David Stubbs reviews David Thomas's new book on Bruce Grobbelaar's corruption trial
Some scandals never go away. Just as the News of the World is leading on match-fixing allegations about John Fashanu, out comes a book detailing the previous legal difficulties of the former Wimbledon star, along with Hans Segers and, above all, Bruce Grobbelaar.
First submitted for publication in 1995, Foul Play concerns the trial that trio faced over claims they took bribes from far-east syndicates to fix matches. The story had to be rewritten several times following a string of legal rulings and involved unhappy dealings with the hapless, rodent-faced Chris Vincent, the man whose secretly filmed hotel conversations with Grobbelaar formed the basis for the Sun’s initial exposés.
Vincent, who, as Thomas ruefully observes first hand, is an “Olympic standard cadger”, as well as a born loser, is the anti-hero of this account – initially great mates with fellow Zimbabwean Grobbelaar, he persuaded the goalkeeper to invest thousands of pounds in a safari camp Vincent hoped to set up back home. This, like all Vincent’s business ventures, ended in grief. On this occasion, however, Vincent felt he’d been betrayed by Grobbelaar, which is why he sold him out.
The tapes seemed to make plain Grobbelaar’s corruption, with the keeper discussing the now infamous games against Newcastle and Manchester United in 1993, his involvement with “The Short Man”, Heng Suam Lim, the alleged go-between for the syndicate, and his apparent acceptance of a bribe. Grobbelaar’s defence was that he himself was playing along with his former friend to entrap him for bribery. This arguably pathetic and unsubstantiated defence was accepted by three juries (two trials were dead-locked), not least because footage of the actual games didn’t yield any obvious suggestion that Bruce had committed any of the conspicuous goalkeeping howlers for which he was renowned. That, after all, was easier agreed to than done.
However, when the Sun appealed a libel verdict in which Grobbelaar was awarded £85,000 in 1999, the law lords ruled that the original jury’s verdict had been perverse. It is this, coupled with a subsequent appeal to the Lords in which Grobbelaar, facing huge legal costs, was awarded the token amount of £1 in damages, which has emboldened David Thomas to assert categorically that Grobbelaar, now believed to have beaten a not recently well worn path from Britain to Zimbabwe, was indeed corrupt. Laying out the facts here, which includes material not available in the original hearings, he invites us to reach our own conclusion.
There’s less here about co-defendants Lim, Segers and Fashanu, who now faces those fresh allegations from the Sun’s sister paper, the News of the World. Segers asserted that monies he had accrued in a Swiss bank account came from a teenage career as a high-class car thief, while Fashanu’s numerous financial dealings left no accounting paper trail whatsoever.
As for Grobbelaar, he’s more damned by accounts of his and Vincent’s recreational adventures, pursuing women like a lion predating on impala, his boorish sense of humour, white male southern African through and through (how did John Barnes endure him?), even his dress sense. The world depicted here of Menorcan holidays, tabloid-tattling blondes, Trusthouse Forte hotels and Michael Bolton albums reeks of second-rate tack. Thomas argues that the relatively low wages enjoyed by footballers in the early 1990s (Grobbelaar “only” earned £150,000 a year at Liverpool) meant that they were more prone to the temptations of bribery and that football’s impending recession might see a return to such dark days. Yet, given the farce generated and mirth afforded by this entire episode, that’s something you could almost welcome. Thomas might have gone through hell writing this book, Grobbelaar and Vincent are ruined, but everyone else at the trial seemed to be having fun with it – including the judge and QCs, indulging in creaky stand-up routines involving laboured footballing puns.
One blemish to Foul Play – Thomas talks of Liverpool fans “on the rampage” at Heysel in 1985, with no mention of crumbling walls. Otherwise, this is a thorough and probably definitive account of a lengthy saga which Thomas treats with both the seriousness and the levity it deserves.
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month