In keeping with his mercurial reputation as a goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar’s account of his life is anything but conventional. Raised in racially segregated Rhodesia, he’s a teenage tearaway from a broken home who excels at baseball, cricket and football, prior to joining the National League’s only white pro club. He signs for Matabeleland Highlanders at 16 (where the team’s witch doctor instructs them to put ganja in their socks) and, a year later, is called up for military service.
This is where Life In A Jungle takes a grim turn. Grobbelaar leads his “stick” of soldiers through the jungles of the Rhodesian Bush War, shooting dead the enemy on various occasions. His machine gunner develops a habit of cutting off his victims’ ears and storing them in a keepsake jar. They take marijuana to take the edge off the prospect of battle, survive on a diet of biscuits and snakes and, in one particularly gruesome episode, are tasked with clearing up a riverside bombing, dragging the bodies away before the crocodiles take them. Three days before he and his company are due to be discharged, after a year and a half of service, they’re told that they have to do another six months. Two of Grobbelaar’s colleagues immediately retire to the toilet block, where they shoot themselves.
In this context, the rest of the book – co-written with Norwegian journalist Ragnhild Lund Ansnes – runs the risk of being inconsequential. But death, and its emotional impact, is a recurring theme in Life In A Jungle. Grobbelaar still can’t fathom Bob Paisley’s decision to withhold news of his father’s death from him for two days, lest he get distracted from preparations for the 1981 Intercontinental Cup. The Liverpool boss breaks it to him directly after the game instead. He’s profoundly affected by events at Heysel in 1985 and considers quitting football altogether, thinking he’d seen the last of his share of dead bodies. And he’s equally devastated four years later at Hillsborough, where, keeping goal directly in front of the Leppings Lane end, he witnesses things that haunt him to this day.
Throughout, Grobbelaar emerges as a somewhat capricious character. He’s cocky when he first gets to Liverpool in 1981 after a loan spell at Crewe, determined to oust Ray Clemence from the first team rather than serve as an understudy. Yet he admits to struggling during his first six months between the posts and is hurt by criticism of his erratic playing style. He eventually overcomes the doubters (including the team-mates who freeze him out after on-field gaffes) and goes on to win 13 major trophies in as many years.
The end comes when former team-mate Graeme Souness takes the reins. Grobbelaar says he’s the best he ever played with, “but as a manager he was shit”. The Sun’s match-fixing allegations of 1994 – for which he was finally cleared after two trials – are dealt with in some detail too, though it has to be said that his arguments aren’t always entirely persuasive. Life In A Jungle is controversial, certainly. Which is just about the only predictable thing about it.