Updated: Sep 21, 2021
James Peter Greaves MBE (20 February 1940 - 19 September 2021)
Jimmy Greaves is widely recognised as the greatest goal scorer that English football has ever produced. At the point of his death he was England's fourth highest record goal scorer (44 goals) and Tottenham Hotspur's record goal scorer (266 goals). He has scored more hat tricks for England than any other player(6), finished the First Division top goal scorer on 6 occasions and holds the record for the most goals scored in the history of English top flight football with 357 goals. During his career with Chelsea, A.C. Milan, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham and Barnet he won a Serie A championship, 2 F.A Cups, A European Cup Winners Cup and the World Cup. After retiring he would go on to win over another generation of football fans with a hugely successful broadcasting career. His predatory instinct for goal combined with a warm nature and sense of humour made him an immensely popular icon of the "funny old game"!
His name would terrify the defence of any opposition, Greaves was almost always unplayable. He has often been labelled as a prowler or a poacher but watch any compilation of his goals and his astonishing talent is plain for all to see. He could turn players with ease. He would leave defenders on the floor and round goalkeepers for fun or simply take a look and strike the ball from distance with pace and devastating accuracy. It was often said he would caress the ball into the net rather than use power. The finesse of his action was once described as so elegant it was like listening to the door of a Rolls Royce close. He was, as is often said, "born to play football." He had acceleration, tight control and a flair that could astound. He could also ghost into the penalty box under the radar of the defenders despite being the most dangerous man on the pitch. It is always all the more captivating that he achieved his litany of scoring triumphs in an era of swampy, mud bath pitches, with heavy balls and defenders who had licence to scythe players down with malice.
Jimmy was of the era when the idols of the game would travel to the ground on public transport with the fans. In fact someone once told him in later life, he was his idol on the pitch. Jimmy quipped "I was idle, that is true".
Greaves was born in Manor Park and raised in Hainault. The son of an Underground driver, James Greaves and his wife Mary. He grew up along with his sister, Marion, and brother Paul. His football ability was clear from a very early age and he was scouted by Chelsea as a schoolboy before signing as an apprentice in 1955. His track record at youth level got him noticed. He scored 51 goals in the 1955-56 season and an eye watering 122 goals in the 56-57 season. He was capped for England under/23 scoring two goals at Stamford Bridge against Bulgaria.
First team football obviously came calling for the teenager who naturally scored on his debut against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Newspaper reports at the time likened his arrival to the impact of Duncan Edwards. Chelsea played attacking football during this period and this favoured Greaves. During the 57-58 campaign, Manager Ted Drake rested Greaves for six weeks as he did not want the young player to let the praise go to his head. Greaves returned to the starting line up with four goals in a 7-4 victory over Portsmouth at Christmas. Greaves finished as the club top scorer for the season. Despite his goal scoring prowess, the team were inconsistent and struggled at the lower end of the table. Jimmy married Irene Barden at Romford registry office on 26th March 1958.
In May 1959 he won his England debut against Peru and unsurprisingly he scored. He made a big impression and went on to score back to back hat tricks against Northern Ireland and Luxembourg and then hit another against Scotland in a 9-3 victory at Wembley in April 1961. Jimmy's daughter Lynn was also born that year.
He became the youngest player to score 100 league goals aged 20 and 290 days as part of his hat trick against Manchester City on November 19 1960. His extraordinary goal scoring ability was not enough to drive Chelsea to success as they struggled to defend and he grew frustrated with the lack of ability to mount a title challenge. After elimination from the FA Cup to fourth division Crewe Alexandra the club chairman agreed to sell Greaves as they needed the money. Jimmy was made captain for the final match of the season and typically he scored all four in a 4-3 win over Nottingham Forest. He had scored 13 hat tricks and 41 for the season. He had scored 132 goals in total for Chelsea, making him their second highest goal scorer at the time.
Devastation was also to play a part in his life in 1960 when his son Jimmy Jnr died before his first birthday.
Greaves was signed by the Italian giants A.C. Milan for £80,000 in June 1961. He was given a three year contract with £140 a week and a £15,000 signing on bonus. He quickly felt he had made a mistake and did not want to leave London.
Jimmy held an impromptu press conference while on tour with England. He defiantly announced he was staying at Chelsea. It was not the most auspicious of starts to an Italian job that was to be a complicated, if brief, period of his life.
He did not get on well with the head coach, Nereo Rocco, who instigated a strict training regime. Despite homesickness and difficult conditions, he scored on his debut and against Inter in the derby game. During a game against Sampdoria Greaves kicked a player who had spat at him. Sampdoria equalized from the free kick that resulted. Rocco blamed Greaves for the equalizer even though the English striker had scored the first and provided the second goal. The situation had become untenable and after only 14 games he was transfer listed. Both Tottenham and Chelsea submitted £96,500 bids which were accepted but after lengthy negotiations Bill Nicholson signed Greaves to Tottenham for £99,999, a fee which was negotiated to avoid the pressure of Greaves becoming the first £100,000 valued player in British football. A.C Milan would go on to twin the league earning Jimmy a winners medal in the process.
Many often described his ill fated adventure in Italy as a failure. This is clearly not the case as he had demonstrated his ability on the pitch but Jimmy himself recalls the time as "A young man doing the wrong things at the wrong time." During the period of mythological levels of defending in the Italian league, 10 goals a season was considered an impressive haul. Jimmy had more than demonstrated his towering ability.
Jimmy Greaves described his decade with Tottenham as his "summertime" when he divided his career into four seasons. He was certainly in his pomp, from scoring a hat-trick on his debut he only went from strength to strength. Considering he had to work his way into the first double winning side of the century, he had to be greater than great, but that was Greaves all over. Collecting an F.A Cup, making the European Cup semi final and finishing second in the league all in his first season as well as 22 league goals in 21 appearances and 7 goals in the journey to winning the F.A Cup. The following season he received the only red card of his career for violent conduct against OFK Beograd in the first leg of the semi final of the European Cup Winners Cup. He returned to the side to face Atletico Madrid in the final where he opened the scoring and added the fourth in a 5-1 rout of the Spanish side, making Tottenham the first British team to win a European trophy.
Greaves played in all four England games at the '62 World Cup in Chile, scoring once against Argentina. In the quarter final defeat to Brazil a dog invaded the pitch and it was Jimmy Greaves who managed to catch the animal by getting on all fours. The Brazilian player Garrincha was so amused he took the dog home as a pet. By October 1963 he had become England's record goal scorer with 35 after scoring a hat trick against Northern Ireland.
Jimmy and Irene had three more children in this period, Mitzi (1962), Danny (1963) and Andrew (1965).
His golden streak at Spurs was only briefly interrupted in the 65-66 season after he contracted hepatitis. He played all three games of the World Cup group stage that summer but in the win against France he suffered a shin injury that was to require 14 stitches. Greaves lost his place to Geoff Hurst and despite being fit for the final had to watch from the bench. At the time only the eleven players on the pitch received medals and the event had a lasting impact on Greaves.
"I danced around the pitch with everyone else but even in this moment of triumph and great happiness, deep down I felt my sadness. Throughout my years as a professional footballer I had dreamed of playing in a World Cup Final. I had missed out on the match of a lifetime and it hurt."
Greaves would only play three more times for England after the 66 World Cup. He retired after the '68 Euros at which he was an unused substitute. He had no intention of being a bit part player. A return of 44 goals in just 57 appearances. The hurt of the World Cup final medal was soothed in 2009 when a campaign convinced FIFA to award medals to the whole squad. His medal was sold at auction in 2014 for £44,000.
The 66-67 campaign saw Spurs finish third but they collected another F.A Cup, defeating Chelsea in the final. Although he did not score in that game he had netted 6 goals in 8 games and was the top scorer in the competition.
Greaves continued to score at leisure and became the club top scorer after his haul of 36 in the 68-69 season. He would play his last game for Spurs in January 1970 and despite not being recalled to the team he still finished season top scorer with 11 goals. His record of 266 club goals still stands, as does his club record of 15 hat tricks.
During the spring of 1970 Jimmy drove in the London to Mexico World Cup Rally, finishing an astonishing 6th in a line up of 96 entrants. It seems deeply ironic that an event designed to promote the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Mexico saw Jimmy compete and arrive in the country but his own country had lost his services on the international stage.
Greaves would return to White Hart Lane for a testimonial in October 1972, but as the 70's dawned it was clear that Greaves had entered what he called the autumn of his career.
Greaves was part exchanged for Martin Peters in March 1970 and joined West Ham United. Brian Clough at Derby County was interested in signing the striker but he did not want to move away from London. In later years Greaves realised this was probably a mistake and Clough could have helped him revive his career. He openly spoke of his regret at moving to West Ham. He reportedly would say "If you ask Chelsea fans who I played for, they would say Chelsea. If you ask Spurs fans who I played for, they would say Spurs. If you ask West Ham fans who I played for, they would say Chelsea and Spurs".
Greaves, inevitably scored in his debut, a 5-1 win over Manchester City. In January 1971 Greaves, along with Bobby Moore, Brian Dear and Clyde Best went drinking the night before a game against Blackpool, having been informed that the game would be cancelled. West Ham lost 4-0. Greaves responded saying his drinking was not the problem but the team was not good enough. This started to become a serious problem for Greaves. He felt, aside from Hurst, Bonds, Moore and Pop Robson, his team mates were not able to play well enough and he started to drink heavily. He would often leave training and head to a pub in Romford and remain there until closing time. He played his last game in May 1971. He had scored 13 goals in 40 games for West Ham.
The Winter of discontent
After leaving West Ham Jimmy put on weight and did not go to a football match for two years. He would regularly consume 20 pints a day and a bottle of vodka at night. He would later admit to driving whilst drunk frequently during this period and the pressure on his marriage became too much and his wife filed for divorce. The separation lasted three months and the couple never finalised the split. They would renew their wedding vows in 2017.
Greaves settled on the idea of returning to football at a lower level in an effort to defeat his addiction and made his debut for his local side Brentwood on 27th December 1975. His time there was successful and he was signed for Chelmsford City in the Southern League for the 76-77 season. He played with them for a few short months and enjoyed his time in the Anglo-Italian cup but his struggle with alcohol was becoming a losing battle and he was hospitalised.
In August '77, still battling his addiction, Greaves was encouraged to play for Barnet in the Southern League. Playing from midfield he scored 25 times and was their player of the season. He would eventually hang up his boots early in the 78-79 season to focus on his business interests and dedicate his time to defeating alcoholism. Greaves returned to football to play at a semi pro level with Woodford Town before finally retiring. When he did so he was sober, and remained so for the rest of his life. He later conceded that “I was drunk from 1972 to 1977” and that “I lost the 1970s completely.”
A career in the media
Greaves began writing for the Sun newspaper in 1979 and would do so until 2009 before moving to the Sunday People. In 1982 he struck up a friendship with former Liverpool player Ian St. John when working for ITV. This would eventually lead to Saint and Greavsie which would run with the two hosting from October 1985 to April 1992. The programme would bring the affable Greavsie to the attention of a whole new generation who had not seen him play, but adored his jocular take on the football world. He drifted away from television coverage as the Premier league began, effectively victim of the Sky broadcasting behemoth hoovering up broadcast rights.
Greaves suffered a minor stroke in 2012 and then after full recovery a major stroke in 2015 which left him unable to speak. This had been another ignominious blow especially as he had been a popular after dinner speaker for many years. His sense of humour and strange combination of humility and confidence made his speeches an enjoyable event. "I had a goal drought once," he would quip, "worst fifteen minutes of my life!"
"Football will never see his like again" read the statement issued by Tottenham Hotspur.
England manager Gareth Southgate stated "Jimmy Greaves was someone who was admired by all who love football."
He passed away at his home in Danbury on 19 September 2021, aged 81. He is survived by his wife Irene, four children, ten grandchildren and great grandchildren.
A rare 1969 documentary on Jimmy Greaves can be seen here
Enjoy a compilation of some of his greatness here: