NORMAN GILLER pays a personal tribute to the golden goal-scorer of a bygone age of English football, who celebrates a milestone this weekend
Jimmy Greaves is 70 on Saturday.
I will type that again, slowly, so that it sinks in.
Jimmy. Greaves. is. 70. on. Saturday.
That, my friends, is a milestone that will cause startled recoil and snug recall for an army of old football hacks. They will, I know, confirm to a man that in the springtime of his life, Greaves was the greatest British goalscorer ever.
Jimmy, when a spike-haired teenager at Chelsea and then in his peak-power years with Tottenham, was just untouchable.
I could give you argument-settling stats (an unbeatable 357 First Division goals, 44 for England in just 57 games), but they tell only part of the story. The record books do not describe a Greaves goal that was invariably a thing of beauty, fashioned with skill, speed and dazzling dribbling, and finished with an exquisite pass into the net.
Jimmy never hammered the ball. He stroked it like a Don Juan lover in foreplay (that’s the first time Greavsie has ever been mentioned in the same sentence as Don Juan, and it will, I know, make the old boy happy).
Those old enough to have witnessed a special Greaves goal will verify that I am not exaggerating when I say we actually felt privileged to have been there to see it. We were keeping company with a genius, a Goya of goals (Editor’s note: Don Juan? Goya? Get a grip, Giller).
How many goals would a young Greavsie score in today’s game, with no Norman-Hunter-style-bites-yer-legs tackling from behind and the relaxed, often-confusing off-side law? And what would he be worth in the transfer market? His old Tottenham side-kick Bobby Smith said recently: “The bidding would have to start at £50 million.”
Perhaps £49,999,000 would be a better starting point. Bill Nicholson paid £99,999 to bring Greaves back from his miserable exile in Italy to save him from the burden of being the first British £100,000 footballer. That tag went soon after, in July 1961, to Denis Law, who hit the big 7-0 on February 6 and is one of the few players who can be mentioned in the same breath as Greavsie.
Jimmy and I have known and tried to avoid each other for more than 50 years, but 18 books together has, I suppose, given us an unbreakable bond. We were born a couple of miles and a couple of months apart on the East side of London, and I was sports editor of his old local paper when he first started scoring the goals for Chelsea that should rightfully have been for Tottenham.
He was all set to sign as an apprentice with Spurs when manager Arthur Rowe suffered a nervous breakdown in the mid-1950s, and Chelsea’s canny scout Jimmy Thompson nipped in and whisked the boy wonder off to the Bridge.
As he was born within the circulation area of the Stratford Express, where I was starting out on my reporting career, I got my first interview with James Peter Greaves when he was banging in goals right, left and centre for Chelsea.
I remember his opening words well: “I ain’t got nothing to say, mate. The manager will have my balls on a plate if I talk to the press.” Pure, unadulterated Greavsie.
The manager was Ted Drake, who tried hard to protect 17-year-old Jimmy from football writers hungry for quotes after his startling start with a goal in his debut for Chelsea. It was against, of all teams, Tottenham at White Hart Lane, and he is pictured here on his way through the Spurs defence for his first goal in League football.
That was all, gulp, 53 years ago. We will remember that on Saturday when a near sell-out crowd gathers in the Indigo 2 wing of the O2 Arena to celebrate the great man’s birthday. Many of his old club and country team mates will be on stage to pay their tributes.
I have written This Is Your Life-style programme notes, and have included a concocted picture of Eamonn Andrews handing the Big Red Book to Greavsie. This is a private joke between Jimmy and I, because during my 14 years as a member of The Life scriptwriting team I was under sentence of death if ever Eamonn or Michael Aspel trapped him.
Greaves said he was ready to do a “Danny Blanchflower”, but would have been more colourful in telling Eamonn where to stick the book.
Bill Bateson was a big fan and friend of Jimmy’s, and used to tell him that the only thing he didn’t like about him was that he was wearing the wrong colour shirt, that it should have been the red of Bill’s beloved Arsenal.
I was sorry to miss the Fleet Street farewell to Bill on Tuesday, but I was involved in an emotional and moving farewell of my own. Along with my son, Michael, daughter Lisa and daughter-in-law, Sarah, I scattered the ashes of my late wife, Eileen, on the clifftops at Bournemouth, one of our favourite walks.
She has gone with the wind, but will have a permanent place in our hearts.
I make no excuses for mentioning this here. It is an affectionate and long overdue nod from me in the direction of the long-suffering wives of all sports hacks. Eileen was the perfect sports writer’s wife, always there in support, putting up with all the deadline aggravation, agreeing with every moan and mumble about sports editors and subs, and turning a blind eye when necessary to the occasional indiscretions that come with the territory of the jet-setting reporter.
Greavsie, and his lovely, loyal wife of 50-plus years, Irene, know what I mean. It is only when you get to your allotted three score years and ten that you are able to put everything into perspective.
It’s a funny old life.
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