The sad news came this weekend that Jimmy Greaves has passed away at the age of 81. With it, a generation of football fans that saw and remember his exploits on the football pitch mourned his loss, along with a later generation of fans from all clubs that did not.
Quite simply Jimmy Greaves the man was loved by all those who remember a different era of TV football coverage and he was one of its biggest names.
As a player, Greaves was one of the most mercurial strikers to have played the game. Long before Harry Kane, or Wayne Rooney or Alan Shearer or Gary Lineker, Jimmy hit an incredible 44 goals in 57 games for England, a strike rate that has never been bettered since.
At club level he was phenomenal, with a career total of 382 goals in 579 games, mainly for Chelsea and Tottenham. He had pace, was a lethal finisher who would pass the ball into the net, had great poise and could dribble and go past opposition defenders.
His peers describe him as someone who really was a world-class player - up there with the greatest that England has produced. He would command the biggest price tags today.
It is well documented that he was injured after three games of the 1966 World Cup, and although fit again by the time of the final, England manager Alf Ramsey kept faith with Geoff Hurst - who of course went on to write his own history as England beat Germany 4-2. Greaves himself said that although he celebrated as much as anyone else at the final whistle, inside he felt a sadness that he had not taken part.
It has been written by some that this was the start of Jimmy’s descent into alcohol addiction, but this is incorrect. He was a social drinker and although he only played three times more for England, he was still in his mid 20’s and at his peak. Indeed after the World Cup he was still up among the leading goal scorers in the First Division for the next three seasons, winning the FA Cup in 1967 and leading goal scorer in the country in 1969.
His goal-scoring decline started rapidly from that point and he retired in 1971. It was at this point that Greaves, with no training or games to prepare for, started to drink heavily. Over the next seven years during which he would drink a bottle of vodka for a nightcap, his marriage to his beloved Irene ended in divorce and he ended up living in a bedsit.
In 1978 Jimmy realised that he had lost everything dear to him and finished his last drink and began his fight to rebuild his life.
First he won back Irene, and then he began to make a few television appearances for Central TV, before bringing his sharp wit and personality to national attention as a pundit on our screens at the 1982 World Cup. ITV bosses made the decision to pair his wit alongside a ‘straight man’ in the form of Iain St John on the Saturday lunchtime ‘On the Ball’. So successful were the two, that after a couple of years they were given their own show: ‘Saint and Greavsie’. It was essential viewing for fans, who loved Jimmy Greaves for his knowledge and wisecracking observations...
- At half time in the World Cup semi-final in 1990, he said: ‘I think Chris Waddle will have a brilliant second half, because he’s just had 45 minutes rest!’
- After Iain St John had been arrested mid-week for drink driving: ‘Hello Saint... is that a police tie, Saint?’
- Showing footage of Nottingham Forest’s 5-0 win when Brian Clough struck supporters invading the pitch at the final whistle: ‘ Here we see Forest hitting five... and here we see Brian Clough hitting five!’
- Brian Clough was always ‘my good millionaire friend Brian Clough...’
Fans and players loved him. The lunchtime show was very often part of the pre-match routine for fans of clubs up and down the country.
At a time when football was going seriously wrong, with three major crowd disasters in four years, hooliganism rampant, and English clubs banned from Europe, Jimmy Greaves reminded us that it was after all a game, to be enjoyed and was meant to be fun. There wasn’t another pundit like him and there hasn’t been another since.
With ITV losing the broadcast rights to top-flight football in 1992, so came the end of Saint and Greavsie. Jimmy made occasional TV appearances, and wound down by writing a column for a national Sunday newspaper which usually contained a line of ‘ back in my day’.
But, there was another side to him which had never really been shown by the TV camera. It was undoubtedly always there and he didn’t get the chance to express it to the public, until he published his autobiography ‘Greavsie’ in 2003.
One day I saw a copy in a charity shop, and for 99p I figured it was worth a punt. I have to say it was one of the best autobiographies you could read.
As well as you may expect, Jimmy Greaves took the reader through his considerably full life story. He also talked about his observations of the changes in the world in his time. How football has changed since he first started in the game. How fans, and their expectations, the way they supported had changed. How society had changed, and not only how these things had changed, but in his view why they had.
As a piece of social commentary on Britain from the 1940s and ’50s to the present day expectations and demands of people, it revealed that underneath the TV persona of a quick-witted, funny, warm character, there was also an intelligent deep thinking man - something that the public would not necessarily associate with him.
It was sad to hear that he had a severe stroke back in 2015. If you have experienced a loved one struck by the same fate, you know that they face possibly the rest of their lives, either partly disabled or unable to walk or unable to speak or very often as in the case of Jimmy Greaves, all three. His mind will still have been sharp, the wit still there, only the ability to communicate diminished.
In Geoff Hurst’s words: “( the last few years ) have been a difficult time for him; now he can rest in peace”.