The great Greaves

Jimmy Greaves, who suffered a severe stroke recently, was a superb footballer, a delightful person but, alas, denied his World Cup (1966) final, writes Brian Glanville.

A severe stroke recently put the life of Jimmy Greaves in parole, but he, blessedly, survived. As indeed I hope is the case by the time you read this. Huge eulogies were — prematurely as it happily transpired — published in almost every national newspaper. Well deserved indeed, if somewhat subjective. For my own part, as one who had the pleasure and good fortune to know him pretty well for many years, travelling with him and the England team all over the football world, I have a small personal anecdote, which I think perfectly illustrates the generosity and modesty of the man.

The scene was the spacious sports grounds owned by the Bank of England in South West London where England, managed by Alf Ramsey, used to do their training. The day was Friday, one day before the 1966 World Cup final due to be played at Wembley against West Germany. A salient question was, would Greaves himself be playing?

His leg had been badly gashed while playing at Wembley against France in a group eliminating game. Since then, his place in the England attack had been successfully taken by the notably different, greatly bigger Geoff Hurst. And in a desperately tight quarterfinal game against Argentina, reduced to 10 men in the first half by the sending off of their contentious captain Antonio Rattin, England had just squeaked through by a goal, dramatically headed by Hurst, who exploited — as so often in club football — a cross curled in from the left by his West Ham team-mate Martin Peters.

After that, Ramsey could hardly drop Hurst. To my mind, the logical thing to do would have been to omit the Liverpool attacker Roger Hunt, a player praised by Alf Ramsey, for allegedly ‘making space’. For Liverpool, Hunt would score 20-odd goals a season but at international level, he never convinced me. In the event, Ramsey would keep him in the team against Germany, and in the first half, he would culpably shoot wide from a marvellous chance.

So, at Roehampton, there seemed to me every reason why his place should go to Greaves, such a deadly finisher, both in the penalty box and, especially in his earlier days, from dazzling runs outside it. A player with an astonishing knack of somehow, as though camouflaged, finding himself space to score even in the most crowded penalty area. Thus, at Roehampton, Greaves must plainly have been in a state of high tension, waiting to know if he would take part — remember there were no substitutes then — in the most important game of his or any other player’s career.

From his cheerful, friendly demeanour that morning, you would never have known it. In his spare time, just for the fun of it, out in a remote part of Essex near where he then lived, Greaves would captain and play in goal for a local team known as The Tennis All Stars. I myself was running and playing for an obscure little Sunday side called Chelsea Casuals. One, from Greaves’ lofty height, virtually invisible to the naked eye. Still, we had played.

Chelsea Casuals had actually won and I shall never forget Greaves in goal facing a penalty kick taken by Mike Pinner, an amateur goalkeeper good enough to play for Aston Villa, Sheffield United and the British Olympic team, but for his ‘moonlighting’ as an outside left.

Pinner, who had quite a left foot if not as famed as Greaves’, took his penalty kick once and Greaves saved. The referee decided Greaves had moved and had it taken again; with the same result. ‘Blanking hell, ref!’ Jimmy protested. On the third occasion, Jimmy was beaten. Casuals scored. Now, smiling at Roehampton despite the tension and pressure he must have been feeling, he told me, “We must have another game next season, Brian!”

A breather before the big challenge... members of the England team play golf during a break in training at Roehampton, London, the day before their World Cup final match against West Germany on July 29, 1966. Jimmy Greaves, who is putting, did not play in the final.-

It was against Tottenham Hotspur, his future club, that Greaves made his explosive goal-scoring teenaged debut in the first League match of August 1957. An East Londoner, you might have expected him to join local West Ham, which indeed he did but only at the very end of his career. From that moment, he was a refulgent star. I remember him humiliating England’s Billy Wright — then fading in his centre half back days — at Stamford Bridge, racing past him time and again to score no fewer than five goals. But in 1960, after a tremendous tug of war between Italian clubs, he agreed to sign for Milan. By which time he had scored 124 times for Chelsea. But he changed his mind and wanted to stay in London.

I remember being on the plane, which took the England team from Rome in May 1961 to Vienna. He announced to the press that he was staying with Chelsea.

“I don’t see how he can,” rumbled Sir Stanley Rous, Secretary and doyen of English football, and in the event, he couldn’t. Greaves’ months in Milan were deeply unhappy but he managed nine goals in half a dozen games before joining Spurs for GBP999,000; having gone to Milan for 80,000.

At Tottenham, he would be prolific. And for England, he would score 44 from 57 games, which pits him at No. 4 on the overall list. Two-hundred and twenty league goals came in his nine ebullient years at White Hart Lane. And yet, when it comes to the final accolade, which is surely success in the World Cup finals, it has to be said that he did not make the ultimate grade. In 1966, he might have done if he’d not been injured. But in Chile in 1962, he alas unquestionably failed. He himself admitted to me, “There are some good players here, but they’re playing some bloody rubbish because they’re afraid they’re going to be killed.”

A drab England team beat Argentina well enough but were easily defeated in Vina del Mar by Brazil, where Greaves was presented with a tap in.

Some years after his 1966 disappointment, Greaves took heavily to drink, consuming vast amounts of alcohol every day. But he always has insisted that this had nothing to do with 1966. Eventually, with a tremendous effort of the will, he gave up alcohol completely and became in time a very successful television performer. A superb footballer, a delightful person but, alas, denied his World Cup final.

Yet how coruscating was his form in the weeks before the tournament. I well remember watching his irresistible performance in Oslo against Norway, where he scored four times totally, proving his recovery from a bout of jaundice, and so he told me how colossally important was the coming World Cup challenge at Wembley; where England would in the event play every game. It might be added that for all his prolific scoring, he was no header of the ball. Did it matter?