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James Peter Greaves comes into the same category as players that include George Best and Diego Maradona when at their peak, if you didn’t see him play in the flesh you’ll never know quite how good he was.
The statistics are one thing - Tottenham Hotspur's highest-ever goalscorer with 266 goals, highest goalscorer in the history of English top-flight football, 357 goals, the First Division's top scorer in six seasons, scorer of most hat-tricks, six, for England - but seeing Greaves play, and in the absence of film archive material of sufficient quality to convey the man’s own quality, was something else.
Greaves was born on February 20th 1940 in Manor Park, he grew up in Dagenham and his father was a tube train driver. ‘At that time we were bred with football in our veins and there really wasn't anything else.’ Greaves was fifteen when Chelsea scouted him, scoring fifty one youth level goals in the 1955-56 season and a hundred and twenty two the following one. Greaves made his first team debut aged seventeen in the late-summer of 1957, scoring on his Chelsea debut against Tottenham Hotspur in a 1-1 result at White Hart Lane.
Greaves was rested for long periods during the 1957-58 season, which he ended with twenty two goals in thirty seven appearances, including four against Portsmouth in his first game back from a long absence. Greaves made his debut for England Under-23s in a 6–2 win over Bulgaria at the start of the season, in which he scored twice.
At the start of 1958-59 Greaves scored five against champions Wolverhampton Wanderers and he finished the season with thirty two in forty four league games, the First Division’s top scorer.
Greaves made his England debut, aged nineteen, in the May away game to Peru, scoring England's goal in a 4–1 defeat. He was one of few players in the England squad to escape criticism, as England were defeated by Brazil and Mexico in the other tour matches.
He followed this with twenty nine in forty league games in 1959-60, including five against Preston North End. Maintaining his place in the England side, he scored consecutive hat-tricks in the October games away to Northern Ireland and Luxembourg.
1960-61 saw Greaves continue where he had left off, including passing a hundred career league goals aged less than twenty one. He scored hat-tricks against Wolves, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City, four against Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest - in his last game for Chelsea - and five in a 7–1 win over West Bromwich Albion, but Chelsea continued to finish seasons in the bottom half of the table and lost at home to Fourth Division Crew Alexandra in the FA Cup. Greaves finished the season as the division’s top scorer with forty one goals in forty league games. His hat-trick in a 9-3 victory over Scotland at Wembley in the April convinced the press that England’s new centre forward should be starting every game for his country.
His one hundred and twenty four First Division goals in four seasons took him to Milan, for a fee of £80,000, at the end of the 1960-61 season, a move which Greaves had attempted to cancel before it was confirmed, but which Milan insisted on seeing through. Greaves scored on his debut in a 2-2 draw against Botafogo, scored nine in a total of fourteen matches in his brief stay in Italy, including against Inter Milan, but was sold to the previous season’s Double-winners, Tottenham Hotspur, for £99,000 in December 1961, Milan winning Serie A at the end of 1961-62.
Greaves’s Spurs debut brought him a hat-trick at White Hart Lane in the hosts’ 5-2 win over Blackpool and a goal in the FA Cup Final, along with a winners medal, in the 3-1 win over Burnley.
For England, in the 1962 World Cup Finals in Chile, Greaves played the three group games, including a goal against Argentina, and the Quarter Final defeat to Brazil.
Greaves’s two goals in the 1962 FA Charity Shield against Ipswich brought Spurs victory against the champions, 5-1, at the start of the 1962-63 season, in which he scored hat-tricks against Manchester United, Ipswich Town and Liverpool, and four goals in a 9–2 win over Nottingham Forest. Spurs were runners-up in Division One by May, Greaves scoring thirty seven in forty one league games, the division’s highest scorer. Tottenham finished the season by winning the European Cup Winners Cup - the first British club to win a European trophy - in a 5-1 victory over Atletico Madrid, Greaves scoring two.
Greaves’s relentless consistency continued into 1963–64, in which he scored hat-tricks against Nottingham Forest, Blackpool, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers, as he finished on thirty five goals in forty one league games, the division’s top scorer once again. His four goals in an 8–3 win over Northern Ireland was followed in 1964 with a hat-trick when the two sides played again. His overall tally the following season was similar, twenty nine goals in forty one league games and two hat-tricks in the FA Cup.
Greaves suffered severe illness at the start of 1965–66, but came back to end the season on sixteen goals - the club’s top scorer - in thirty one games. His four goals in June 1966, in a 6–1 pre-World-Cup win over Norway, guaranteed that he would start in Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup team, in which he played the three group games against Uruguay, Mexico and France, before his tournament ended as a result of a shin injury requiring stitches in the final group game against France. When asked about missing the knockout stages and the Final, Greaves replied, ‘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.’
But Greaves saw it as ‘A small part of my career. The interesting fact about the World Cup in '66 is that when we won it, it was quite a low-key affair. If we won it now, the country would come to a stop for a week.’
Thirty one goals in forty seven matches in 1966-67 saw Spurs finish third in the First Division, four points behind champions Manchester United, and beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup Final.
Greaves’s final England appearance came in a 1–0 win over Austria in May 1967. He was part of England’s UEFA Euro 1968 squad, but remained an unused substitute throughout the tournament and retired from international football early the following year, with forty four goals in fifty seven international appearances.
Greaves repeated his run throughout the 1967–68 season, scoring twenty nine in forty eight games, and twenty seven in forty two in 1968–69, finishing as Division One’s leading scorer for the sixth time, including four against Sunderland, hat-tricks in the Burnley and Leicester City games, and nine goals in cup competitions.
Greaves’s time at Spurs effectively came to an end in 1969-70, in which he was dropped and never returned to the starting line-up after the FA Cup defeat to Crystal Palace in January 1970.
Greaves’s unwillingness to relocate outside London may have adversely affected his career, as he moved in an exchange deal involving Martin Peters to West Ham United towards the end of the 1969-70 season. Despite scoring twice in his West Ham debut, against Manchester City in March 1970, Greaves and West Ham lost at Blackpool in a 4-0 defeat in the FA Cup at the start of 1971 and the problems he experienced in looking after himself were under way, Greaves and others of his team mates being fined and dropped.
Greaves played his last game for West Ham towards the end of the 1970-71 season against Huddersfield Town at Upton Park, finishing on thirteen goals in forty games in all competitions.
He played non-league football for Brentwood, Chelmsford City and Barnet before retiring.
Greaves might have been referring to himself when he said, ‘It's one of the great tragedies of being a professional footballer, they shoot horses, don't they, and I think that a lot of players would prefer to have been shot once their career was over, because they've found it very difficult to battle through life. A lot of them never really find a substitute for football.’
Greaves enjoyed a highly-productive career in the press and in television from the early 1980s onwards.
He was awarded a World Cup winner’s medal in 2009 as a result of the part he played in England’s tournament victory and FIFA altering their position.
Capture a piece of Jimmy Greaves' legacy with this iconic print from VintageSports.com