Jimmy Greaves: England’s goalscoring ‘genius’ who missed their greatest triumph
To others of a certain era, it is his jocular co-hosting of a Saturday lunchtime television show which will last longest in the memory.
But for anyone inclined to scour the record books, Jimmy Greaves, who has died at the age of 81, will go down in history as quite simply one of the greatest out-and-out goalscorers of his or any other generation.
Sir Geoff Hurst, who replaced Greaves in the 1966 team and scored a hat-trick in the final triumph over West Germany, says Greaves was simply the greatest English forward there has ever been.
“There have been some great players but forwards are judged on goals, and there’s nobody who could touch him,” Hurst told the PA news agency in February 2020.
“I am asked is there any animosity between Jimmy and I, because I took his place? But not for one second.
“You hear the term genius, and it is the one word which applies to Jimmy.”
Delve into those statistics and they show Greaves scored 44 goals in 57 games for his country – the fourth-highest total of all time – as well as 266 in his 379 matches for Tottenham.
Greaves also held the all-time record of 366 goals in Europe’s top five leagues, which stood for no less than 46 years, before being eclipsed by Cristiano Ronaldo during Real Madrid’s superb 2016-17 campaign.
Yet, inevitably, it was a game in which Greaves failed to take part that defined his career, a shin injury costing him the opportunity to test his prodigious scoring exploits on the biggest stage.
The rest is history. Hurst went on to score a hat-trick in the World Cup final against West Germany and earn the endless veneration of football fans across the land.
Hurst was a famous Hammer and so might Greaves have been, having been born just down the road from Upton Park in Manor Park on February 20, 1940.
Growing up in Dagenham, Greaves – whose father was a driver on the London Underground – was scouted by Chelsea while still a schoolboy, signing on as an apprentice in 1955 before making a goalscoring debut for his new club in 1957 aged just 17 during a 1-1 draw against Spurs at White Hart Lane.
Four promising years at Stamford Bridge came to an end in 1961 when unrest over a £19-per-week cap on players’ wages in England led Greaves to make the relatively pioneering decision to move abroad.
Despite scoring nine goals in 12 appearances for AC Milan, Greaves struggled to adapt to the Italians’ strict training and lifestyle choices and soon made clear his intention to return to England.
Determined not to rest on his laurels in the aftermath of Spurs’ historic double success, Bill Nicholson brought Greaves to north London and, from the moment he scored a hat-trick on his debut against Blackpool, it proved a perfect match.
For four seasons the goals rained down and the silverware piled up: an FA Cup win in his first season followed the next year by Greaves playing an integral part in Spurs becoming the first English team to win a European trophy when they took home the Cup Winners’ Cup.
His stardom was such that in 1964 John Lennon, at the height of Beatlemania, stopped a Beatles concert at the London Palladium mid-set after spotting Greaves in the crowd.
“We’ve got real royalty in here tonight!” Lennon said, according to Greaves’ long-time friend Terry Baker.
With a home World Cup looming, Greaves, who had made a goalscoring England debut in 1959 and played in all four games of the previous World Cup in Chile in 1962, was still very much Sir Alf Ramsey’s main striker until his injury in the group game against France left the way open for Hurst.
Greaves’ nine-year love affair with Spurs came to an end in 1970 when Nicholson decided he was surplus to requirements. In a 2010 newspaper interview, Greaves described the news as his biggest regret.
The disappointment diluted any pride he might have felt in pulling on the claret and blue of West Ham, the club closest to his roots, and one season later Greaves quit Upton Park and increasingly sought solace elsewhere.
He finished sixth with co-driver Tony Fall in the London to Mexico World Cup rally; unfortunately, further escapism was to be found in drink.
His son Danny, a professional footballer himself, said his father would simply withdraw and play Neil Diamond records on those occasions when he was drunk at home.
The World Cup disappointment was often cited as one of the triggers for Greaves’ alcoholism, but it was the death of his and Irene’s second child, Jimmy Junior, as an infant which Greaves himself said had a far more profound effect on him.
“Jimmy’s death devastated us, it really drove us out of our minds,” Greaves said.
“If ever there was a time I wanted to claw back yesterday, it was the day young Jimmy died. Though we had Lynn (their eldest child), our grief lay before us, our joy seemingly behind us. You grieve for the death of any loved one, but when it’s for your own child, no words can describe that grief.”
Greaves quit drinking in 1978. In his 2003 autobiography, Greaves reflected on how he would “drink up to 20 pints of beer in the course of a day, go home, then drink a whole bottle of vodka before going to bed”.
He said: “There is no tried and tested way of surviving with alcoholism. You have to find your own path. You have to wake up one morning, shaking like a leaf and vomiting and realise that you don’t like the world you are living in and that the world doesn’t like you much, either.
“It was not until I woke up one day in a mental hospital in Essex – in a room of people sitting around shaking and talking to themselves – that I had the reality check I needed.”
Drink cost him his marriage to Irene, although the pair subsequently got back together after a separation, and also led to financial problems.
At one low point Greaves was trying to make ends meet by selling women’s jumpers and living in a one-bedroom flat in Wanstead, East London.
Looking to move forwards in his life, Greaves starred alongside former Liverpool striker Ian St John in the popular ITV programme ‘Saint and Greavsie’ between 1985 and 1992.
The show saw Greaves become a popular pundit, with a new generation of football fans taken in by his charm, which also won over the likes of former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and even future US President Donald Trump.
Trump helped out on a draw for the fifth round of the Rumbelows Cup before being presented with a coveted ‘Saint and Greavsie Mug’ for his efforts in handing Manchester United a trip to Leeds.
After a long campaign Greaves finally received a World Cup winners’ medal in 2009; five years later he sold it in an auction at Sotheby’s for £44,000.
In later life, Greaves endured health problems, including a minor stroke in 1992 from which he recovered, but it was followed by a serious stroke in May 2015 which saw him unconscious for six days in intensive care and later left in a wheelchair.
He was welcomed back to White Hart Lane in late March 2017 when the 77-year-old was joined by his family as he was photographed by the pitch and in the home dressing room and was shown a picture from his playing days.
Greaves married Irene in 1958 when he was 18, and went on to have five children.
He is survived by his wife Irene, sons Andy and Danny, who had spells playing at Southend and Cambridge, and daughters Lynn and Mitzi.