Jimmy Greaves: A working-class hero who defined a generation
Knighthood would do little to burnish stellar reputation of former Spurs goal machine
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Greaves has a shot blocked by a Burnley defender at White Hart Lane in 1963. Photograph: Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images
Harry Gregg, for a couple of seconds, was back in goal. He was sitting on his settee miming a goalkeeper’s preparation as a striker readies to shoot. Gregg’s expression was all about excitement, anticipation. Then his face dropped, the ball hit the back of the net; utter deflation.
Gregg was talking about Gerd Müller at the time.
“See Müller?” Harry said, “I’d be lying on the ground saying: ‘Can you at least try to make it look hard?’
“The only one who could compare with him was Jimmy Greaves. ”
Noel Campbell was reflecting on his life at Fortuna Cologne in the 1970s.
“Franz Beckenbauer?” Campbell said of some of the German greats he played against – “he is what he is.
“But Gerd Müller – he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He was the most amazing player. He was the most amazing goalscorer, better than any of them, even Jimmy Greaves.”
John Sillett was talking about a Chelsea match in 1958 when an 18-year-old Greaves scored twice in two minutes. “I’d been in the youth team with Jimmy,” Sillett said, “you knew he’d be a major player”.
A perk of the job is rewinding the clock with some former players and over the past five years or so, the regularity with which the name of Jimmy Greaves has come up has been almost as amazing as Greaves’ goalscoring records and the fondness his name provokes.
Thus even when Irish former footballers such as Gregg and Campbell are discussing the merits of Müller – another whose name repeatedly returns – they do so in the context of Greaves. That was how a generation of professionals gauged their world: how good is this player compared to Greaves? He was the marker.
This is true respect, sincere and authentic. Peer to peer.
But, just as there was with Bob Paisley, there is something of a bandwagon to see the seriously ill Greaves awarded a knighthood or a title of some sort, as if the love and admiration of his colleagues and the public was not, is not, enough. As with Paisley, it is unnecessary.
This feels like another example of England diverted from reality, wrapped in a flag, its alleged leading family living in a castle at the end of a mall handing out gongs.
What this misunderstands is that a working-class hero is something to be. Greaves or Paisley on their knees in front on inherited wealth and political privilege? Don’t think so.
Men like these, football men, were never handed anything. Their lives were self-made, their honours were football honours.
Greaves and Paisley had more than any belated, manufactured establishment nod. They had the love of the people. They touched them with their skill and with their teams and the memories they leave, just as with today’s players, mean enough.
As Kenny Dalglish (pre-knighthood) said of Paisley at the end of the 1983 League Cup final, when the bashful Paisley was persuaded to walk up Wembley’s steps to collect the trophy from the royal box: “The honour was theirs.”
Dalglish was right, not that they will have known it. Because the game is not theirs. This game belongs to Greaves and Paisley and those paying at the turnstile.
There is a lovely segment where Tommy Docherty is asked what advice he used to give defenders facing Greaves. 'Don’t blink'
The debate is a distraction. Greaves will be 80 next Thursday and BT Sport has produced a moving, human but unsentimental documentary to celebrate him.
The first half focuses on Greaves’s playing career, which had some lows as well as non-stop net-bulging highs; the second half is about Greaves’s alcoholism and subsequent TV fame.
The redemption arc will have its devotees, and there are some funny as well as sad moments. But it is the first half, the first act, that really engrosses. Here we are shown young Jimmy, natural Jimmy, a boy who moved effortlessly, who, like Robbie Fowler so many years later, always seemed to stroke the ball into the corner, rarely blasted, never rushed. There is a lovely segment where Tommy Docherty is asked what advice he used to give defenders facing Greaves. “Don’t blink,” says Docherty.
A regular at White Hart Lane as a boy, Greaves joined Chelsea in 1956 aged 16. Spurs, or “The Spurs” as Greaves’s father says in archive footage, were gazumped by a Chelsea scout who gave the family 50 pounds in “Irish fivers”.
He scored 114 goals in the youth team and by 17 was making his Chelsea first-team debut. He scored, he always scored on his debut, and it was at White Hart Lane.
Greaves was off, a mixture of speed, poise and goals, goals, goals. But this was in an era of disrespect for footballers, when they were woefully underpaid and asked to play on mud.
At 21, Greaves went to Italy, to AC Milan, for the money, then returned to England with Tottenham, where he won the FA Cup in 1962 and then the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963. Spurs were the first British club to win a European trophy, hammering Atlético Madrid 5-1 in the final. And, of course, Greaves scored two.
He was making history, dancing his way into the affection of all supporters, not just Tottenham’s. View the goal Greaves scored against Manchester United in 1965 and marvel at how he is the Messi at the end of this slow-quick spurt of Guardiola football. Even Arsenal fans will have smiled at its sheer elegance.
There were professional disappointments to come – he was badly injured in England’s third game of the 1966 World Cup and had to make way for Geoff Hurst – and there had been personal tragedy already. Before the move to Italy, Greaves and his wife Irene lost their baby son Jimmy jnr to pneumonia. “You become an empty shell,” Greaves wrote in his autobiography. “Time heals all, they say, but not this.”
The book, and others he wrote or contributed to, reveal a depth to Greaves not represented by his happy-go-lucky TV afterlife on Saint & Greavsie.
Greaves wrote this on his particular brand of fame in a biography of George Best: “When a pop star sees teenage girls screaming at him, it probably makes sense . . . But when a 17-year-old, fresh from the youth team, sees men old enough to be his father go weak at the knees, it’s a different emotion altogether.”
This talent stirred people, real people, and though Greaves said it was pressure, it did not halt him scoring 465 goals. He was a phenomenon, a beautiful one.
Alan Mullery says in the BT documentary: “I will remember Jimmy Greaves”; Mullery then hesitates slightly, before adding, “forever”.
Greavsie is on BT Sport 2 at 10.30pm on Tuesday.