The news has finally arrived of the passing away of Jimmy Greaves; arguably the greatest striker this country has ever produced, ‘Greavsie’ had an astonishing goalscoring record both domestically and internationally. After retiring from playing, he then forged a formidable partnership with Ian St. John as the two became the ‘go to’ couple for football punditry.
While other players may have been more decorated in the game, few could match his exploits in front of goal. He had an impressive record of scoring on his debut for each professional club he played for. He even scored on his international debut.
He played for four clubs in his professional career, Chelsea, Milan, Tottenham and West Ham. But it was Spurs with whom he became synonymous.
His trademark was to simply pass the ball into the net rather than try and smash it. He argued the ball only had to cross the line for it to be ruled a goal, so why waste energy? His dribbling skills and close control were legendary as he had the ability to create chances out of nothing, rather than rely on teammates to create them for him.
He could do nothing for 89 minutes in a game. Then all of a sudden his explosive pace over 10 yards saw him slip his marker and once in front of goal, he was lethal.
Greavsie had been ill for some time, and with his quality of life undoubtedly diminished it may be somewhat of a blessing to hear he is now free from pain.
James Peter Greaves was born on 20 February 1940 in Manor Park, East London. He signed for Chelsea as an apprentice in 1955. They were managed by former Arsenal legend, Ted Drake. In the year Greaves signed for the Blues, Drake lead them to their first ever league title becoming the first person to win the league as both a player and a manager. Greavsie became one of ‘Drake’s Ducklings’ in contrast to the Busby Babes up at Old Trafford.
Greaves was soon a hit at youth level scoring 51 goals in the 1955-56 season and an incredible 122 goals a season later. He scored in the 1958 FA Youth Cup Final against Wolves, a two-legged tie they lost on aggregate.
He turned professional in the summer of 1957 and made his debut against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in August of that year. He scored in the game and had many in the crowd and media purring at his arrival. The News Chronicle compared his debut to that of Duncan Edwards commenting
“he showed the ball control, confidence and positional strength of a seasoned campaigner.”
A month later he was selected for England at under-23 level, scoring twice in a 6-2 win over Bulgaria at Stamford Bridge.
He ended the season as the club’s top scorer with 22 goals from 37 matches. In November Drake rested him for a few weeks as he didn’t want the lad’s instant success to go to his head. Greavsie responded with four goals against Portsmouth in his first game back.
Three games into the following season he banged in five in a 6-2 mauling of league champions, Wolves, as he was again the First Division’s top scorer with 32 goals in 44 games.
His performances were enough to earn a full England call-up against Peru in Lima in May 1959. He was three months past his 19th birthday, and scored England’s only goal in a 1-4 defeat.
In 1959-60 he bagged 29 goals including all five in a 5-4 win over Preston North End. A year later he hit another five against West Brom in a 7-1 win, along with four against Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest. When he notched up another hat-trick against Manchester City in November 1960 he reached 100 goals, becoming the youngest player to reach that mark, at just 20 years and 290 days.
Gradually though, the player was becoming disillusioned at Stamford Bridge. They rarely finished higher than mid-table, despite his goalscoring achievements. In the 1960-61 season the Chelsea Chairman decided to cash out on his most valuable player. Greavsie’s final game for the club was at the end of April where he scored all four in a 4-3 win over Nottingham Forest. That season saw him reach new heights with 41 goals in 40 games, making him Chelsea’s second highest goalscorer with 132 goals.
No player has equalled his tally of 41 top-flight goals in a season in the intervening 60 years.
The 1960-61 season was also a personal triumph in England colours too, as his eight appearances yielded 14 goals including hat-tricks against Scotland and Luxembourg.
Italian giants, AC Milan came in for the player and after a payment of £80,000 he was off to Turin. He was reluctant to leave London and never really settled. Despite this, he scored on his debut against Botafogo at the San Siro. He hit nine goals in 14 matches that season, including one in the Milan derby. Against Sampdoria he kicked a player who spat in his face. Milan conceded from the resulting free-kick and his coach blamed Greavsie for it. Soon after he was transfer-listed.
To his relief Chelsea and Tottenham both made bids. Spurs were his preferred option but negotiations seemed to take an age. Eventually the two clubs settled on terms and Greaves became the most expensive player in British football history. The fee was going to be £100,000 but Spurs boss, Bill Nicholson didn’t want his new star to be burdened with the label of being the first £100,000 player, so officially the fee was £99,999.
Tottenham were league champions at the time, having become the first club in England in the 20th century to do the double. True to form Greaves scored on his debut, helping himself to a hat-trick in a 5-2 win over Blackpool at White Hart Lane.
The club’s first foray in the European Cup saw them come within touching distance of the Final as they were knocked out by Benfica in the Semi-Finals. Greaves had goals disallowed in both legs.
They retained their FA Cup title with a 3-1 win over Burnley at Wembley with Greaves opening the scoring after just three minutes.
Three weeks later he hit a hat-trick in 16 minutes for England against Peru in friendly as a build-up to the World Cup in Chile. In their opening group match against Hungary, Greaves was denied a chance to equalise when his shot was handled on the line. Ron Flowers converted the resulting penalty, but England went on to lose 1-2.
Two days later he did get on the scoresheet, with what proved to be the only World Cup goal of his career in a 3-1 win over Argentina. A 0-0 draw against Bulgaria was enough to see them progress to the knockout stage at the expense of the Argentines on goal average.
But it all ended in disappointment when defending Champions, Brazil beat them 3-1 in Vina del Mar, with Garrincha scoring twice.
Greaves finished top scorer in the First Division for three successive seasons between 1962-65. In reality he’d been top scorer for the last four seasons he’d played in England, and five in six as a professional.
Spurs became the first British club to win a European trophy when they beat Atletico Madrid to lift the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in May 1963. They won 5-1 in Rotterdam with Greaves bagging a brace. His route to the Final had been eventful as along with his goals he received his only red card in his professional career. In the first leg of the Semi-Final against OFK Belgrade he retaliated with a punch and was handed his marching orders.
That season saw him break the club’s goalscoring record with 37 goals in the First Division. He scored another four goals against Nottingham Forest, in a 9-2 win. He hit four against Liverpool and hat-tricks against Manchester United and Ipswich. Spurs finished second in the table to Ipswich Town, which seemed to satisfy his desire to challenge for trophies. Something which was sadly lacking during his time at Stamford Bridge.
The 1963-64 season saw him hit a hat-trick against Nottingham Forest yet again, as well as Blackpool, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers.
In the 1964-65 season he scored 29 goals and was again top scorer in the First Division, but this time Blackburn Rovers Irish international, Andy McAvoy joined him at the top of the tree.
The 1965-66 was to be a huge one for England, but Greaves had three months out with hepatitis. He recovered to finish at the club’s top scorer yet again, and as the World Cup in England loomed large, he was on target for England too. In one of the friendlies leading up to the tournament, England beat Norway 6-1 with Greaves scoring four!
By now there was a battle between him and Bobby Charlton for the England all-time top scorer. Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney’s record of 30 goals had been surpassed by Charlton in October 1963 and then by Greavsie a month later. His hat-trick against Northern Ireland in October 1964 moved him above the Manchester United man. His haul in Oslo now had him on 43 goals, to Charlton’s 37.
Jimmy played in all three of England’s group games for the 1966 World Cup, partnering Liverpool’s Roger Hunt up front. He failed to score in any of the matches, and in the last game against France he picked up an ankle injury.
Jimmy would later admit he tried to hide it from the manager, but Alf Ramsey was too astute and reluctant to take any chances.
West Ham’s Geoff Hurst came in for Greaves in the Quarter-Final against Argentina. He was winning just his sixth cap, yet he scored the only goal of the game. Greaves was still not fit when England eased past Portugal in the Semis with Charlton scoring twice.
By the time the Final arrived Jimmy was fit again. It was touch and go whether Ramsey would change his side for the game against West Germany. He’d kept the same line-up through the knockout stages and appeared reluctant to change.
When he finally announced his decision to leave Greaves out, the player was devastated. Hurst went on to score a hat-trick and the rest, as they say, is history.
For the 50th anniversary celebrations of England’s World Cup win, journalist Jeff Powell recalled the events of the day. He particularly remarked how Greaves was one of several of the squad in the tunnel getting the champagne ready with England just minutes from victory in normal time. They had to postpone celebrations for a further 30 minutes as extra time was called.
But for Jimmy that’s as far as his celebrations went. He just couldn’t bring himself to take much part in them. He said he’d built himself up that he’d be the man leading the attack for his country. He was their top scorer after all. But for the kick on the ankle in the French game he would have been, and who knows we may never have really heard of Geoff Hurst.
Missing out hit him hard and unfortunately he turned to the worst friend he could. Alcohol.
Being a fit man he was able to kid himself he could handle it. But the signs were there even if no one wanted to truly believe them.
Not only did he miss out on playing in the Final, he didn’t receive a winners’ medal either. It was a constant bone of contention the rest of the squad never received medals, based on a FIFA ruling. This wasn’t rectified until as late as June 2009 when they were presented with them at Downing Street.
Spurs won the FA Cup again in 1967 when Greaves was in the team against his old club, Chelsea. He didn’t score in the Final but he was top scorer throughout the competition. He banged in another 31 goals in the league as Spurs finished third, but Southampton’s Welsh international Ron Davies hit 37.
For the past four seasons he had formed a strong partnership at White Hart Lane with Scottish international, Alan Gilzean. In January 1968 Bill Nicholson signed Martin Chivers from Southampton for a record fee to partner Greaves, with Gilzean dropping to midfield. But he and Greaves weren’t as effective.
Greaves had gone six games without a goal for England, his longest drought. So when he put them in front against Spain at Wembley in May 1967 it was a huge relief. It was his 44th goal in an England shirt. Nobody knew at the time, it would be his last.
Three days later they played out a disappointing 1-0 win over Austria in Vienna, and for Greaves it really was “Goodnight, Vienna”. At the age of 27 years and three months his international career was over.
Greaves was picked by Ramsey in the squad for the 1968 European Championships. He didn’t play and after that he told the manager he wasn’t prepared to be a ‘bit-part’ member of the squad and retired from international football.
44 goals in 57 appearances. His tally of six hat-tricks is still a national record.
In May 1968 in a friendly at Wembley against Sweden, Bobby Charlton scored his 45th international goal to go past Greaves. It was his 85th game for his country.
1968-69 was a personal triumph for Greavsie as his 27 goals saw him top the First Division goalscoring charts for the sixth and final time in his career. He hit four in a game against Sunderland, and further hat-tricks against Burnley and Leicester City. His goals took him past Bobby Smith as the club’s record goalscorer. Smith had been Greaves’ strike partner in his first couple of seasons at White Hart Lane. He also became the First Division’s top goalscorer with 336 goals, beating Steve Bloomer’s record.
The 1969-70 season was a difficult one for Spurs, and after defeat to Crystal Palace in the FA Cup he was dropped. He never started a game for Spurs again.
His Spurs career had seen him score an incredible 266 goals in 379 appearances. A club record which still stands today. Next best is Bobby Smith on 208. Greaves also scored 15 hat-tricks, another record.
Two months later he was off to Upton Park in a swap deal involving Martin Peters. Brian Clough had been interested in signing him for Derby County and on reflection Greavsie felt he should’ve taken the plunge and accepted, but he didn’t want to move away from London.
As was customary he scored two goals on his debut for West Ham in a 5-1 win over Manchester City in March 1970.
Greaves admitted later he felt the West Ham move was a mistake. His best mate in the England team, Bobby Moore was there. The two played alongside each other 38 times for England, but at West Ham there was a drinking culture and Greaves was already struggling to control his.
In January 1971 they were due up at Blackpool for an FA Cup tie. The pitch was frozen and members of the press the day before had speculated the game was likely to be called off. Believing they had a free evening, Greaves, Moore, Brian Dear and Clyde Best all spent the night in a local club availing themselves of the hospitality.
To their horror, the game did go ahead and Hammers were beaten 0-4. Manager Ron Greenwood blamed the players and fined them. But this only convinced Greaves his career was coming to an end.
His last game for the Hammers was in May 1971, a home defeat to Huddersfield. It was the end of his professional career, just four months short of his 31st birthday.
His final career tally of goals was 357 in the First Division. Add the 9 he scored for Milan and 366 in the top five European leagues was also a record. It lasted for 46 years until Cristiano Ronaldo surpassed it.
He’d now had it with football. His days were spent drinking.
Eventually he turned out for non-league Brentwood around Christmas 1975. He then spent a season with Chelmsford City in the Southern League and then onto Barnet, in the same league in August 1977. The Southern League was a step down from the Football League with nearly all the players semi-professional.
This is where he and this author’s paths crossed. My Uncle was a season ticket holder at Barnet, with a seat right above the players’ tunnel. When Barnet reached the FA Cup First Round against Peterborough he took me, a fresh faced 10-year old, along.
The ground was packed. They still talk about that game today. Unfortunately, the former England international couldn’t inspire The Bees to success and they lost 1-2.
I was able to watch him in a few Southern League matches, with a game against Dartford particularly memorable. He scored in a 4-1 win, with a screamer from about 30 yards out right into the top corner of the net.
Greaves left Underhill early the following season to concentrate on business interests and beating alcoholism. He conquered his alcohol addiction in the late 1970’s and remained sober for the rest of his life.
After his playing career was over he started writing a column for The Sun in 1979. He was invited onto the ITV pundit panel for the 1982 World Cup. His contacts at ITV then saw him make regular appearances on World of Sport and On the Ball, where he struck up a relationship with former Liverpool striker, Ian St. John.
He even had a stint as a television reviewer on ITV’s new breakfast show, TV-am. Eventually ITV bosses saw the chemistry between St. John (Saint) and Greaves (Greavsie) to form a formidable partnership of their own. They presented a lunchtime programme called Saint and Greavsie for seven years up to April 1992.
For many who grew up watching the game on tv during the 1980’s and 1990’s Greaves was a fixture. His slow, deliberate East End drawl delivered some wonderful humour. Often sarcastic, it hit the mood of the football follower, who was yet to take the game too seriously. He was even credited with his own catchphrase;
“it’s a funny old game, Saint”
Just as with stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, he was famous for a line he never uttered.
This in fact had been delivered for him by Harry Enfield who voiced his character in Spitting Image.
Once the Premier League was born, television bosses considered the pairs light-hearted approach as not serious enough and they were binned.
Following a mild stroke in February 2012, he underwent surgery on an artery in his neck. He experienced another severe stroke in May 2015 which left him unable to speak. By February 2016 although he was recovering, he was told he would never walk again.
In the New Year honours list 2020 he was awarded the MBE.
He and Irene had been married in 1958 and though attempted to divorce at the height of his alcoholism, it was never finalised. They reunited and remained inseparable for the rest of his life. They had five children.
He died at his home in Danbury on 19 September 2021, aged 81.