Jimmy Greaves: English football's top goalscorer who blazed a trail of stardom and redemption

Jimmy Greaves: English football’s top goalscorer who blazed a trail of stardom and redemption

Jimmy Greaves was the most prolific goalscorer in top-flight English football. @SpursOfficial

Watching the surviving film of the football work of the recently departed England international striker, Jimmy Greaves, is a stark reminder of the vastly different playing regimes that existed in English football in the early 1960s compared to the manicured Premier League era of today.

Greaves played in two winning FA Cup finals for Spurs, in 1962 and 1967. FA cups were about the only “live” club football available on TV to the British public at the time, but these were occasions celebrated not only for the trophies concerned. These were also among the few fixtures for which the players involved could look forward to a playing surface that did not resemble some boggy no-man’s-land dragged up from a first world war reconstruction.

ITV is currently broadcasting The Big Match Revisited, a highlights’ show from the early-1970s. This routinely reminds us that the science of pitch preparation and recovery had barely knocked on the door of the English game – certainly not in the months after Christmas.

This was the case even as Greaves’ career was fast winding down. He played in a period when hulking defenders had the weight advantage over high-stepping, slight forwards. But many contemporaries contend that Greaves could glide over these muddied fields leaving marking defenders flailing in his wake. It certainly looks that way from the few surviving film clips.

Striker without peer

Like the troubled and brilliant George Best – who was at his peak around the same time – Greaves would end up having more than one public persona. Firstly, there was “Greaves” the player – the lazy team-mate without the ball, but a man who came alive when in possession and who, single-minded, thought of only one outcome: scoring goals. “I often passed to him”, his Spurs strike partner Martin Chivers ruefully observed on TV after the news of Greaves’ death broke on September 19, “but I never expected a pass back.”

Greed is generally prized among the very best strikers even today, though scoring goals is a team pursuit. And Jimmy Greaves remains the top scorer in top-flight English football, with 357 goals from 516 matches compared with the next player on the list, Alan Shearer, who scored 283 goals in 559 matches. Few would bet on this record being overtaken anytime soon.

Then there was “Jimmy”, the style merchant (he even played one season in Milan) and playful dressing room joker. A notoriously poor trainer, Greaves – or so we were told – would cut corners, or even hitch lifts from milk floats during cross-country pre-season stamina work. Surely not all these tales can be apocryphal.

“Jimmy” was also a friend to fans and to the lowliest of boot-cleaning apprentices – accessible and charming in equal measure. He only ever earned £100 per week during his last top level playing stint in the early 1970s at West Ham United, so unlike today’s multimillionaire players, Greaves was never too far away from the people who worshipped him.

Alcoholism and redemption

Which brings us to “Greavsie”, the social animal, the drinker. There is speculation that it was being left out of the WorldCup final-winning side in 1966 that pushed “Greavsie” into excessive drinking and eventually alcoholism. This is something he would always deny, pointing out that he went on to top score in the league the following year and that Spurs won the FA Cup largely on the back of his prolific goalscoring.

Though like Georgie Best – or, more recently, the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Paul Merson and other talented working-class showmen – and with little in the way in those days of a positive support network and a secure bank balance, preparing to depart the elite sporting stage in 1971 was probably a too difficult transition to manage, alone and intact.

Unlike today, players then could drink with journalists, fans and others without the constant threat of exposure by mobile phone. Drinking cultures were part of the dressing room of all the top British clubs before global recruitment began. In 1982, champions Liverpool were on the bevvy on the afternoon before their final league game at Middlesbrough.

But, unlike with Best’s fate, it was another dimension of Greaves that probably saved him from an early grave. It was the knockabout, cartoonish “Greavsie” who starred alongside Ian St John, the straight man in their Saturday afternoon “Saint and Greavsie” ITV show from the mid-1980s. Greaves was the one gently poking fun at the game and its conventions.

Today, the blending of sport and entertainment is ubiquitous and all-too-depressingly familiar. But this was an early and novel departure. For those of us who had caught even a glimpse of the real Greaves in his pomp – immaculately groomed, sharp suits, fast feet, brilliant finishing – this latest reinvention was a little difficult to accept.

But it brought the middle-aged Greaves something of a national treasure status and perhaps offered some compensation for a lack of more formal recognition. Scandalously, he received an MBE only in 2021. When asked about how he should be announced on the after-dinner speaker circuit he often told his hosts: “Just call me Jimmy Greaves, FA.”

Thanks for the memories

The death of Jimmy Greaves is another reminder, of course, of how important public memory still is in telling stories about sport’s great performers of the past. Today, every moment of the careers of elite football players is recorded or tracked in some way. For Greaves and others of his generation, we rely much more on our emotions: how did he make us feel?

And perhaps this is no bad thing, a welcome escape from the iron cage of data analysis. We can all have our own memories of a true great of the English game, embroidered, invented or otherwise.

The Conversation

John Williams does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.