27 JANUARY 2001, Page 83

Honour among goalkeepers

Simon Barnes

I ALWAYS rather liked Bruce Grobbelaar. so the fact that he has been exposed as, to use the gloating words of the Sun, a crook, a cheat, a liar and a traitor is saddening. It's a goalkeeper thing, really.

I was a keeper of spectacular incompetence myself, you see, and both parts of that description are important. Grobbelaar was the same sort of player — capable of both moments of inspiration and of hideous and basic errors.

He played for Liverpool during their great days, a keeper of astonishing mobility and athleticism. He would go for and make the spectacular catch, fall, roll, bounce to his feet like a ball, and then throw the real thing 50 yards to the feet of a fast-breaking team-mate.

Great stuff. Of course he was also capable of dropping a straightforward cross at an opponent's feet, or charging miles out of his goal to tackle an opposing forward. Odd choice: the great Liverpool sides had always been built from the back, with a safe-ashouses policy, but Grobbelaar became Liverpool's talisman.

I liked that: the maverick at the heart of the most effective corporation in football. Goalies like goalies, and goalies like to be men apart. Goalies always exchange a handshake before kick-off — closer to each other than to the members of their own side.

Also, Grobbelaar is a child of Africa, a white Zimbabwean who fought in the bush war. Eventually, disappointed that he was never even considered as an England player, he threw in his lot with Zimbabwe, the only white man in the side: a local hero, a prodigal returned.

But six years ago the Sun ran a story that claimed he was guilty of taking money to fix matches. A criminal trial followed; Grobbelaar was found not guilty and then successfully sued the Sun for libel. Last week the appeal court overturned the jury's verdict, Lord Justice Simon Brown saying, 'I have not the slightest doubt about his guilt.'

It is a terrible and probably ruinous verdict for Grobbelaar. And, as for me, I sup pose that pays me back for liking him. I met him only once, and we got on pretty well. Africa and goalkeeping are among my favourite subjects, so we had a good start.

Life is a process of coming to terms with the fallibility of human beings, and sport shows that fallibility more vividly than anything else. As a boy, I greatly admired the bespectacled cricketer M.J.K. Smith, and felt acute pain at his worst, nervy, poking performances for England.

You grow out of heroes because you learn too much about their fallibility, their humanity, but that can't stop you finding some sneaking affection for a player. That, after all, is one of the things that sport is for.

One of the truths about life is that if you judge your friends by high moral standards, you don't keep friends for long. If you are not prepared to have philanderers, wifebeaters, drunks and drug-dealers among your friends, then you are not really ready for friendship.

Grobbelaar's match-fixing showed that yes, he really is a crook, cheat, liar and traitor. There's no ducking that conclusion. But I can also remember a maverick goalkeeper who gave me great delight — and that still matters just a little. To me, anyway.