‘Greavsie was the best I’ve seen before Messi’

NORMAN GILLER got one of those telephone calls no one ever wants to get. It was Monday, just after 7am

“Norm, Irene,” said the familiar voice. “It’s Jim. He’s had a serious stroke.”

Jimmy Greaves: one of the finest goal-scorers England has ever known
Jimmy Greaves: one of the finest goal-scorers England has ever known

Jimmy Greaves, a mate for more than 50 years, was in trouble, and I found myself clutching at clichés as I tried to console his wife, a Stepneyite like me and my late wife’s best friend.

“He’s a fighter,” I said. “Not even a stroke will keep our Jim down. He always gets up.”

We were together just a few weeks back at his 75th birthday bash, and we were saying to each other how good we felt. We joked that we could write a 21st book together before we get deleted.

But as I write, the book idea is shelved. Today, there’s been a beam of optimism coming from the hospital where Jimmy has been moved out of intensive care and is sitting up in bed. But as Irene tells me: “There is a long, long road ahead.”

The early prognosis suggested we might never get back our old Jim, who is prouder of being one of the funniest standup comedians in the country than of anything he achieved on the football field.

“It’s a fact that I went to Oxford and got a blue. And if some prat had not jogged my elbow, I would have got the pink and black as well.”

I found the journalist in me wrestling with the friend as I took in the horrible news that Irene was giving me. Greavsie had long ago transcended sport to become a household name as a television celebrity. The Saint and Greavsie show still sits in many memory banks as the pioneer of fact-and-fun football programmes.

Jimmy’s agent and pal Terry Baker has fielded thousands of tweets, Facebook messages, texts and phone calls as proof that Greavsie remains as popular as any entertainer in the land.

I knew the moment the story broke that Irene – along with their four grown kids (Danny, Lynn, Andrew and Mitzi) – would be hounded by reporters wanting the full story.

The old boxing PR came to the surface and I tipped off the Press Association that I would be giving them a story within the hour. Then I wrote a statement for Terry Baker to issue to PA News, giving the bald outline of the facts and passing on the family request for privacy during what were worrying times.

PA remains the quickest, best and most reliable outlet for a major story, just as in my old days of the 1970s and 80s trying to get boxing hype into the headlines. Within one minute of the 10am embargo the story was majoring on Sky News, with the BBC catching up 20 minutes later.

It went viral online within moments of being announced on TV, and this old hack got an insight into the speed with which a story can spread in this modern media world. It was like lightning compared with back in the day when I broke a Frank Bruno/Mike Tyson story that led the back pages. That took six hours to hit the breakfast tables.

“I had a worrying goal drought once when I just couldn’t put the ball into the net. It was the worst 15 minutes of my career.”

It is unbelievable what Greavsie has achieved with his life since back in the dark days when he was warned he was drinking himself to death. We got together to write a book (This One’s On Me) about his battle with the bottle, and on February 20 1978 – Jimmy’s 38th birthday – we drank a toast to each other: “Let’s go and get sober out of our minds.”

Greavsie and not-the-Saint: Norman Giller with his old pal of 50 years
Greavsie and not-the-Saint: Norman Giller with his old pal of 50 years

Neither of us has touched a drop since.

Despite that joke about the goal drought, his next boast will be his first. He has scored some of the greatest goals ever witnessed, but to get him to talk about them is like getting Ed Miliband to discuss deals with the SNP.

I am continually asked: “Just how good a footballer was Greavsie?” For the generation that only knows of him as a television celebrity, just let me say that when you are watching Lionel Messi, it is like an action replay of Jimmy Greaves at his best.

The way Messi runs at defences (cunning running, I call it), the way he changes pace and direction, and above all the way he finishes – passing the ball into the net – is pure Greavsie.

The close control is identical, the sudden acceleration, the ability to shoot with either foot, the same low gravity and perfect balance. It’s all a flashback for me to “Our Jim”, who scored 357 “old” First Division goals. Messi has so far amassed 283, without violent interruption from defenders like “Chopper” Harris and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter. And remember, Jim used to play on what were ploughed fields compared with the snooker table surfaces the Premier League footballers enjoy today.

If you think my memory is deceiving me, take yourself to YouTube and enjoy the feast, in particular his 1965 demolition of the Manchester United defence on the way to a goal that featured in the Match of the Day opening titles until the dawn of colour television.

Jimmy’s most dazzling goals came when he was wearing a Chelsea shirt and playing with the gay abandon of youth (“gay” had an innocent connotation in those black and white days). Sadly, few of his Chelsea crackers were captured on film or tape, but ask anybody who was around at the time and they will confirm that many of them were magical.

“I was on Countdown the other day with that beautiful Rachel Riley, and I have to admit I got aroused. First time I’ve ever got a seven-letter word.”

Jimmy scored the little matter of 124 league goals for Chelsea (including three five-goal hauls) before he was 21. Later, he helped himself to 220 league goals for Tottenham and had hung up his shooting boots by the time he was 31 after scoring an all-time record first division goals. Figuratively speaking, he was unbeatable.

There is, understandably, Messianic fervour about Messi, especially after his performance last night against Bayern Munich. What makes him Jimmy Greaves with bells on is his desire and determination to run his socks off for the team. Jimmy will admit that running without the ball was not something that appealed to him. He was the man who used to take lifts on a milk float during training runs and he could go missing for much of the match, after which the talk would inevitably be of his winning goal. Jimmy did not just decorate games, he decided them.

Messi still has a question mark over him when it comes to the international stage. On a visit to Argentina I watched him play against Venezuela and saw a shadow of the Barca master. It seemed he did not know whether his role was schemer or striker, and he fell between the two. So far, he has scored 45 goals in 97 internationals.

Jimmy’s output for England was 44 goals in 57 international matches, five short of Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals. Sir Bobby’s total was achieved in 106 games.

“Got meself a job with Sky television. Don’t think Saint will fancy it. Putting up them dishes can be hard work.”

There are still those who thought Alf Ramsey mad to leave him out of the 1966 World Cup final. But Geoff Hurst ended all arguments with his historic hat-trick. Ask Sir Geoff who he considers the greatest English goalscorer of his lifetime and he has no hesitation in saying, “Greavsie.”

As he lies in his hospital bed fighting to regain his movement and speech, Jimmy has the entire nation willing him to come through his crisis. He is a national treasure.

Come on, Jimbo, that 21st book is waiting to be written. Hopefully we can call it A Stroke of Good Fortune.

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