Hard balls, plastic knees and old crocks for heroes

The plight of injured footballers should not be overlooked, says NORMAN GILLER

First, an exclusive news item: Jimmy Greaves, arguably the greatest British goalscorer of all time, goes into hospital next week for a second knee replacement.

The man who scored more goals in the “old” First Division (357) than any player in history will have a new right knee to go with the left one he had replaced last year.

World Cup medal-winner Greavsie, 70 next February, is a walking (at the moment, limping) advertisement for the wonders of modern surgery. “I’m an old crock,” he told me this week. “But the surgeons are making me feel like new. I’m looking forward to trying to improve my handicap on the golf course in a few weeks’ time.”

And he will be doing it on a pair of plastic kneecaps, taking over from knees that Jimmy describes as “completely shot to pieces … the surgeon described them as bad as if I’d been in a road smash.”

I spotlight Jimmy’s physical problems to bring home the price our old heroes pay for their football careers. While we are risking — at worst — repetitive strain injury as we type about their exploits, they are going out on a limb for their footballing fame.

For 14 years I was a This Is Your Life scriptwriter, specialising in the shows featuring sports stars. Every time we concentrated on former footballers, their peers would invariably come hobbling on to the set aided by sticks.

Among the players handed the big red book by Eamonn Andrews and later Michael Aspel were Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Jackie Milburn and footballing cricketer Denis Compton (but not Danny Blanchflower, who famously became the first celebrity to tell Eamonn where to shove his book).

Saddest sight of all when the walking wounded appeared on stage were the veteran players — usually centre-halves or centre-forwards — who were showing signs of dementia, the result of heading the old leather footballs.

Surprisingly, these weighed the same (14 to 16 oz) as today’s hi-tech, modern, plastic “beach balls”, but because they were not water resistant, when wet they became almost twice their weight on what were commonly mudheap pitches.

Dixie Dean, pictured above right in his playing days, outscored even Greavsie, and played in an era when football was all about physical contact, and one thigh-high tackle cost Dixie a testicle.

He was, to say the least, a tough man. In 1926 he suffered a broken jaw and fractured skull in a motorcycle crash. Two years later he set an astonishing record of 60 goals in a single First Division season, more than most teams today score between them.

Dixie — he preferred to be called William or Bill — needed a hat-trick in the final game of the season. Arsenal were the visitors to Goodison, and the celebrated Charles Buchan was making the last appearance of his career before becoming a distinguished journalist.

But Buchan’s farewell performance was completely overshadowed by 21-year-old Dixie, who netted his record-breaking third goal with a typical bullet header from a corner with just five minutes to go.

In 1978, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the historic Arsenal match, I interviewed Dean after he’d had a leg amputated. He told me that he would not have swapped his career for anything, despite the pain and suffering that came as a legacy in later life.

The feature I was writing on Dixie was to accompany a picture of him testing his new false leg. He told me with typical Scouse wit: “When I went into the room where they kept all the spare limbs I said, ‘Blimey, it looks as if Tommy Smith has been let loose in here’”

Ironically, Smith — the Anfield Ironman ¬ later had two plastic knees, a replacement hip and a man-made elbow fitted.

My all-time hero Denis Compton was, of course, continually in the headlines during his career with the “Compton knee”, and was such a megastar that his frequent operations used to make front-page news.

We later became Express team-mates, and Denis told me that all his knee problems were caused by football injuries while playing for Arsenal (a little trivia question you might want to try on your friends: “Who was the highest scorer in a single game at Highbury Stadium?” Answer: Denis Compton, who hit 124 runs in 20 minutes in a testimonial cricket match for his brother Leslie).

Denis paid a heavy price for his all-round genius, having a kneecap replaced and dying at the age of 78 following complications after a third hip operation.

One of the most emotional moments on the This Is Your Life set came when we brought legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin on as the surprise final guest for Billy Wright. Billy could not hold back the tears as Lev limped on, just a few months after having a leg amputated as a result of an old football injury.

Such football horror stories are not the preserve of the pre-war era or 1940s and ’50s, either. Alan Hudson — when playing for Stoke in the mid-1970s — complained of a pain in his shin after being on the receiving end of a typically robust tackle. He was told at half-time that the magic sponge had done its job.

Later that night (much later), in one of the Potteries finest night clubs (yes, I know…), his leg was still hurting despite the various painkilling pints he had been drinking, so he went to hospital. The leg was broken.

Peter Osgood, years before he died all too early, struggled around on crocked legs. He was the victim of what many of the old pros later complained about: being encouraged to have quick-fix cortisone injections to keep on playing when rest should have been the remedy.

I said to Greavsie this week: “While you were getting all the glory scoring those goals, I was the wise one — sitting in the press box reporting your feats. All I’ve got to show for it is blisters on the brain.”

“Yes,” replied Jim, “you Press boys shared all the glory but none of the pain.”

So when we are moaning about the fortunes that footballers are earning, let’s remember the price they are going to pay in their middle and old age. Every twist and turn that Wayne Rooney makes as he goes past tackles will one day come back to hurt and haunt him.

To misquote Greavsie: “It’s a painful old game.”

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