OUR HEROES are being taken away from us with alarming speed. Those icons of the bubble gum card era are disappearing one-by-one. The 1966 World Cup winning squad has been decimated in recent years, Jimmy Greaves, the finalist that never was, has now gone, passing into football history as arguably the greatest natural goalscorer of his or any other era.
Greaves and 1966 is a story that will be told for years to come. In fact, with his passing, there may be more light thrown on the subject. Greaves was the golden boy of his time, a remarkable footballer who was copied by every schoolboy in the 1960s – “who do you think you are, Jimmy Greaves?” – a goal machine for Chelsea, Tottenham and England before bowing out at West Ham, disillusioned and in physical decline.
It says a lot about the standing of Greaves that his absence from the 1966 World Cup final is just as discussed as Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick or that other tale from that glorious few weeks in London, the disappearing trophy and the dog – Pickles – that found 12 inches of gold in a hedge.
In modern times, the squad game ethic would have compensated Greaves, maybe 20 minutes as substitute against West Germany, but back in 1966, there was no option. When the team photos were taken with the trophy, it was 11 in red sitting proudly with the Jules Rimet in Bobby Moore’s hands. Greaves’ expression as England won was clearly of a man who was crestfallen at not being at the party, but deep down, the fan in him would have been rejoicing.
Sir Alf Ramsey had his reasons – England with Greaves had laboured a little through the group stages, drawing 0-0 with Uruguay and winning 2-0 against Mexico and France. The 1966 World Cup film, “Goal”, scripted by Brian Glanville, had pointed out that Greaves was “allergic to World Cups”.
But was he? He had, after all, only played in one tournament, Chile in 1962, and he had scored one goal (against Argentina) in four games. England, still recovering from the tragic loss of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, to name but three of the victims of the Munich crash of 1958, went out to eventual winners Brazil in the last eight – surely, no disgrace?
Greaves was probably too young for the 1958 squad, but he had burst onto the scene in August 1957 in the only way he knew how – by scoring a debut goal for Chelsea, his first club.
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Ironically, given he died on the day that Spurs and Chelsea met in the Premier League, he made his bow at White Hart Lane as a 17 year-old. The game ended 1-1 and Greaves netted towards the end with a trademark goal. The plaudits poured on the spiky-haired Chelsea youngster – his poise, control and intelligent use of the ball were all highlighted. Greaves, meanwhile, was modest about his first game: “I didn’t think I had a particularly good game”. The Times “football correspondent”, was impressed, however: “Greaves may have a rich future”. How right he was.
In four seasons at Chelsea, a poor Blues side to be fair, he scored 132 goals in 169 games, a goals-per-game ratio of 0.78 – a figure he never bettered at any other club. The year after he left for AC Milan, Chelsea were relegated, Greaves had been the only reason they hadn’t faltered earlier.
His time in Italy was not a roaring success and one has to wonder how committed he actually was – apparently, he tried to cancel the deal shortly after signing. He was possibly too young to make such a big move, especially to a footballing regime that bordered on the militaristic.
Within a few months, he was back in England, signing for Tottenham for a pound less than £ 100,000. His career at Spurs saw his goalscoring antics continue, but he won just two FA Cup winners’ (1962 and 1967) and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup (1963). Bill Nicholson’s team that won the double went close to reaching the European Cup final in 1962, losing to Benfica in the penultimate stage. “We could have won more,” Greaves admitted.
Even in the aftermath of 1966, Greaves was prolific. His international career ended in 1967 in Vienna and he netted 25 goals in the first division in 1966-67, 23 in 1967-68 and, in 1968-69, he topped the goalscoring list with 27 goals.
But Spurs, as a team, were in decline and Greaves, still just under 30, was losing some of his sparkle. In 1969-70 he suffered a goal drought and after Spurs were knocked out of the FA Cup, Greaves was left out of the side and within weeks, he was gone from White Hart Lane, as part of a swap deal with West Ham’s Martin Peters. Spurs’ record goalscorer said he was delighted with the way things had turned out and felt he had four good years left in him.
He certainly started well, scoring twice at Maine Road as West Ham won 5-1 against Manchester City, but by the end of 1970-71, it was all over for Greaves. His fitness had started to wane and, officially, he wanted to concentrate on his business interests. His last goal was scored on April 9 1971 at Upton Park, an 86th minute goal that gave the Hammers a 2-1 win against West Bromwich Albion that almost guaranteed their first division safety.
He still loved to play and turned out for Barnet and Chelmsford in non-league football, but the Jimmy Greaves of the deft touch, lightning turn of pace and rapier-like finishing was disappearing. He returned in the 1980s to co-host the TV show, Saint & Greavsie with Ian St. John and became even more popular than he had been in his playing days. His brave battle against alcoholism also won the hearts of the people.
Thankfully, he received a World Cup medal, but it provided scant consolation for a man whose time arguably came and went in that summer of 1966. His goals, infectious personality and contribution to the game will never be forgotten. To many experts, Jimmy Greaves was the greatest goalscorer ever produced by England. The actual figures may not fully endorse that anymore, but his record of 44 goals in 57 games represents 0.77 goals per game. Do we need any more proof?