I don’t make a habit of using the word great when it comes to footballers. These days the word is too readily sprinkled around like confetti. When it comes to those I have seen play in real time, be it in the flesh or on TV, such a word should be reserved for Pele, Messi, Cruyff and Best.
Those older than me whose opinion I respect tell me Alfredo di Stéfano was one of the greatest of all time. Some who have seen all subsequent footballers play say he was the greatest.
The problem I find today is that too often good players are called great. Decent goals are constantly labelled likewise. The word ‘great’ has been debased, especially in sporting circles.
I am happy to make an exception for Jimmy Greaves. He truly was a great footballer. As he said himself: “It was a life that I was born to.”
The youngest player to score 100 goals, his life had some dramatic highs and lows. In collaboration with his friend Norman Giller, the men delivered one of my favourite books of all time. ‘This One’s On Me’ was unique when it was published in 1979. The searing honesty of Greaves when describing his alcoholism preceded by decades another fine tome, the Tony Adams book entitled Addicted, written in conjunction with his friend Ian Ridley.
I consider myself so fortunate to have seen Greaves play for Tottenham and West Ham. I was young for sure, but perhaps the ideal age to be impressed. I recall standing at the front of the terrace, directly behind the goal at White Hart Lane when Manchester United played Spurs. How spoilt I was that day. Jimmy Greaves and George Best. Two greats for the price of one.
While Georgie boy dribbled and dazzled, Jimmy could also make defenders look silly. He was a very able poacher, but never one to hang around the six yard box waiting for the ball to come to him. Many of his great goals – yes, great – came from outside the penalty area.
Jimmy Greaves was a footballer that made you like him regardless of which team you supported. He played the game with a smile on his face.
When I was born he was scoring plenty of goals for Chelsea. He was a Stamford Bridge favourite for four years, finding the net 124 times in 157 appearances. In 1961 he joined a small band of British players who tried their luck abroad, with mixed fortunes. For the sum of £80.000 – a fortune in the day – A.C. Milan offered him a three year contract. Greaves was lured to Italy by a signing on fee of £15.000 and a salary of £140 a week. Jimmy got cold feet and tried to get out of the move but found the net on his debut at the San Siro stadium. He scored nine goals in only fourteen appearances and despite not seeing eye to eye with the coach Nereo Rocco. When Greaves scored against Inter in the Milan derby, hero status looked guaranteed. But he came home from Italy broke claiming A.C. Milan did not deliver the sums they promised.
Jimmy had quickly grown homesick. He wasn’t the first or the last player to discover the grass was not always greener on foreign soil. Chelsea and Tottenham competed to bring him home. Another great, manager Bill Nicholson, signed him for Spurs the season after the club had won the historic First Division and FA Cup double. The transfer fee was £99.999. His goalscoring record thereafter was phenomenal. 220 goals in 321 appearances during his nine years at Tottenham. He never wanted to leave White Hart Lane but was forced into a trade off that saw Martin Peters move from Upton Park. Reluctantly, Greaves joined West Ham United. He scored 13 goals in 38 games for the Hammers.
His contribution to England at World Cups is often overlooked. Greaves always said the England side of the early 60’s era was better than the one which would, five years later, lift the Jules Rimet Trophy. In 1962 he played in all four of their games at the World Cup in Chile., scoring in the 3-1 victory over Argentina. In one of the most famous matches between England and Scotland, he scored three goals in the 9-3 rout of those from north of the border.
More than once in International matches he scored hat tricks for England. As close to the 1996 World Cup as June of that year he scored four goals in a friendly against Norway. With a tally of 43 goals for his country, a starting place in the first game of the 1966 World Cup looked guaranteed. He played in all three group games but in the match against France he suffered an injury to his shin. The wound required five stitches. England manager Alf Ramsey chose Geoff Hurst to replace Greaves for the lively and often violent quarter final against Argentina. Hurst scored the only goal of the game and retained his place all the way to the final in which he himself scored a famous hat trick.
Greaves told Brian Moore: “Geoff Hurst came in. Took his chance. Scored the only goal of the game and Alf kept it that way. I have always said Alf was right to do so. If you say was I disappointed I didn’t play in the ’66 World Cup final, of course I was devastated. But it wasn’t Alf’s fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was just one of those things.”
In the below short on camera interview I undertook with Norman Giller he talks about his friend Jimmy Greaves and his absence from that World Cup final.
A younger generation may only remember Jimmy as one part of the fun filled TV duo ‘Saint and Greavsie.’ At its peak, that lunchtime show attracted millions of viewers and put fun back into football.
As he did for so many years on the pitch. By his own admittance he retired far too young, at 31. “I was fed up at West Ham. I should have gone to Derby County. Brian Clough wanted me. I wish I had gone. One of the great things I would love to have done was played under the man.”
Dealing with alcoholism occupied many subsequent years of his life.
“I started drinking quite heavily. Five years passed me by without me knowing what had happened in that time. I had to start life again. You have to live your life one day at a time. You adhere to a strict code of conduct or you would be back to square one in no time at all. The biggest thing you lose is your self confidence. It was a battle. It’s the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.”
If you want to hear Jimmy Greaves talk about his career to his friend Brian Moore, watch this charming interview in which the modest Jimmy Greaves looks back at his career and watches back some memorable match action from yesteryear.