'Growing up, you needed thick skin to be a Grobbelaar'

At just 24, the daughter of Liverpool's controversial keeper is making a name for herself as a football agent. Bruce and Tahli Grobbelaar reveal their thoughts on family, race and that match-fixing case
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The Independent Online

A few days before I am due to interview Bruce Grobbelaar and his 24-year-old daughter Tahli, their public relations representative emails to enquire what I intend to talk to them about.

This seems a bit odd, since the interview has been set up on the back of SuperAgents, the current BBC 2 reality show featuring Tahli, an executive at Power Goldberg Sports Management. Obviously we'll be discussing her career as an agent. But just to cover all eventualities, I reply rather vaguely that I intend to ask them about their "relationship with football and with each other". The PR person seems satisfied. And yet, a couple of days after the interview, I get a message complaining that I had seemed too interested in the match-fixing allegations that first surfaced 15 years ago, in which the former Liverpool goalkeeper was implicated. Well honestly, what did they expect?

The interview does not, in truth, get off to an auspicious start. I have been told to meet them in the Centenary Stand reception at Anfield at 2.45pm, and having turned up early, I kill 20 minutes or so by browsing through the Liverpool FC museum. At 2.40pm I arrive at the reception, where a bald, earringed Grobbelaar, at 51 only a little paunchier than in his playing heyday, greets me brusquely and leads me with a minimum of small talk up to a corporate hospitality box, where Tahli – blonde, well-groomed, pretty, super-confident – is waiting. I mention I have just been to the museum. "You've just been to the museum?" Grobbelaar repeats. "Is that why you were late?" In a clipped Zimbabwean accent, his brusqueness sounds slightly aggressive. It turns out that they were expecting me at 2.30pm. It is a simple misunderstanding, and yet somehow the tone of our encounter is set.

I ask Grobbelaar whether he is pleased that Tahli became an agent. "All decisions are of her own making," he says, evasively. "I'm proud that she makes up her own mind."

After studying communications at Leeds University, she worked for a wealth management firm in the City of London, before going into the agent business. She currently looks after sponsorship and endorsement for the footballers William Gallas and Florent Malouda, among others, as the firm's commercial director. It is heady stuff for a young woman of 24. What, though, are her ambitions? "I'd love to work in-house on the commercial side for Liverpool Football Club," she says.

She remains a devoted fan of the club where her dad spent 13 years, and even owes the spelling of her name to her upbringing on Merseyside. Her parents got married in an African town called Umtali, but were worried that, if they named her Tali, Liverpudlians would make it rhyme with scally. Tahli (which rhymes with barley) adds that as a child, Anfield was her second home. "The wives used to sit in the stands and we'd sit on their knees but we started picking up bad language, so after that we spent the match in the players' lounge.

"But I was the mascot once, when I was about six. John Barnes picked me up and tipped me upside down, but I was holding a bag of Skittles, which all fell on the pitch. I threw a massive tantrum. Can you imagine, looking at the stadium now, a kid in the middle of the pitch having a tantrum?" She laughs, merrily. I ask what match it was? "I can't remember, because I spent all of it trying to spot my Skittles."

She wasn't the only Grobbelaar to lose control on the pitch. There is some classic YouTube footage of her father going bananas after a poor clearance by Steve McManaman in the 1993-94 season led to Everton scoring past him at Goodison Park. Yelling furiously, he pushes McManaman in the face, a reaction that these days would result in a straight red card. It is hard, to say the least, to reconcile this apoplectic figure with the man accused by The Sun, in 1994, of conspiring to throw games.

In 1997 he went on trial (with fellow footballers John Fashanu and Hans Segers) but was acquitted after a retrial. Two years later he was awarded £85,000 libel damages against The Sun. But two years after that the Court of Appeal overturned the award, and the damages were reduced to a derisory £1. Grobbelaar, ordered to pay the newspaper's costs, was later declared bankrupt. And one of the Law Lords, Lord Bingham, observed that, while the specific allegations had never been proved, the Zimbabwean had "acted in a way in which no decent or honest footballer would act".

Significantly, he is the one who brings all this up, after I ask whether he had an agent in his playing days. "I had a couple of agents, but then I went on my own. I thought I could negotiate my own deals and it was probably my biggest mistake. In hindsight, if I'd had an agent I might never have ended up in the position I got in with the newspapers. It would have been shielded from me."

Tahli was 16 when the Court of Appeal made its devastating ruling; what impact did it make on her?

"I was aware that something was going on. To be honest, growing up, you had to have a thick skin to be a Grobbelaar. But whether it was dad's crazy antics on the pitch, or something in a newspaper, my sister and I were well protected. My mum is a huge testament to that."

Nevertheless, would they concede that a whiff of suspicion lingers round the Grobbelaar name? "Well, that's what they say," Grobbelaar says. "But you must understand that it never started as a criminal trial. It started as a libel trial..."

"Is this relevant?" Tahli asks.

I suggest that it is, because the name Grobbelaar is not like Smith or Jones. It is evocative of so much, not least eccentric goalkeeping brilliance, and working in sporting circles she must be aware all the time of the resonance of her name. "It doesn't linger with me," Grobbelaar intervenes, returning to my reference to a whiff of suspicion. "I'll give you a scenario. At the time of the court case I was asked whether I found it stressful. I said, 'What do you mean? If you want to know about stress then think of this. I went through the court case knowing I did nothing wrong, but imagine being a goalkeeper for Zimbabwe, one white man in stadium full of 80,000 black men. If you do something wrong, do you think you're going to come out of that stadium unscathed? Now that's pressure, not going to court'."

And he had bullets fired at him by Robert Mugabe's guerrillas while he was serving in the Rhodesian army (before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe), I add supportively. That's pressure.

"Yes. Exactly."

I am slightly disturbed by his description of one white man surrounded by 80,000 black men and, wondering whether it implies any racism, I ask whether, when he left southern Africa (first for Vancouver Whitecaps, where he played from 1979 to 1981), he took ideas about race with him.

"What ideas?"

That the white man is superior.

"Look, my best friends from when I was four or five to when I was 13 or 14 were my houseboy's sons."

I change the subject. Does Tahli hate it when agents are depicted, as they so often are, as greedy and unscrupulous?

"Well, I've been criticised in the press for saying [on the show] that agents should be trustworthy. Of course they should. But I'm not concerned with other people, as long as I'm doing my best."

Nevertheless, both father and daughter must have encountered dodgy agents? "You know those people are out there," Grobbelaar says. "Jeepers, when you come from a place like Africa, it's the norm. Look at the manager of Southampton, I forget who it was, when he thought he'd signed George Weah's brother. He played him for 10 minutes and it turned out he was a waiter from London."

He roars with laughter, while Tahli looks like she's sucked a lemon. "The credit crunch is the result of bankers not doing their jobs properly," she says. "It happens in every industry."

True enough, but we all read about agents raking off vast sums from straightfoward transfer deals.

"Maybe, but I don't get involved with transfers. And at the end of the day a footballer has to squeeze a career into 10 years. I love dealing with my clients. And don't forget that I know what it's like living with a top footballer. I know what dad would expect of someone looking after him."

So, had she been his agent, how would she have handled his career? "If you were dad's agent I think he'd have to be your only client. There were loads of missed opportunities. With his image, his huge personality, he could have promoted so many brands."

I ask her how she might have exploited his celebrated jelly-legs routine in the penalty shoot-out at the end of the 1984 European Cup final between Liverpool and Roma, as replicated in the 2005 final by Jerzy Dudek? "I don't know, maybe with a dance fitness video."

They both laugh, while I venture that presumably, despite those missed opportunities, football still made Grobbelaar a wealthy man?

"Yes, a millionaire. Then I lost it. But I put my girls through good private schools. I'm proud of that."

He left Liverpool for Southampton in 1994, angry that the club hadn't offered him a three-year contract. "Graeme Souness was manager. He offered me one year, but I needed stability for the girls." It must have been hard, dealing with Souness, his former team-mate? "Yeah, he was the best I ever played with, bar none. And as a bloke he's one of the best. Talking football with that man is unbelievable. But as a manager... well, I'll leave it at that."

He has often said that he yearns to manage Liverpool himself one day. Does he still? "It's not out of the question," he says, looking at me evenly, as if daring contradiction. "I coached five clubs in South Africa and I was successful with them. Now I coach coaches over there, and I have an interest in a small club, Cloud 9, in East London. I flip from South Africa to here. Manage Liverpool? In this game you never say never."

Does he think that the club has ever adequately replaced him between the posts? "They could've. If I'd stayed, and David James had taken over from me properly, he would still have been here today. I could have helped him. But they didn't have the best goalkeeping coach at the time.

"Now, I think Pepe Reina is near enough the business. And I like what I hear about him. The curator of the museum asked him if he would donate something, but he was looking at my stuff and he said, 'Not until I beat this man's record'. I like that."

Proper respect, in other words.



SuperAgents concludes tomorrow on BBC 2 at 12.45pm

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