For all the hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken, eulogising about the career of Jimmy Greaves, one of the most common amongst them has to be the word 'goal'. Such was the talent he had inside the penalty area, it is a very apt legacy that his name and goals are deemed synonymous.
Greaves stands as one of the most prolific strikers England has ever produced. A suave figure ambling around the final third, you could forget he was there for 89 minutes, but often a minute of magic was more than enough. Goals were all he offered, but boy did he offer plenty – and the stats prove it.
He still stands as the all-time top scorer in the English top flight, with 357 goals in 567 games largely procured during his time at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. He still leads the charts at the latter and remains the top scorer in a league season for both. Since his national debut, no other player has a better ratio of goals for the Three Lions, bagging 44 in his 57 caps, and his tally of six hat-tricks is still a record.
He also became the youngest player to reach a top flight century, still aged just 20 years and 290 days, and holds the league record for the most golden boot trophies with six. To put that into perspective, Thierry Henry is the only man to have even earned four in more than 45 years since Greaves' last accolade.
The game was seemingly innate to him, as he grew up in the war-torn and bomb-ravaged East End of London. “I always kicked a ball,” he once recounted, “it was the most natural thing that ever came to me. At 15, I had never considered doing anything else.”
Joining Chelsea that year, he would skip the reserves entirely and go straight from youth team into the seniors at 17. It turned out well, scoring a late equaliser on the opening day of the 1957/58 season at Tottenham, and went on to score in every debut throughout his career.
Greaves, always someone with a sense of humour, was never one to take the art of goalscoring too seriously. He was always relaxed on the field and insists he never got stressed about scoring, saying: “I don't consciously scheme goals, nor take up pre-determined positions. I don't have a thunderous shot like Bobby Charlton, nor have I spent hours working out shooting angles, I just get in as close as I can and let rip.” Even so, his reliable proficiency in the area was described as akin to “closing the door on a Rolls-Royce”.
After scoring freely in West London for four years, driven by the frustrations of the maximum wage in England – which limited weekly salaries to £20 – he set sail for AC Milan. He left Chelsea with a fond memory though with the 21-year-old, as captain for the day, scoring all four in a 4-3 win over Nottingham Forest.
While Greaves' adventures abroad were profitable in front of goal, hitting nine in 12 Serie A games, he was homesick and returned six months later, with the maximum wage now lifted, though remembers his spell well. “I always look back upon my playing career with AC Milan with pride, but I wanted to come home.”
Spurs manager Bill Nicholson signed Greaves for £99,999 – as he did not want to lumber him with the moniker of 'the first six-figure player' – and every penny proved worth it, as the debut hat-trick against Blackpool implied. Tottenham were reigning double-winners, and would go on to retain the FA Cup with Greaves in tow, before becoming the first British side to win a continental trophy in the European Cup Winner's Cup the following season, demolishing Atletico Madrid 5-1.
“I would mark that double-winning team as one of the best that ever played the game,” he fondly recalled. “As far as great teams are concerned, it is as great a team as there's ever been.”
A missed peak
That time also saw Greaves playing in another team he ranked as one of the best, the 1961 England side. With just two defeats in 17 during the run up to the 1962 FIFA World Cup™, it was a period of impressive football, epitomised by their triumph in the British Home Championships, scoring 19 in three games, with Greaves getting seven.
With he and captain Johnny Haynes in sync, they were a supreme entity, but by the time they reached Chile, their peak had passed. “I think the 1961 England side was the best probably that there's ever been. Had it been the World Cup that year we would have taken some stopping. The next year we were [past our best], we had lost our rhythm.”
Intermittent displays before an exit to eventual winners Brazil ended Greaves first shot at the Jules Rimet Trophy, but four years later it was almost to be more painful. On home soil in 1966, he appeared in all three group games, but the third was to be his last. “A crunching tackle from France's Joseph Bonnel pole-axed me,” Greaves wrote in his autobiography. “Bonnel had dragged his studs down my shin. I thought I'd got a hole in my boot because I was aware my sock was soaking. It was soaked in blood.”
After 14 stitches, his World Cup was over, making way for Geoff Hurst to gain legendary status for his hat-trick in the Final. “I was very pleased that we had won of course,” Greaves said 30 years later, “but I just felt so disappointed that I wasn't in on the final execution. I always felt that we would win it in '66 because we were playing at home, but that team arguably became great after the final. I don't think we would have won it anywhere else.”
Another FA Cup and league golden boot honours followed, as well as a spell at West Ham United, before a premature end to his association with the game at 31. But, after battling alcoholism, he went on to become a TV presenter and comedian, as well as being an inaugural member of the English FA's Hall of Fame.