Back in the mid-1980s, we were house-hunting in North London. I wandered into an estate agents in Highgate, said I was looking for a modest family home and asked to see some property details.
The chinless Hooray Henry behind the counter asked how much I had to spend. At a push, and provided I mortgaged myself to the hilt, I explained, I could probably run to, er, £100,000.
Henry prodded his coal-fired Amstrad word-processor, sucked his teeth and explained, condescendingly: ‘I’m sorry, sir. but I don’t think you’ll find very much in that price bracket.’
England and Tottenham Hotspur footballer Jimmy Greaves pictured with his wife Irene in London, 1965
‘What do you mean?’ I replied, crestfallen. ‘A few years ago you could have got Jimmy Greaves for that kind of money.’
Actually, you could have got Jimmy Greaves and still had enough left over for a fish supper, a couple of pints and a taxi home.
In 1961, Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson paid £99,999 to bring Jimmy back from unhappy exile in Italy. He didn’t want to burden Greaves with the pressure of becoming the world’s first £100,000 footballer.
Jimmy wouldn’t have wanted to be saddled with that price tag, either, even though he would have no difficulty justifying the expense. At that time, and with the probable exception of the Brazilian genius Pele, he was the most valuable player on earth.
James Peter Greaves was born in Manor Park, East London, in 1940. He should have been spotted by West Ham’s scouts, but instead signed for Chelsea, scoring 124 goals in 157 appearances. Chelsea sold him to AC Milan, but he failed to settle and six months later was rescued by Nicholson.
Arguably, Spurs didn’t need to spend a king’s ransom on an inside forward. They’d just become the first team in history to win a League and Cup double. But the signing of Greaves was inspired, the icing on an already-sumptuous cake.
Jimmy is still Tottenham’s record goalscorer, with 266 in 379 matches. He scored 44 times in 57 matches for England, including six hat-tricks.
Jimmy Greaves playing for Tottenham Hotspur in 1965. Jimmy is still Tottenham’s record goalscorer, with 266 in 379 matches. He scored 44 times in 57 matches for England, including six hat-tricks
This week he turns 80 and on Wednesday night I’ll be at what we used to call White Hart Lane, along with 62,000 others for a European cup tie, wishing him a very happy birthday. To mark the occasion, Sportsmail is campaigning to get Greaves a long overdue honour. There’s little I can add to the eloquent, heartfelt praise ladled upon the great man by the procession of ex-pros who have lined up to sing his praises.
His unrivalled statistics only tell half the story. The life of Jimmy Greaves has been one of triumph, heartbreak and redemption.
It’s impossible to imagine the bitter depths of disappointment which ravaged him after he missed the World Cup Final against Germany in 1966 and accelerated his descent into alcoholism.
That has been documented extensively elsewhere in these pages and never better than in the brilliant, harrowing account he wrote with journalist Norman Giller in his autobiography This One’s On Me — a signed copy of which sits on my desk as I write.
There’s always a danger that any piece like this turns into: The Jimmy Greaves Who Knew Me. But I’ve only met him once, in the mid-1990s, when I was a guest on one of the TV shows he presented with former Liverpool star Ian St John. Saint And Greavsie was a national institution, sport’s answer to Morecambe and Wise, with Greavsie as Eric and Saint as Little Ern, his straight man. It reinvented football punditry, combining insight with irreverence. Too often when you meet your heroes, they’ve got feet of Fletton clay.
The life of Jimmy Greaves has been one of triumph, heartbreak and redemption. Pictured: Jimmy Greaves attends the Professional Footballers’ Association Awards in London, 2010
Not Jimmy. He was modest, self-deprecating, funny — everything Martin Samuel, who ghost-wrote Greaves’s newspaper column for years, has described in Sportsmail. Saint and Greavsie was appointment-to-view TV, even among those who had only a passing interest in football.
They were rightly immortalised as Spitting Image puppets, alongside the leading political figures of the day — Thatcher, Tebbit Reagan and Kinnochio.
By then Greaves was well into his second act, a reformed, rehabilitated alcoholic on his way to National Treasure status, who devoted much of his time to helping others similarly afflicted. If he had an ego to match his God-given talent, he kept it well hidden. What struck me most of all over the past few days were the testimonials of Mail readers from all over country, relating the way in which Jimmy had touched them personally.
He always had time for the fans, especially youngsters seeking autographs. We’ve been inundated with letters from people attesting to his modesty and generosity.
Jimmy Greaves as a Spitting Image puppet, alongside the leading political figures of the day — Thatcher, Tebbit Reagan and Kinnochio
What’s often forgotten is that in the mid-Sixties, Greaves was the epitome of cool. He was a superstar before even George Best, the Fifth Beatle.
Study the photo of Jimmy and his wife Irene printed here, Greaves in his natty Rat Pat whistle and Irene looking like a torch singer just off stage at the London Palladium. Yet despite his celebrity, this will have been taken in a local boozer, not some Las Vegas nightspot, where he would be feted by well-wishers wanting to buy him a large VAT.
This one’s on me, Jim. Hardly surprising he succumbed to the bottle. Alcoholism broke up their marriage, but happily after Jimmy sobered up they were reunited.
At his lowest ebb — in fact, the last time I saw him play, in the flesh — he was turning out for non-league Barnet and living in a squalid bedsit.
These days, his club would have flown him to a drying out facility in Arizona, no expense spared. Back then, he was left to his own devices, deserted to seek salvation in a bottomless well of Guinness and vodka.
Contrast the account in our letters special on Thursday of the Greaveses queuing at the British Airways economy counter with the photos over the weekend of pampered, multi-millionaire modern footballers preening themselves on private jets and drinking magnums of champagne by the neck in Dubai.
One player, whom I can’t be bothered to name, is posing like a gangsta rapper. The only gangsters Jimmy Greaves ever looked like were the Krays. To borrow the sports writer John Roberts’s observation about Kevin Keegan in relation to George Best, these spoilt ‘superstars’ aren’t fit to lace Greavsie’s drinks.
Jimmy deserves a medal for his sporting prowess alone. It was shameful he didn’t receive a World Cup winner’s medal even though he’d played in the early rounds until injury intervened. Nor any kind of lesser honour, either.
His work with fellow alcoholics is worthy of a gong in its own right. As his Welsh former Spurs teammate Cliff Jones, the Gareth Bale of his day, said: ‘Jimmy saved my life.’ Sadly, the relationship between Tottenham and Greaves over the years has been strained. Let’s hope we can put that to rest on Wednesday night.
He should have a stand named after him, or a statue erected in Tottenham High Road. If the ex-Fulham owner Mohamed Al-Fayed could stick up a statue of Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, Spurs should be able to run to a statue of our greatest ever goalscorer.
Incidentally, that mythical £100,000 house in North London would probably cost the thick end of £2 million today.
So what price Jimmy Greaves? Given the hyper-inflated transfer values, he’d probably be the world’s first £1 billion footballer. Knowing Jimmy, he’d prefer the fee to be £999,999,999. The least we can do is throw in a knighthood.