Messi-anic fervour of striker to match Greavsie

NORMAN GILLER says Lionel Messi’s performance in the Champions League was worthy of the greatest goalscorer he has ever seen

If I was paid a pound for every time I was asked “How good was Jimmy Greaves?” I would have enough money to pay for the book I am publishing about him. But at last I have somebody to point to and say: “That’s how Jimmy scored his goals.”

Let the spotlight fall on Lionel Messi, so rightly being lionised after his four-goal annihilation of Arsenal for Barcelona. The way he runs at defences (cunning running, I call it), the way he lies to them, the way he changes pace and direction, and above all the way he finishes, 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 had scored 170 League goals by the time he was Messi’s age — 22. Messi has so far amassed 119, without violent interruption from defenders like “Chopper” Harris, Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter and “Anfield Iron” Tommy Smith.

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 opened the Match of the Day titles until the dawn of colour television.

His most dazzling goals came when he was wearing a Chelsea shirt and playing with the gay abandonment 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.

He scored the little matter of 124 League goals for Chelsea 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 357 First Division goals. Figuratively speaking, he was unbeatable.

His output for England was 44 goals in 57 international matches, five short of Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals in 106 games. You don’t have to do the maths to discover who had the record striking rate.

There is, understandably, Messianic fervour about Messi. 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 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 with crucial strikes.

Messi still has a question mark over him when it comes to the international stage. On a visit to Argentina last year 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.

But now the legend that is Diego Maradona has handed him his worshipped No10 shirt and it will be all eyes on Messi in South Africa. For his sake, I hope the World Cup does not deal him the same cruel hand that gutted Greavsie in 1966.

Jimmy has never let me forget that I wrote in the Daily Express of July 30, 1966: “My all-time idol is Jimmy Greaves, but Alf Ramsey must not change a winning team.”

The myth has since been allowed to grow that being left out of the World Cup final team turned Jimmy to the bottle. That, as Jim would say, is gollocks. He was already a black belt at drinking, and his problems were caused by a chemical imbalance rather than anything to do with football matters.

I can (just about) remember being in drinking schools with the likes of really serious imbibers of the calibre of Dave Mackay, Alan Gilzean and Bobby Moore. They could all drink Jimmy under the table, but for medical as much as physical or psychological reasons it was Greavsie who emerged with the burden of alcoholism.

In collaboration with his manager Terry Baker and my son, heir, partner and best friend Michael, I am publishing a limited edition book called Jimmy Greaves At Seventy. We are describing it as the most complete Greavsie story, which is not an exaggeration — because nobody has written about Jimmy in his seventh decade before.

Jimmy introduces and autographs the book, which he dedicates to his tribe of 12 grandchildren — “so that they know I have not always been a fat old git with two new knees”.

After having appeared on Setanta’s FA Cup final broadcast last year along with Ian St John, Jimmy is currently on a nationwide tour performing his stand-up comedy act (“I’m not sure whether it’s me final farewell tour or me comeback, you’ll have to ask me manager.”)

Jimmy has always done everything better than most people on the planet, whether it’s playing football, entertaining on television or drinking (he has not touched a drop since 1978, but still refers to himself as a recovering alcoholic).

Now he tells jokes better than most stand-up comedians, and he gets standing ovations at every one of his shows. The Fat Old Git on Two New Knees is (as he would say) a legless legend.

I wonder if anybody will ever write a book called Messi at Seventy?

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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