts, that immediately peeked my interest, given that both were new news to me. I'm not sure what was more surprising, fighting in a war or playing for the Whitecaps!

After an initial work permit for the UK had been turned down following a loan spell with Ron Atkinson at West Bromwich Albion, Bruce proceeded to explain through a hilarious impression of the late, great Bob Paisley, how his move to Liverpool materialized. Paisley had watched him play for the Whitecaps, and while on loan with the railway men of Crewe Alexandra. It was at Gresty road where he made his record for having the furthest punch in British Football. The joke being, that he cleared the ball by punching it, only for it to land on a train bound for Inverness. Obviously, Bruce's story telling rendition being far more captivating than mine.

With the invitation to now play for Liverpool, Bruce was left with a familiar dilemma: obtaining a UK work permit. And, following potentially more disappointment at the visa office in Croydon, Bruce made the call home to mum, who's wise words, depicting past relatives who had represented Britain in a military capacity, did the trick, and thankfully Bruce managed to get hold of the illusive work permit, learning a valuable life lesson in the process: Listen to mum. However had the wise words been uttered a year earlier, Bruce might have found himself on a work permit with WBA. A bullet he was grateful to have dodged!

After plenty of wise cracking banter that included Paul Jewell being his boot boy and Steve Nicol being a sandwich short of a picnic, Bruce began to re-sight the famous night in Rome, when his "spaghetti legs" inspired Liverpool to glory in the European cup final of 1984. With the score all square at 1-1 after extra time at the Stadio Olimpico, the final would be decided for the first time by penalties. This was not to be an opportunity that Grobbelaar was willing to miss, in terms of not only influence the outcome, but to do it such a way that would write him into Liverpool folklore.

So, in fully animated style, Bruce proceeded to reenact the spaghetti legs before our very eyes, jumping up on to the sofa behind the stage, while narrating his thoughts as Graziani stepped up. The mind games, as we all know worked, as Graziani choked, clipping the bar with his penalty, leaving Kennedy to wrap it up.

With the speech drawing to a close, and after recounting probably the most famous night of his career, he still made time to speak about the match fixing allegations of the early nighties, which he could so easily have ignored. He remains adamant of his innocent, and stated in resolute fashion that he was cleared of all wrong doings. Besides, who really cares? This was a speech to Liverpool fans anyway, he was not about to be grilled about what may or may not have transpired decades a go.

Following the speech which lasted an effortless 1 1/2 hours, and after a brief intermission, Bruce took to the stage for a final questions and answers. Still in awe and unable to think of clever question to ask, here are a few questions that others managed to muster, and to which Bruce was only to happy to respond in valiant demeanor:

Supporter: What was your proudest moment during your career?
Bruce: With out doubt signing on the dotted line. Above all the achievements, including the 84 European Cup victory, nothing made me prouder than to sign on the dotted line.

Knitted Womble hat wearing supporter, with south London accent: You have spoken in detail about Arsenal, but what about Wimbledon?
Bruce (unequivocal and quick witted): Their are only two good things to come out of Wimbledon; the Wombles and Tennis!!

Supporter: Is it time for Rafa to go?
Bruce: Forget about the Americans, and that they have put Rafa in a hard position. Rafa has still had 200m quid to spend and plenty of time to bring the Championship back to Liverpool. Is it time for him to go? Yes.

I'm not sure what was more controversial, Bruce's opinion that Rafa should be on his way, or his solution to replace them with a coaching partnership of old favourite, Kenny Dalglish and Steve Nicol.

The questions ended with rapturous applause from the grateful crowd, who had been captivated by intriguing story telling, and a rare insight into an illustrious career. The environment might not quite have been the Stadio Olyimpico, but Bruce Grobberlaar continues to prove that he is every bit the character off the pitch that he was on it.

With feelings of nostalgia invoked, here is a short clip of that famous night in Rome, 1984.

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