So, tell me about your sock drawer, Bruce Grobbelaar. It is not the kind of request you generally put to a six-time First Division title and European Cup winner. But the piece of furniture in question has had an enduring fascination ever since the individual in question — a member of the most prolific Liverpool team of all — stood trial on match-fixing charges at Winchester Crown Court 21 years ago and revealed he had stashed £25,000 in it.
It seems one hell of a lot of loose cash to have lying around, with yet more of the same in his airing cupboard and the legal system was not quick to clear Grobbelaar of charges that he accrued it by agreeing to throw three Liverpool games in the Nineties.
It took two trials to acquit him, with neither of the juries ever agreeing on the matter of £2,000 he had received in one envelope. He had to go all the way to the House of Lords to win the libel case he brought against the newspaper which published the accusations.
Bruce Grobbelaar (pictured) opens up on the match-fixing scandal that tainted his life
Suspicions have always lingered and his indignation has contributed to the now 60-year-old telling his side of the story in exhaustive detail for a book, ‘Life in a Jungle’, extracts from which are published in the The Mail on Sunday today. He relates for the first time how the evidence brought against him was provided by a delusional yet highly convincing conman, Chris Vincent, to whom he had fallen prey.
The ensuing courtroom drama generated such interest in the contents of his sock drawer that you imagine there is nothing left to say on that subject. Yet only in this interview does he relate, for the first time, that the cash was stowed in a false bottom that he had made himself.
He had been travelling to Africa often at that time, he says, as a member of the Zimbabwe national team. ‘And people who don’t go to Africa on a regular basis don’t realise that Africa is a cash place. Cash is king in Africa. So I needed cash and I put a false bottom in the drawer to keep it in.’
It is safe to say that few footballers have felt it necessary to construct such a contraption. ‘You just lay some braiding around the edges and cut out the bottom from plywood, make a little cut-away to lift it, put the socks back over and bang,’ says Grobbelaar, as if every self-respecting individual should know. ‘It was a very big drawer.’
Former Liverpool goalkeeper Grobbelaar (pictured) was tried 21 years ago in Winchester
Vincent claimed that Grobbelaar had been paid £40,000 to throw Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat at Newcastle in November 1993 and had failed in attempts to do the same against Manchester United and Norwich.
The two, who both grew up in the former Rhodesia, met in July 1992 at a Chester wine bar and shared a past as members of the nation’s army, fighting rural insurgents who had waged war on white famers in the 1970s civil war. By the time he left the bar, Grobbelaar had been persuaded by Vincent to become an investor in his wildlife tourism project at Victoria Falls in their homeland.
He says it took him two years to realise that invoices were not being paid and that the payments Vincent was asking for were being syphoned away. ‘It’s a classic story of a conman looking at someone to feather his nest,’ he says. ‘I never knew where the money was going because everything was running like a proper business.’
But it was after he had cut all ties with Vincent, who lived in nearby North Wales, that the real problems started. Five weeks after Vincent’s company crashed, he was back in touch, claiming that two Hong Kong businessmen were offering big money if he would throw games. This could help to get the lost money back, he said.
Grobbelaar played along to see ‘what he was up to and who was behind him,’ he writes in the book. The ensuing conversations included Grobbelaar telling Vincent that he had lost £125,000 while playing for Liverpool against United because he had made two ‘blinding saves’.
His ‘Clouseau’ act, as he describes it, proved unwise, since Vincent had been wired up by The Sun and was intent on some entrapment of his own. ‘And like a fool, I followed him; followed him towards my doom.’ Grobbelaar writes.
It was the most hapless tabloid sting. The tape on the recording equipment ran out at one stage. A transmitter malfunction meant another supposedly key conversation was not picked up. Grobbelaar claims at one stage he heard ‘clicks’ when he picked up the phone and found three men in a van outside his house with what seemed to be monitoring equipment.
Yet there was a lack of media curiosity in Vincent, despite The Sun story being widely republished and Hampshire Police basing much of their criminal case on it. By the time the case came to court, Vincent had asked one of the players Grobbelaar was accused of colluding with — John Fashanu — for £500,000 to drop his claims.
The notion of Grobbelaar agreeing to re-establish contact with a man who had drained him of the best part of half a million pounds — drinking, dining and playing pool with him — does defy all logic. ‘I think in part it was because of the military past we’d shared,’ he says. ‘We grew up in a different type of realm and even in your unit when you go to the bush with someone you don’t like, you’ve still got to look after him.’
The war experiences Grobbelaar relates to go a little way to explaining this odd sentiment towards Vincent — who is thought to have died from complications after surgery this year. These provide some of the book’s most extraordinary passages, not least his telling of being forced to kill a guerrilla fighter who emerged near the Limpopo River.
‘He stepped out with his rifle, wearing camouflage,’ Grobbelaar writes. ‘I looked at him, my pulse pounding in my ears and the first thing I had to do was pull the trigger, then drop, because there were others hiding in the bush.’
At Pafuri, on the Mozambique border, rebels’ bodies had to be retrieved from the river. Their corpses had attracted crocodiles. ‘This is the image that haunts me the most,’ he writes.
Grobbelaar celebrates winning the 1985-86 First Division title with Liverpool
There would be another kind of haunting before the curtain fell on a glittering 13-year career at Liverpool. The passages recalling what Grobbelaar saw in Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane terrace on April 15, 1989, are the most vivid testimony we have heard from a member of a Liverpool team on the day of the disaster.
They worked hard and played hard at Liverpool back then. It was not an environment for the faint-hearted. ‘I wasn’t scared of Paisley,’ Grobbelaar writes. ‘But he would cut you off at the knees. “Jimmy Case, you’re gone,” he said one day. And a player would be gone, his reputation and history at Liverpool counting for nothing.’
Neither did Grobbelaar’s after the match-fixing allegations were first published in 1994. He became a pariah, flying in from Zimbabwe to sign for Manchester City at Alan Ball’s request in 1996 only to be told the City directors would not touch him. Neil Warnock provided a brief swansong at Plymouth Argyle, his last serious club.
He has coached in Canada in recent years, though is now back in England for a year out of the game, still trying to lay to rest the talk of fixed matches, used bank notes and that drawer.
‘People who don’t know me will have an opinion,’ he says. ‘I hope they now have something to base a judgment on.’
The Zimbabwean was conscripted to the army and says the experience still haunts him