Jimmy Greaves: The ultimate goal-scoring machine who was happiest on the pitch

·5-min read
Jimmy Greaves: The ultimate goal-scoring machine who was happiest on the pitch

There was a certain symmetry in the fact that, on the day Jimmy Greaves MBE was finally at peace, three of his clubs were in action.

I’m not sure what Jimmy would have thought about the late penalty mayhem at West Ham, or Chelsea’s convincing victory over Tottenham.

Probably he would have shrugged his shoulders and with that twinkle in his eye, said in that laconic way of his: “It’s a funny old game.”

In reality, too many of Jimmy’s 81 years on earth were not remotely funny, from losing a son at just five months old; through his battle with alcoholism during much of the 1970s to, for the last few years, enduring the awful after-effects of a massive stroke.

Greavsie, though, with the loving help of his wife, Irene, somehow got through it all.

He was at his happiest when he was out there on the football pitches of the world, jinking his way past befuddled defenders before placing the football into the net.

Those who were not fortunate enough to watch this sublime footballer in the flesh, should have a look at some of his goals. See the way he floats — glides — over sub-standard pitches or ghosts into space in a congested penalty area.

If you do not believe he was the best goal scorer in the history of the English game, then take a look at his astonishing record — 357 goals in a total of 516 League games.

Born in east London, a hotbed of footballing talent at the time, Jimmy Greaves was scouted by Chelsea and joined the club in 1955.

He made his debut, aged 17, in 1957, aptly scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham, the club with which he enjoyed most of his success.

He finished that season as Chelsea’s top scorer with 22 goals in 37 games, despite being rested for six weeks in mid-season because manager Ted Drake did not want the early accolades to go to his head.

In the five seasons he was at Stamford Bridge, Greaves scored 132 goals in 169 games and — in 1960 — became the youngest player, at 20 years and 290 days, to reach a century of goals. In his final season at Chelsea before signing for AC Milan, he scored 41 goals in 40 games to finish at the time as the club’s second highest scorer.

His time in Italy lasted less than a season and was not a success, even though he scored nine goals in 14 games. Greaves was a free spirit and — although he tried — was less than impressed by the Italian club’s strictly regimented methods. Greaves was happy to be back in London by December 1961 after Tottenham paid £99,999 for his services and he confirmed his relief by scoring a hat-trick against Blackpool on his debut.

In 1963 he scored twice in a 5-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final, as Spurs became the first British team to win a European club trophy.

Greaves continued to score prolifically, eventually overhauling Steve Bloomer as the League’s top scorer, with 266 goals, including 15 hat-tricks.

It is a measure of the admiration and affection that Spurs fans had for their striker that 45,000 of them turned up at White Hart Lane for his testimonial game against Feyenoord.

Greaves moved to his third London club — and the one nearest his birthplace — when he left Spurs for West Ham in 1970 as part of the deal which took Martin Peters in the opposite direction.

By then, his drinking had started to be excessive and he often went from training at Chadwell Heath to a Romford pub a mile down the road where he would drink the rest of the day away.

Jimmy Greaves’ incredible career stats

Goal record

266 in 379 appearances for Tottenham

132 in 169 appearances for Chelsea

44 in 57 appearances for England, including six hat-tricks

Greaves would later confess that he “missed” much of that decade because of his alcoholism. He and Irene split for 18 months but then, thankfully, came back together for the remainder of his life.

He played his last game for West Ham in May 1971, having scored 13 goals in 40 appearances, but the downward spiral continued and in 1978, he sought treatment in the alcoholics ward of Warley Psychiatric Hospital.

“He’d been there twice unsuccessfully but it was third time lucky,” said Irene. “That was it, he stopped.”

For England, Greaves scored 44 goals in 57 appearances, the fourth highest, but holds the record for most hat-tricks with six. He looked nailed on to be England’s first-choice striker in the 1966 World Cup but then was raked down the shin during the match against France and when he took his sock off afterwards, found it full of blood from a gaping gash which needed 14 stitches.

He might just have been fit to return for the Final against West Germany but by that time his replacement, Geoff Hurst, had impressed Alf Ramsey sufficiently to keep his place.

Hurst scored a hat-trick as England won the Final, while Greaves hid his bitter disappointment with a brave face and typical generosity. He passed on the celebrations, though, preferring instead to quietly depart for a family holiday.

He played only three more times for England, his final cap being in May 1967, but was involved in the 1970 World Cup, this time co-driving a Ford Escort in the Wembley to Mexico Rally.

After retiring from football, Greaves became something of a national treasure following his television partnership with former Scotland and Liverpool striker Ian St John in the Saint and Greavsie Show.

Jimmy Greaves won most of the battles in a full and successful life, the toughest one surely being his alcoholism.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

I will think of him next time I drive past the pub near Brentwood, now a Turkish restaurant, where he had his last pint before checking into Warley Hospital.

Most of all, though, I will always imagine Greavsie, in that white shirt of Spurs, gliding around and through the opposition before caressing the ball into the net.

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