The small boy standing in the car park of Glasshoughton Welfare's ground knew something big was going on. But he hadn't quite got to grips with all the details.
Creating a buzz: Bruce Grobbelaar answered the club's SOS call
"Here, mate," he said, as I parked my car. "Are you Bruce Grobbelaar?" I told him I wasn't, but that I was here to meet him.
"Are you his agent?" Sorry, I said, I wasn't.
"Oh," said the boy, his hopes of a brush with fame dashed. "So you're nothing then."
As it happens, these days Bruce Grobbelaar doesn't have an agent. In fact he mocks the very idea ("Me? Have an agent? Yeah, right"). Which is probably why he had fetched up at Glasshoughton Welfare in the first place.
Here he was, the great former Liverpool keeper, in the middle of West Yorkshire rugby league territory, ready to turn out for a football team who are flirting with relegation from the Northern Counties League, some eight tiers down the football pyramid from where he made his name. And he is not being paid a penny for his efforts. No football agent worth his salt would let his client display that level of generosity.
"The reason I'm here is that the club secretary sent me a letter asking me to play," he explained. "My other half works for the local health authority and I live just up the road. I kick a ball around at the sports centre near here for a five-a-side team we call the Brothers of Judea. He'd seen me there. So he wrote to me. He explained that they were in such financial difficulties they were about to fold and wondered if I could help. I don't like to see clubs folding so I thought, 'why not?' "
Grobbelaar knows all about financial difficulties. In 2001 he was saddled with legal costs of more than £1 million when the Court of Appeal overturned a libel ruling he had won against The Sun. He had originally sued the paper over its allegations that he had fixed matches but ended up losing his pension. Thus while his successor in the Liverpool goal enjoys a stable of luxury motors, the man whose wobbly knees won the club the European Cup in 1984 arrived at Glasshoughton in a saloon of such modesty, the autograph hunters on the gate almost missed him. Clearly they weren't expecting to see a legend in an Astra.
Grobbelaar might not have much cash these days, but he does have one thing almost as useful for Glasshoughton Welfare: celebrity. From the moment he signed for the club, the buzz has been almost audible on the streets of Castleford. The average attendance at league matches this season has been 66. This afternoon, when the team take on Maltby Main from Rotherham, there will be at least 1,000 people to witness the goalkeeper's debut.
Then there are the spin-offs. A newly opened children's playground nearby has bought the rights to name the ground the Diggerland Stadium for the afternoon. Plus there will be, for the first time in Glasshoughton history, replica shirts on sale.
"It costs us about £15,000-20,000 a year to run the club," said Lee Beardshaw, the club secretary. "We're hoping to make £10,000-15,000 on the day. It means we'll be able to carry on next year. Bruce has saved us."
There is a precedent locally for this sort of thing. A couple of seasons ago, Glasshoughton's near neighbours, Garforth Town, made the news when they signed the Brazilian World Cup winner Socrates for two matches.
"He played three minutes of one game," Beardshaw recalled. "The second game he was named as substitute but spent the whole time in the bar, smoking and drinking. I know because I was there in the bar with him."
Grobbelaar was expecting to do rather more than that.
"I can play 90 minutes, no bother," he said. "I'm in the gym every morning. I'm not here to fool around. You know, the one thing you never lose as a sportsman is your competitiveness. I don't care what level this is, I'm going out there to win."
There was a hint of Grobbelaar's agenda in the training session in the club's modest little stadium. That may have been the Glasshoughton Working Men's Club overlooking the pitch rather than the Kop, the players might have been obliged to retrieve balls they kicked over the fence themselves, but the former Liverpool man threw himself into his work as if it were Anfield on the eve of a European Cup tie. He was a non-stop bundle of energy, diving around, producing save after save, emitting a loud hiss every time he did so.
As for his competitiveness, it was there for all to see when the chairman's 11-year-old son, joining in a game of six-a-side as a treat, broke through the defence and went one-on-one with the new keeper. Would the newcomer wobble his knees? Would he dive over the ball? No, he merely picked it off the boy's toes, threw it out to a team mate and grinned.
Watching him tumble about, Lee Beardshaw seemed thrilled by his new signing's work rate. "We were desperate to get him. I have to say, the FA were no help at all. His last club was in South Africa and we had to get international clearance for him to play. When I rang the FA they said: 'Bruce Grobbelaar play for Glasshoughton? You've got no chance.' Well, I wasn't going to take that. Not with the future of the club at stake. We finally got his registration through with an hour to spare."
advertisementThe club were born about the same time as Grobbelaar, 49 years ago. They were formed as a works team for a steel foundry. The second bit of their name was added when the Miners' Welfare donated some land for a pitch. Not that there are many miners or steel workers associated with them any more.
"No, it's all changed round here," explained Beardshaw. "I'm in e-mail marketing myself. Which is basically marketing by e-mail. We've all sorts in the team, but no miners or steel workers."
Of the all sorts, the man you couldn't help feeling sorry for was Lee Cowell, the club's normal keeper, who is studying for a degree in public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University. Today brings the biggest afternoon in Glasshoughton history and he'll be watching from the bench.
"Hey, if you're going to be dropped for anyone, it's best to be dropped for a legend," he said. "Besides, this could be a big break for me, getting interviewed and everything."
Which suggested, if nothing else, he had been paying attention to his course: only a student of PR could put such a positive spin on being dropped. And he'll need all the spin he can get if things pan out as they might.
"Is this the start of a comeback?" said Grobbelaar, after his workout. "It's a one-off. But who knows? Listen, I'm an open book. I run golf tours to South Africa, so I'm not here all the time. But when I'm here maybe I'll be able to help."
Copyright - The Telegraph