As the world’s two most expensive keepers prepare to battle, Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar explains why it’s the hardest of all positions
Bruce Grobbelaar is in his element, holding court in a hotel in the shadow of Anfield.
On the walls are illustrations of some of Liverpool’s all-time greats. Roger Hunt and Ian St John, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan. Legends, all of them. Men who brought substance and success, who left memories and won medals. Men who helped mould the club into what it is today.
Grobbelaar, of course, falls into that category himself. Only eight players have made more appearances for the Reds, and it is hard to imagine too many going past his tally of 628 in the future. His run of 317 consecutive games, achieved between 1981 and 1986, is the third-longest in the club’s history. His medal collection stands at 13 – six league titles, three FA Cups, three League Cups and a European Cup. Some haul.
He’s here to promote his new autobiography, ‘Life in a Jungle’, which details his extraordinary life and career; the glory and the struggle, the success and the scandal. It discusses the match-fixing allegations with which he will forever, rightly or wrongly, be associated, and offers a raw, at-times harrowing insight into life as a solider in his home country of Zimbabwe. “I hope that people can read it with an open mind,” he says, “and learn from some of my experiences.”
Grobbelaar, clearly, has plenty to say, and over an entertaining chat he is happy to talk about life as Liverpool’s No.1, the pressures facing goalkeepers in the modern era, and his opinion on the Reds’ current custodian, Alisson Becker.
He is particularly intrigued by this weekend’s match-up, which will see the world’s two most expensive ‘keepers go head to head. Alisson, at £65 million ($85m) held the title for a few days after his move to Liverpool from Roma in the summer, only for Chelsea to then spend £72m ($94m) to land Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao. This weekend, the pair will meet at Stamford Bridge in a top-of-the-table clash.
For Grobbelaar, the sight of goalkeepers moving for the kind of transfer fees usually associated with centre-forwards is satisfying – and long overdue as well.
“It’s about time,” he says, firmly. “It’s nice to see that they are valued for what they’re worth and they should be worth exactly the same as a striker.
“For us to break a world record on a goalkeeper and then Chelsea to break that record, it shows that goalkeepers are now as renowned and revered as one of the more important positions in the team.”
Grobbelaar is dismissive of the standard of goalkeeping in the Premier League generally – “it’s gone down overall,” he says, citing a reluctance to catch the ball instead of punching as a league-wide problem. “It gives the opposition a lift if you know a ‘keeper is going to parry it,” he suggests.
Still, he has been encouraged enough by what he’s seen from Alisson, who in his opening six Premier League games has conceded just twice.
“He’s bringing some calmness and he’s a goalkeeper that can actually catch a ball from crosses,” Grobbelaar says.
“Any goalkeeper that’s going to play for Liverpool is going to be looked at and scrutinised – every shot, everything about it is going to be scrutinised. To come to Liverpool, you’re going to have to have big cojones, a big reputation. And we’ve got one of the biggest reputations in goalkeeping in Alisson.
“From his point of view, he’s come out of Brazil at a young age, played in Roma and done well there, and now he’s come to Liverpool. So he’s only stepping up from where he started and he’s got a big personality, too.
“He punches when he needs to, but he catches most of the ones that he can get his hands to, which is a good thing. But I’ll speak to you at the end of January and then I’ll tell you how his goalkeeping is going on!”
Grobbelaar admits that it is perhaps harder for goalkeepers now than it ever was, with mistakes amplified by the omnipotence of social media and the ‘need-it-now’ attitude of modern supporters.
Alisson’s first major blunder, a failed Cruyff turn at Leicester, looks to be behind him, but others have been less fortunate. The case of his predecessor at Liverpool, for example, is one Grobbelaar is quick to cite.
“Listen, Loris Karius, I still defend him,” he says. “And if he was here I would really love him to get put right in the deep end because that’s what I would have done if I was the boss.
“Unfortunately I’m not! Jurgen Klopp has gone out and paid a world-record price for a goalkeeper and now that goalkeeper has to live with that world-record tag on his shoulders.
“Thankfully, it’s not a world record anymore, so it took the pressure off him. Karius, he made three mistakes in 33 games, two glaring mistakes in the cup final. You look where his demeanour went from there and they gave him a chance (in a pre-season match) at Tranmere, he couldn’t hold onto the ball and the striker put it in on the rebound.
“So he’s made sure he’s gone to a place where he’s not scrutinised as much at Besiktas and good luck to the boy.
“Can he come back? Absolutely – [Simon] Mignolet has come back, hasn’t he? Goalkeepers can, absolutely. Just because you’ve made a mistake… everybody makes mistakes. It’s how you come out of it.
“There’s a very good saying: ‘Life is full of disappointments, it’s how you come out of those disappointments that makes you a better person.’ So if you make a mistake, make sure you get rid of the mistake, don’t even worry about it.”
Is that as easy as it sounds, though, given the presence of Twitter and Facebook, of an excitable media and of ‘Fan TV’ and its instant, searing judgments?
“Yes, you can get mentally strong,” he insists. “You can’t worry about the game you’ve just played, because you can’t do anything about it. And the next time you go onto the field, don’t do what you did in the last game!
“You’re as good as your last game, and that’s how you get over it in any walk of life. I came over here to Britain knowing that tomorrow might be my last day, those were the days of the army, so every day was a bonus for me and I lived today how you should. You have fun, you play hard, you make sure you work hard.
“The best part of how I used to work was not read the newspapers, but you know that social media now is huge – you’ve got Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and it’s there that they’ll face [criticism] all the time.
“If you tell a youngster these days not to go on Twitter or Facebook, you’re barking up the wrong tree. If he doesn’t mind what people are saying about him then he’s going to get stronger, if he takes it on board – ‘somebody says I’m useless’ – then he’s going to struggle.”
It begs the question, how would Bruce have handled social media?
“I might have taken my telephone out onto the pitch and done some selfies during the game!” he laughs.
This time, you sense he isn’t joking.
Bruce Grobbelaar’s autobiography, Life in a Jungle, is available now from all good bookshops and online at decoubertin.co.uk/Grobbelaar. RRP £20.