Modern football is all about money. Whether it’s non-league clubs unable to find £70 to replace a light fitting, Manchester City supporters taking umbrage at the cost of a ticket for their team’s visit to the Emirates, or Fernando Torres being sold for £50m, the almighty dollar is never far away.
But the truth is that football has only one currency that matters, and, as far as England Greats go, few men have mastered goals more richly than Jimmy Greaves.
Greaves’ famous goalscoring record for club and country stands up to any and all scrutiny, so it’s perhaps disappointing that the East Londoner’s international career is best known not for what he did but for what England did without him.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker played in the group games for Alf Ramsey’s England at the FIFA World Cup in 1966 but was injured in the last of them against France. By the time the hosts faced West Germany in the dramatic and ultimately glorious final, Greaves was fit but out of favour.
He maintains that he was as pleased as anyone that England won the World Cup on the back of a Geoff Hurst hat-trick, but it created a strange perceived division between the nation’s greatest footballing moment and a man that would have been a fitting protagonist. Many supporters feel it was a cruel twist that such a prolific contributor had no say in the final. He was belatedly awarded a medal in 2009.
Greaves made his England debut in 1959 against Peru and started how he meant to go on in front of goal. In 1962 he was part of the England team that went to Chile for the FIFA World Cup and progressed to the quarter-finals before being knocked out by a Brazil side inspired by two-goal Garrincha in the absence of the injured Pelé. Greaves scored once in Chile, putting England 3-0 up against Argentina in Rancagua.
His 44 goals in 57 appearances – quite apart from being a frankly eye-watering ratio – makes him England’s third highest goalscorer behind Bobby Charlton, who took the record from him but required more caps to do so, and Gary Lineker, who played 80 times. Only Stan Mortensen and Nat Lofthouse have a better post-war goals per game record for England.
Of course, Greaves was in the goals business for his club sides as well. He adopted Tottenham Hotspur as a young supporter but fate took him instead to Chelsea, where he went on to score 132 goals in 169 games, a figure that included no fewer than 13 hat-tricks.
Around the time that the maximum wage was abolished, Greaves moved to AC Milan – against his wishes, according to the Chelsea website – and although the goals continued to flow in the few Rossoneri appearances of his brief spell on the peninsula it was not a period Greaves seemed to enjoy. He didn’t get on with the lifestyle in a country he never wanted to switch to and he was soon back in England.
With Chelsea opting out of a potential bidding war, his boyhood love became the only candidate club: Greaves finally signed for Spurs in 1961. He earned true legend status at White Hart Lane, his 220 goals in 321 league games undoubtedly helping that process on its merry way. Greaves was a classic goalscorer, sometimes doing nothing of a matchday other than score a vital goal or two.
After a stint at West Ham United Greaves retired in 1971. He returned to play for Barnet and a group of clubs in London and Essex but had to overcome alcoholism as well as the end of a glittering career. He remains the highest top-flight goalscorer in English football history, and is affectionately regarded around the game.
For many supporters of my age or younger, Greaves in his later years might not be a familiar face. But he was a popular pundit in his time – he worked for many years with former Scotland international Ian St. John – and although I don’t remember seeing their ‘On The Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’, I do have admittedly fading memories of the standalone ‘Saint & Greavsie’ show that aired until 1992. I’m not sure why the show ended, but I’d be willing to bet the year is no coincidence.
While St. John remains a familiar media figure primarily on Merseyside, Greaves now lives in Chelmsford and makes a living on the after-dinner circuit and as a voiceover man. Early last year he had a stroke, but quickly recovered fully and proclaimed that he is “as fit as a butcher’s dog”. Long may that continue.
England career: 1959 to 1968
England caps: 57
England goals: 44
Major championship appearances: World Cup 1962, World Cup 1966
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