I can’t say I’ve noticed policemen are getting younger, though the fact they’re certainly fatter than they used to be is perhaps the contemporary pointer to a generation gap between them and me. If anything, the passing of years seems more accurately measured by the passing of childhood characters that once personified the physical benefits of the sporting life and are now either withered old men diminished by dementia or have already sunk six feet under. Barely a week goes by without one former cover star of ‘Shoot’ magazine in the 1970s being revealed as struggling in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; recently, the likes of Denis Law and Gordon McQueen have joined the lengthening ranks of former footballers who illuminated the game during my formative years and are now feeling the belated after-effects of all those seasons heading heavy balls into the back of the net decades ago. But even more unsettling than the sad, shambling squad of ex-players reduced to shrunken shadows of their past healthy selves is the expanding roll-call of footballers to have had their boots hung up by the Grim Reaper of late. The latest casualty of an alarming list is someone whose time as one of English football’s all-time great goal-scorers predates my memory, yet whose unexpected second shot at fame turned him into a household name all over again.
Every once in a while a prodigious footballing talent emerges whose skills appear to belie their tender years; the teenage sensation appearing out of the blue and unleashed on an unsuspecting opposition like some secret weapon launched without warning is a recurring story in the sport and in 1957 its representative was 17-year-old striker Jimmy Greaves. The press wasn’t averse to generating hype even back then, and the success of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ inspired the less-well remembered ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, a tag coined to described the young players under the management of Ted Drake at Chelsea. Greaves made the biggest impact of all the Ducklings, scoring on his debut (as he did at every club he turned out for) and ending his first season as Chelsea’s top scorer. When a generation of English football’s bright young things were cut down in their prime by the Munich air crash of 1958, Greaves then became the focus of the future, though he was plying his trade in a team unworthy of his talents and at a time when the fruits of his labours were limited by a maximum wage and the status of virtual serfdom where football’s governing body was concerned.
The exodus of top British footballers to the riches of Italy’s Serie A at the end of the 1950s was robbing the Football League of its brightest stars, so it was perhaps inevitable something had to give. The abolition of the maximum wage was lengthy and hard-fought, but by the time Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became Britain’s first £100-a-week player in 1961, Jimmy Greaves had already been sold to A.C. Milan. It was an unhappy move for Greavsie and he played barely a dozen games for the Italians before Milan accepted a bid from double winners Tottenham Hotspur to bring him back home. The sudden improvement of a top footballer’s financial lot in England also affected transfer fees, though Spurs manager Bill Nicholson spared Greaves from the burden of being the country’s first £100,000 player by signing him for the unusual fee of £99,999.
Bill Nicholson needn’t have worried that the big bucks spent to sign Greaves might affect the player’s performance. Greavsie carried on at Spurs where he’d left off at Chelsea, but playing in a far superior side; he ended his first season at White Hart Lane by lifting the FA Cup and his second saw Spurs become the first British team to win a European trophy by beating Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. He scored in both Finals. By this time, Greavsie was well-established at international level as England’s first choice striker and his tally of 35 goals in an England shirt, reached in 1964, set a new record; he played in all four games England took part in at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and with his domestic goal-scoring remaining amongst the best in the League, his was one of the first names on Alf Ramsey’s team-sheet for the 1966 World Cup. Indeed, he played up front in all three of England’s group games at Wembley and understandably imagined it was his destiny to win the competition on home soil, a crowning glory written in the stars. Alas, an injury ruled Greavsie out of the Quarter Final, and his replacement Geoff Hurst kept the job thereafter; although Greaves was fit for the Final, Ramsey decided to stick with the same side and as this was an era before substitutes, Jimmy Greaves played no part on the pitch, forced to sit and watch from the sidelines with no prospect of participating.
Greaves himself often denied his descent into alcoholism was a consequence of the immense personal disappointment he felt at being denied his destiny in 1966; but by the time he joined West Ham in 1970, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to be waning as his fondness for alcohol appeared to be on the rise. Temptation was hardly hard to come by, however. Off the field of play there was a long-standing, hard-drinking culture within English football, and it was only really with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s – and the new strict fitness regimes introduced via the influx of Continental coaches – that excessive boozing gradually began to be frowned upon. The rise and fall of George Best is routinely highlighted as football’s cautionary tale when it comes to alcohol, though Best’s pop star profile kept him in the public eye even when he prematurely retired. After Jimmy Greaves quit in 1971 and quickly slid from post-match boozer to professional pisshead, he vanished from sight for several years, only occasionally surfacing to turn out for non-league teams in the mid-to-late 70s before finally slipping out of the game.
Unlike George Best – who never really conquered the bottle – Jimmy Greaves did eventually succeed where Best couldn’t and overcame his demons in a remarkable fashion. By the beginning of the 1980s, Greavsie had become permanently sober and this was the point at which his second career began to take off. After impressing viewers as a pundit on ATV’s regional soccer show on a Sunday afternoon, he was recruited to the ITV team for the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup, introducing the whole nation to a sharp-witted middle-aged man at odds with the sad drunken has-been who’d periodically popped-up in the Sunday papers throughout the previous decade. In today’s media landscape of post-modern punditry, where a light-hearted and jokey approach to discussing the game is commonplace, it’s easy to forget how stiff and formal football presentation on television often was at the time Greavsie gatecrashed it in 1982. It could be argued he singlehandedly changed the way in which punditry was presented as an ingredient of the formula, and when he began to appear alongside ex-player Ian St John in the ‘On the Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ every Saturday lunchtime, the spark between the two prompted a spin-off.
For seven years, ‘Saint and Greavsie’ was a lynchpin in terrestrial TV’s football schedule, though it’s telling the ending of the series coincided with the arrival of the Premier League and Sky coverage. Perhaps it did seem a bit tired by then, and Greavsie himself was regularly ribbed on the far hipper likes of ‘Fantasy Football League’ from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jimmy Greaves remained one of football’s true success stories from an era when there were few – if any – safety nets for players who’d fallen on hard times; he clawed his way back without the aid of any high-profile programme or campaign backed by the virtuous signalling of the FA, and a generation who’d never known him as a player came to know him as an entertainer. A funny old life when all’s said and done, but an admirable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
© The Editor