David Grof: My Hibs chance came too soon but now I’m a champion

David Grof looks like he would rather be anywhere else than in a Hibs kit after defeat by Morton in the CIS Insurance Cup at Easter Road. Pic: SNS
David Grof looks like he would rather be anywhere else than in a Hibs kit after defeat by Morton in the CIS Insurance Cup at Easter Road. Pic: SNS
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As a 17-year-old David Grof arrived in Edinburgh all star-struck, a much in demand Hungarian youth internationalist being eyed by both Hibs and Hearts.

He opted for Easter Road, but when he departed, his contract cut short by 18 months, his looked nothing other than another sorry story of a youngster boasting lots of potential but suddenly finding himself on the soccer scrapheap.

David Grof with the Hungarian league trophy

David Grof with the Hungarian league trophy

The ensuing years did little to disabuse anyone of that notion, the goalkeeper – who also faced a drink-driving charge while at Hibs – struggling to make an impact south of the border where he signed for Notts County, only to be loaned out to Tamworth and then Mansfield Town.

A spell with Walsall also ended on an unhappy note, Grof drifting into the second tier of French football with Clermont and then the German fourth division, initially with Goslarer in Lower Saxony and then Berliner AK.

But today, back in his hometown of Budapest, the now 28-year-old has just enjoyed what he describes as his “Leicester City season”, helping Honved win Hungary’s OTP Bank Liga for the first time since 1993 and 31 years after his father Atilla, also a goalkeeper, did so with the same club.

And it’s become even better for Grof, his heroics for unfancied Honved earning him a call up for his nation’s friendly match against Russia on Monday, one which will be followed by a trip to Andorra for a World Cup qualifying match.

Such has been the maelstrom he’s found himself caught up in over the past few days, Grof admits he’s still struggling to come to terms with it all, somewhat understating it all, as he told the Evening News: “It’s all going well at the moment.”

It is, of course, going far better. He said: “It’s been amazing, before the season everyone expected us to be closer to relegation than the title. But like the Leicester City story it’s been unbelievable.

“I think the key to it all was that we have a lot of players who have come up through the academy. They have been playing together for five, six, seven or eight years while we also had a really good coach in Marco Rossi who had been here for five seasons.

“I think even if we had 
finished second it would have been regarded as an 
achievement, but throughout the season there were key moments, we were winning games in the 95th minute.”

Saving a penalty away to Debrecen, one of Hungary’s most successful clubs, in the penultimate game of the season before going on to win 5-2 all but wrapped up the title, but Honved did so at home with a 1-0 over Videoton, their closest rivals.

Grof said: “The two of us were level on points going into the final game, but we had enjoyed more wins over the season, so a draw would have been enough.

“It was the first time in quite a while our ground had been sold out and, as you can imagine, there was a huge party afterwards. It took me three or four hours before I could leave the stadium.

“It was the first time in 24 years Honved had won the league and 31 since my dad had lifted the title with them. He only had one season at Honved and was very young but I’ve done it as the club’s No. 1 so I’ve told him I’ve 
managed to do a little better than him. But, of course, he is very proud, he knows what it means to me.”

Honved manager Rossi had warned Grof not to book any holidays at the end of the season, given Hungarian coach Bernd Stork had been keeping an eye on him. Even so, learning he would be part of the latest national squad came as a huge 
surprise.

He said: “We’d just finished training and the television was on in the dressing-room when the squad came up – starting with my name. Wow!

“It was hard to take in. We’d won the league and two days later I was in the national squad. Everything as happened so quickly I probably won’t be able to fully appreciate it until these two games with Hungary are over.”

As proud as Grof senior might be, if he’d had his way his son would never have become a goalkeeper, wary of him suffering the flak which often comes their way.

He recalled: “He knew the pressures, make one mistake and you have the finger of blame pointed at you. People tend to remember the errors, not the great saves you pull off.

“My dad was my idol, from the age of two I went to all of his games. All I ever wanted to be was a goalie, never an outfield player. Like all young boys I just enjoyed throwing myself around in the mud.”

Alerted by his agent, both Edinburgh clubs showed an interest in Grof – and he did train with Hearts – but having just turned 17 he felt Easter Road, where Tony Mowbray was then manager, was the place to go.

Today though, Grof asserts he should have followed the advice of his parents and remained at home in Budapest.

He said: “It was a big thing leaving home, it was really hard at first as my English wasn’t very good and I couldn’t really talk to anyone which made it all the harder. Looking back, I was a bit too young but I wanted to follow my dream and told my mum and dad not to stop me, to let me do it.

“But I wasn’t ready for it. There was a lot I had to experience for myself.”

However, Grof was denied any real involvement in the Hibs first team, just ten minutes at the end of a pre-season friendly against Barcelona – the Catalans already 6-0 up when he replaced Andy McNeil – packed with all their superstars and under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, and a second-half appearance, again as a substitute, as Hibs were knocked out of the League Cup by Morton,

But his over-riding memories of Edinburgh remain happy ones. He said: “There’s not many goalkeepers who can say they kept a clean sheet against Barcelona, especially on debut, a side with the likes of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Pedro, Danni Alves, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Victor Valdes at the other end, to mention but a few. I was happy I could say I played at Easter Road. I loved the place and Hibs still remain very close to my heart.”

Grof naturally admits that he bitterly regrets his brush with the law, saying that being a young player with some cash in his pocket had “turned his head,” adding: “At that age you think you are invincible.”

When Grzegorz Szamotulski arrived at Easter Road, pushing him down to fourth choice behind McNeil and Yves Ma-Kalambay, then boss Mixu Paatelainen revealed he would not stand in Grof’s way if he wanted to make his way in the game elsewhere, his initial move being to go on trial with West Bromwich Albion.

Again, with the benefit of hindsight, Grof admits he should have headed for home at that point.

He said: “I was young, I still wanted to stay abroad, in the UK or elsewhere but maybe I should have calmed down a bit, gone home and grown up. Yes, there are regrets, I should have done a lot of things but I am happy things have worked out a lot better than everyone might have thought.”