Jimmy Greaves: A record-setting British football treasure admired by millions

The former Chelsea, Tottenham, and England striker - one of the biggest superstars of his era and a much-loved broadcaster and TV presenter in retirement - died at the age of 81

Football has lost one of its genuine greats with the death of Jimmy Greaves, a goalscorer whose mastery of the most important skill in the game - finishing - is still widely considered as complete as anybody’s. Greaves the consummate finisher remains an example, to be admired, studied and learned from, even half a century after his retirement from top-level competition.

Some of the goalscoring records he set are still unbeaten, and beyond the enduring respect for his technical excellence, and the brilliance of many of the almost 500 goals he spread across the top divisions of English and Italian football and the England national team, Greaves was a much-loved public figure.

In Britain, he was treasured by millions who had only a passing interest in football because of his charisma, and his courage, in his 30s, in overcoming addiction. In middle age, he reinvented himself as a successful broadcaster, a natural in front of a television audience, with his charm, quick wit, and obvious generosity of spirit.

Greaves, who died at 81, will mostly be remembered as a superstar of the most celebrated generation of English footballers, those who triumphed at the 1966 World Cup, the only time England have won the trophy. Greaves went into that tournament, staged in England, as the likeliest player to guide the hosts to victory. Yet he ended up on the margins thanks to a cruel set of circumstances.

When the World Cup began Greaves, with his 43 goals from 51 internationals, was an automatic selection, his country’s greatest ever goalscorer. Come the final he was watching from the sidelines, dressed in a suit, while his replacement, Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over West Germany that had gone in extra-time.

Substitutes were not permitted at the time, so Greaves had no part in his country’s most famous match. His very bad luck was to have been injured in the last group game against France. Though he had fought his way back to fitness by the eve of the final, England manager, Alf Ramsey, chose not to alter a starting line-up that had built up good momentum through the knockout rounds without their star forward and supreme finisher.

The disappointment for Greaves would be lasting, although in club football he continued to be peerless. Six times he finished as the leading scorer in a season in England’s top tier between 1959 and 1969, twice with Chelsea, where he had made his professional debut aged 17 - and scored, against Tottenham Hotspur - and four times with Spurs, where he made the most lasting impact, before joining West Ham United soon after he turned 30.

In between Chelsea and Spurs, he played briefly for AC Milan, where he never felt entirely at home and had been reluctant to move. There, even an unhappy Greaves was a masterly goal-poacher. He played just 10 matches for Milan in 1961-62, and scored nine times.

Keen to return quickly to London, where he was born in the city’s east end, Chelsea and Spurs eagerly bid for him, Tottenham winning the auction by paying what was then a record fee in the English game of £99,999. The story goes that Spurs kept the figure below £100,000 to spare Greaves the pressure of carrying the first ever six-figure transfer fee.

If there was pressure, Greaves disguised it, opening his Spurs account with a spectacular airborne volley, and adding two more goals, with headers, on his Tottenham debut. As the Observer reported of Greaves’ instant, joyous arrival as a Spurs player, with the auctioning between Chelsea Spurs concluded: “The most expensive English professional has re-stated the amateur view that there is more to soccer than money.”

There would be another 263 goals in a Tottenham jersey, a total no Spurs player has overtaken. He made most of them look easier than they were. Greaves had speed, balance, the tight ball-control to escape markers, and a sixth sense for where to make his runs. He scored more headed goals than a man of five-foot-eight should because he had a powerful spring and instinctive timing. He was comfortable finishing with right foot or left, cool and clear-sighted in one-on-one duels with a goalkeeper. It was noted that he could put great power on a shot with very little backlift, a mark of superb technique.

His influence on games extended far beyond the opposition penalty area. If he is best remembered as a peerless finisher, it should not be at the detriment of being appreciated as a high-class all-round footballer.

“I feel I was a better player than some people gave me credit for,” Greaves said in 1984. “A lot of them, including other players, thought I was idling about for 80-odd minutes and somehow making myself a hero by scoring an exceptional goal. I had the equipment to play in the middle of the field. And to be a goalscorer you have to work very hard. You need a lot of conviction, moral and physical to do that job.”

Greaves was entitled to defend his art. He had elevated it. He was a competitor, a winner but could be appealingly self-deprecating and humorous. The Greaves whom a generation of fans had not seen play came to know him, in his 40s and 50s as a television personality, the mischievous co-host, with the former Liverpool player Ian St John, of a popular show, Saint and Greavsie, that drew new viewers to the sport and set the tone for a less reverential style of sports broadcasting that would be copied for decades to come. “He was clever, bright and funny,” said St John.

By then Greaves has won his most serious duel, with alcoholism, recovering from a damaging period immediately after his retirement from top-level football. He rebuilt his life sufficiently to make a comeback to the sport, albeit in the lower divisions of English football, in his late 30s, and would enjoy claiming, with a smile, that his favourite goal of all the hundreds he scored was a volley, from 25 yards out, for north London club Barnet against Grantham in the equivalent of England’s fifth division.

He suffered a stroke in 2015, which left him largely confined to a wheelchair, and was cared for until his death by his wife Irene, whom he first married in 1958 and remarried in 2017. They had separated briefly in the 1970s.

Updated: September 20th 2021, 6:32 AM