There are some heroes you illogically hope will never die, certainly in the imagination. Muhammad Ali was one, George Best another (despite his best efforts) and Jimmy Greaves, too. Even Tottenham fans who never saw him play in the flesh so treasured his deeds it seemed he belonged solely to them. Only Glenn Hoddle and Harry Kane were later revered at White Hart Lane with such unquestioning intensity.
Others from the black-and-white era will have loved Greaves for his goals at Chelsea, for England and in early- and late-career cameos at Milan and West Ham. He was not exclusively ours but, for those who trekked up the High Road in N17, Spurs have always laid the strongest claim, and the feeling was mutual.
It can take a lifetime for heroes to steal the heart of a nation; the wonder of Greaves was that he did it without trying, almost from the moment he scored on his teenage debut for Chelsea on 24 August 1957 – in a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, where he would go on to score many of the 266 goals that lifted Tottenham spirits between 1961 and 1970. By the time of his death at the age of 81 after lingering illness stretching back to a major stroke in 2015, the love had not abated a single heartbeat.
Nearly 50 years after he retired, nobody has scored more than his 357 goals in the top flight of English football. That in itself is remarkable. Not many, apart from Best, were as lethal with both feet. Hardly anyone standing 5ft 8in or less was as reliable with his head. And very few did all of it with such seeming lack of effort.
For all his scoring feats, Greaves was more than a footballer. To this admirer, certainly. He looked so perfect in his white shirt and dark blue shorts, young eyes gleaming, feet teasing as he made fools of old lags – some of them as good as Billy Wright – he might have been lifted from the pages of Boys’ Own. He brought magic to football, whether you were there to see it or not.
We did not meet properly until 2003, mid-morning in a pub not far from his home at the time, Little Baddow, in Essex. He hadn’t had a drink in 25 years which, given the grief alcohol brought him and his wife, Irene, as well as their children, was just as well. “What you having?” he said, chirpy as a barman. “Black coffee, please, Jim.” “Don’t want a proper drink?” “Coffee is fine.”
There followed a confusing exchange. “Not like the old days,” he said, “when we’d meet up in the Bell and Hare.” How could I tell Jimmy I’d never met him in the famous pub near the ground, in times when players and journalists mingled as friends? I preferred to imagine what it might have been like.
He must have had regrets of his own, I wondered: famously, not getting back into the England team after injury forced him out during the 1966 World Cup. He did, he said. But there was never any lasting animosity towards Alf Ramsey for dropping him.
The night of the triumph, Greaves was the only player in the squad not to celebrate at the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington, which turned into a West End bacchanal. Jimmy went home and had a cup of tea. Then, as the knighthoods and gongs arrived, he was ignored. It hurt, no question.
“When I go to speak at dinners, or abroad, they will say when you get there: ‘Right, Jimmy Greaves: what did you get? How shall we introduce you? MBE? OBE?’ And I say: ‘No. Nothing, actually. FA. Just call me Jimmy Greaves, FA.’ But I can’t answer that question. Nobody’s ever told me and that’s that.”
His greater concern always was for Irene, who divorced him, brought him back from the depths of alcoholism, was reunited with the game’s most lovable rascal and remarried him three years ago.
“I’ve known Irene longer than anybody else in my life,” he said back then. “We’re soulmates, really. Eventually – not meaning to dwell on the morbid side of life – one of us will go before the other. I don’t really know how I would cope in that situation, to be perfectly honest.”
Greaves also spoke expansively about his friendships with Fleet Street’s finest: Norman Giller, Peter Wilson, Desmond Hackett, Geoffrey Green. One of his favourite companions was Laurie Pignon, who vowed after surviving five years as a prisoner of war to enjoy life to the fullest. And that he did – although, as Greaves recalled, he sometimes double-booked, declining a pint with him at Wimbledon because he’d promised to meet Rod Laver in another bar. Greaves chuckled: “You’re talking about maybe the greatest tennis player in the world saying to Laurie Pignon: ‘Let’s meet for a pint and we’ll have a chat.’ It doesn’t happen any more.”
Greaves also spoke fondly of four players in particular: Best, Paul Gascoigne, Albert Johanneson and Wayne Rooney. All liked a drink, too often to excess, but that was not the only connection. All played with a freedom and innocence known to few.
“I’m not sure we had what you could call pressure,” he said in that endearing East End drawl. “I look back at George, I look back at myself, same problem as George, as Albert, same as Gazza. I think, in a funny way, it was a lack of pressure why we succumbed. I think we missed football. I missed it.
“It wasn’t the pressure of playing that made me start drinking heavily, it was the emptiness of not playing. And I think that’s probably true of George and Paul. I don’t think they felt that much pressure playing. They loved it too much.”
Never meet your heroes, they say. They obviously never met Jimmy Greaves.