England striker Jimmy Greaves dies aged 81
Deadly England striker and record goalscorer for Tottenham who endeared himself to a later generation with his quips on the Saint and Greavsie TV show
Jimmy Greaves, English football’s greatest goalscorer, has died aged 81, Tottenham Hotspur has announced.
The former England and Chelsea striker has rarely been seen in public since he suffered a near-fatal stroke in May 2015 that left him with difficulty with his speech and confined to a wheelchair.
Greaves scored 266 league and cup goals for Tottenham, and also had spells at Chelsea and West Ham, holding the record for most top-flight goals in English football, with a total of 357.
The Premier League club said in a statement: “We are extremely saddened to learn of the passing of the great Jimmy Greaves, not just Tottenham’s record goalscorer but the finest marksman this country has ever seen. Jimmy passed away at home in the early hours of this morning, aged 81.
“Throughout his wonderful playing career, Jimmy’s strike rate was phenomenal. His Spurs return was 266 goals in 379 appearances between 1961 and 1970 - 220 goals in 321 league games, 32 goals in 36 FA Cup ties, five in just eight League Cup ties and nine in 14 European matches.”
Few footballers are best remembered for a match in which they did not play. To record the fact that Jimmy Greaves is one of that unlucky number is not to denigrate his sublime skills that made him one of the finest strikers English football has produced.
The showery London afternoon of July 30, 1966 produced more than its share of famous images, but there was one photograph that became loaded with poignancy as the decades passed and England’s World Cup victory acquired a mythical status. It showed the England bench as Geoff Hurst’s fulminating shot completed his hat-trick and the team’s 4-2 victory over West Germany at Wembley.
There are only two men who are not in the early stages of ecstatic celebration; one is the preternaturally reserved manager, Alf Ramsey. The other is Greaves, the striker replaced by Hurst in the England side. While the other non-playing members of the squad have their arms in the air and wear expressions of pure joy, Greaves looks quizzically in the direction of the pitch. “It was a total blank,” he later recalled. “I felt empty, totally empty . . . even in this moment of triumph and great happiness, deep down I felt my sadness.”
It was a moment that changed his life. That night, as the nation celebrated and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, joined the squad at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, west London, Greaves and his wife, Irene, were on a flight to Majorca. “I thought, ‘It’s over, I’m not part of it; let’s get out of here. I felt numb.”
Within a few years of the most famous day in English sporting history, Greaves had become a hopeless alcoholic, living apart from his family in a flat and selling women’s knitwear on a market stall to make enough money to drink. “I was drunk from 1972 to 1977,” he recalled. “On occasions I would drink up to 20 pints of beer in the course of a day, go home, then drink a whole bottle of vodka before going to bed.”
Greaves scored 266 league and cup goals for Tottenham, and also had spells at Chelsea and West Ham, holding the record for most top-flight goals in English football, with a total of 357
Greaves was reluctant to draw a direct link between the crushing disappointment of missing out on World Cup glory and his later problems, but the regrets lingered even when he had got his life back on track and launched a career as a TV pundit. He played for England three more times after the 1966 World Cup and finished his international career with 44 goals in 57 appearances, a remarkable ratio.
Wherever Greaves played he scored goals in abundance: 422 in 602 senior league and cup appearances. Geoffrey Green, the Times football correspondent, called him “the Fagin of the penalty area, the arch-pickpocket of goals.” Greaves could score spectacular goals, but more often his anticipation, superb balance and devastating speed over a short distance took him into the right position. “When he slipped the ball into the goal it was as silent as someone closing the door of a Rolls-Royce,” wrote Green.
The son of Jim, a guard on the District Line, and Mary, James Peter Greaves was born in East Ham in 1940 but lived until he was 10 in Dagenham after the family home was bombed when he was six weeks old. In 1950 Jim was promoted to driver on the Central Line and the family moved to a new estate in Hainault, north-east London; summer holidays were spent hop-picking in Kent.
Greaves was a wiry child and, although he was academically bright, sport proved his forte; street football played with a tennis ball developed his ball skills. He went to Kingswood Secondary School in Dagenham and knew that he wanted to be a professional footballer by his mid-teens — he was captain of the school team, as well as head boy. His careers officer told him: “That’s a very dodgy business. You should get a secure job.”
Through a friend, his father arranged an interview for a job as a compositor at The Times, but Greaves Jr was spotted playing for Essex Schoolboys by a scout from Chelsea, and at 15, after a season in which he scored 122 goals for the youth team, Jimmy Greaves was signed as an apprentice on £8 a week — £7 in the summer — working initially as an office boy at Stamford Bridge.
He scored on his first-team debut against Tottenham in 1957, aged 17 — “The finest first-ever League game I have seen from any youngster,” wrote Charles Buchan, the former England international turned journalist — and the next month he scored twice on his debut for the England Under-23 side against Bulgaria.
That first season he married Irene Barden at Romford register office. They had a son, Jimmy Jr, who died of pneumonia in infancy, and with Greaves searching for new horizons in the wake of Jimmy Jn’s death he moved to AC Milan, although almost as soon as he had signed the deal he tried to back out of it.
He stood to earn a £130 basic weekly wage, as opposed to £20 at Chelsea — but it was an ill-judged move. He struggled with the language, missed home and longed for English cuisine. Nor was he enamoured of the monkish behaviour expected of footballers in Italy, where curfews and closed training camps were the norm. He loathed the disciplinarian manager, Nereo Rocco: “At best he was manic, and at worst he appeared to have all the mental stability of Caligula.”
Despite the suffocating defensive tactics, Greaves scored nine goals in 14 appearances before returning to England in 1961 to join Tottenham. They reached the FA Cup final against Burnley that season; Greaves predicted he would find the net inside five minutes. He scored after three and Tottenham won.
These were Greaves’s peak years. In 1963 he helped Tottenham become the first British side to lift a European trophy as they thrashed Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam, with Greaves scoring twice in what he described as “the greatest game I ever played in”. In 1967 Tottenham won the FA Cup again, beating Chelsea.
In 1962 Greaves had gone to the World Cup in Chile, but a forgettable tournament meant that Walter Winterbottom was replaced as manager by Alf Ramsey, who was said to not appreciate Greaves’s penchant for a quip and his relaxed demeanour on and off the field. Early in Ramsey’s tenure Greaves was among a number of players who, after a night’s illicit drinking in London, came back to their hotel rooms to find their passports on their pillows — a reminder that they were dispensable.
Despite their sometimes uneasy relationship, Greaves was integral to Ramsey’s plans for the 1966 World Cup, but in the final group game a challenge from a French player left a gash on his shin that needed 14 stitches, ruling him out of the quarter-final against Argentina. “Towards the end of the game I thought I’d got a hole in my boot because I was aware that my sock was soaking,” he wrote. “It was only when I bent down to do some running repairs that I realised it was soaked with blood and the entire sock was crimson.”
At the team hotel, Hendon Hall, having had his wound sewn up, “I realised there and then that, should England reach the final, I wouldn’t be playing. In the darkness of my room I realised my World Cup was over.”
By the end of the 1960s his lifestyle was getting the better of him. He had developed a taste for alcohol in Italy, when loneliness and the inability to socialise in a foreign language had led him to seek solace in the bottle. In the 1969-70 season he was appearing more infrequently for Tottenham, and he moved to West Ham.
He helped the east London club to stay up that season, but his drinking was affecting his physical condition — “Because I was not enjoying my football, I was becoming anxious, agitated and downcast” — and he retired at the end of the season, a decision he would later rue (in the second half of the decade he appeared for several non-League sides). “I not only left football, I departed from life and family living.”
He spent the remainder of the 1970s in a stupor. He had business interests, including a haulage company and a packing firm with his brother-in-law, as well as sports shops, clothes shops, travel agencies and a country club. But as his drinking got worse, his marriage broke up. “I can recall very little of this dark period in my life,” he wrote, “but have been assured that I turned into a monster.” For several years he was in and out of nursing homes and spent the last months of 1977 in a psychiatric hospital.
About to be outed by the People as an alcoholic, he decided to give the newspaper an interview, the catalyst for his first visit to Alcoholics Anonymous. He sobered up in 1978, moved back in with his wife and in 1979 began writing a football column for The Sun, which continued into the 21st century.
Having regained his sanity and a place in normal society, in the 1980s he made another name for himself as a charismatic sports commentator with ITV. He enjoyed a 10-year stint alongside Ian St John on the Saturday lunchtime show Saint and Greavsie. It was a masterful double act: Greaves’s earthy, cockney wit complemented the demeanour of the cheery, Scottish straight man “Saint”, who was regularly reduced to fits of uncontrollable laughter by Greaves’s everyman observations. It introduced a new generation to the former Tottenham star and also marked his rehabilitation and triumph over his affliction.
With its verdant analysis and knockabout humour, the show became mandatory viewing for any football fan before they went to see their team on a Saturday afternoon. When it was cancelled in 1992 it made front-page news. Greaves — whose phrase “It’s a funny old game” had become legendary, although he maintained that it was invented by Harry Enfield, impersonating him on Spitting Image — continued for a while as a football pundit in the Midlands.
He continued to be known for his chirpy jocularity and love of French cigarettes, and later lived in Chelmsford. In 2000, along with the other members of the 1966 World Cup squad who did not play in the final and so had never received medals, Greaves was finally given his by Gordon Brown at a reception in Downing Street.
In 2012 he had a minor stroke, then a more debilitating stroke in 2015. In September 2017 he and Irene remarried at a church near their Essex home. Despite his condition, she told a reporter, “He was able to say most of what he needed to say, and the reverend helped him when he couldn’t.”
Irene survives him, along with their four children: Lynn married and raised a family; Mitzi works for a care home (her son, James Robinson, became a non-League footballer and played in Australia); Danny followed his father into the professional game, playing for Southend United and Cambridge United, then going into non-League management with Witham Town; Andy also tried to make his way in football and was on the books at Southend, but went on to set up an IT company.
Although Jimmy Greaves missed out on what would surely have been the greatest day of his career, he was held in as much affection by the British public as if he had been on the Wembley pitch. “I was one of the few people who believed we would win the World Cup,” he once said. “What I never ever thought was we would win it without me being in the side.”
Jimmy Greaves, footballer and broadcaster, was born on February 20, 1940. He died onSeptember 19, 2021 aged 81