Northstand Nostalgia: Meeting ‘Bruce Almighty’ on Road to Wembley

Bruce Grobbelaar
Bruce Grobbelaar
Nicke Kabamba. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey loan watch – weekend report

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It’s a well-worn footballing parlance that all roads lead to Wembley.

But in my case, that should say all rails pass through Crewe, as once again my tale begins in the famous Staffordshire railway town.

At Gresty Road in February 1980, a very poor Crewe Alexandra were facing an onslaught from a promotion-chasing Pompey.

All that stood in the way of victory for Frank Burrows’ boys was a young, unknown Rhodesian goalkeeper, who was on loan at the Alex from Vancouver Whitecaps.

That evening, Bruce Grobbelaar produced the most complete goalkeeping performance I had witnessed until then.

The game finished 1-1, with Crewe scoring from their only shot, while Grobbelaar made countless breathtaking saves.

During some rare moments of inactivity, the home keeper conversed with and entertained the many Pompey fans who stood behind his goal.

After the match, while sat in Crewe’s supporters’ club, myself and two pals (the two Barrys) were stunned when Brucie and team-mate Bob Scott walked in and joined us at our table.

During our brief conversation, we all gushed praise upon the keeper.

And before we departed for our train, both players encouraged us to contact the Crewe secretary to find out which Portsmouth hotel their team would be staying at for the return fixture.

On the eve of this match, I contacted the club and mentioned Bob Scott’s name, unbelievably the secretary was awaiting my call and told me the team were staying at the Queen’s Hotel.

The two Barry’s and I excitedly met up with our Crewe heroes later that evening and, with manager Tony Waddington’s approval, we escorted them around Southsea funfair and then on to the Queen’s bar for a drink.

On our return to the hotel, Crewe’s manager handed us complimentary tickets for the following day’s game.

Once again it was Pompey versus Grobbelaar. Once again it finished 1-1.

Brucie’s performance eclipsed that of his Gresty Road heroics.

He entered the pitch wearing a Halloween mask, purchased at the funfair, and left to a standing ovation from the Fratton End.

Grobbelaar signed for Liverpool in 1981 and went on to become one of the world’s greatest keepers.

But his career met with scandal while playing for Southampton.

In 1996, as details of match-fixing allegations began to emerge, Pompey were drawn away to Saints in the FA Cup.

Unable to obtain one of the 15,000 precious tickets for the game, I headed west to Southampton’s training ground in Marchwood, to look up an old friend to see if he could help.

Although we had met a few times during his Liverpool career, my journey was made more in hope then expectation. However, Brucie did not let me down.

He arranged to meet me just before kick-off outside the players’ entrance at the Dell, where he gave me two tickets – for me and my dad.

In return, I gave Bruce a small token of my appreciation.

Saints then smashed Pompey out of the Cup 3-0.

My only consolation was the knowledge their reserve keeper watched the game while wearing a small star & crescent badge affixed to the inside of his lapel.

Regardless of the match-fixing allegations, proven or otherwise, I will always remember Grobbelaar as a fantastic, extrovert keeper.

Warm, engaging and great company, while mindful of his footballing roots.

He was Bruce Almighty!

A regular contributor to the Football Mail’s letters page many moons ago, the Northstand Critic has got back in touch and now writes a column in the Sports Mail.