When Jimmy Greaves suffered a severe stroke and his life hung in the balance there followed a brief outpouring of appreciation for the true genius he was.
Grainy footage of the goals were replayed amid comparisons to Lionel Messi and funds were raised to contribute towards his medical care.
Everyone agreed what a thoroughly top bloke he had always been and then the moment passed without lasting tribute to one of England’s finest footballers, perhaps the nation’s greatest ever natural goal scorer.
Jimmy Greaves (left), pictured with Harry Kane, roguish charm and ordinariness about him
The new Tottenham stadium presents an opportunity to officially honour Greaves
No statue stands to his talents nor a suite in his name at Wembley Stadium and while Harry Kane collected an MBE last week no honours have been bestowed upon the man who has scored more goals than any other in the English top flight, many of them for Tottenham.
Greaves survived his brush with death but his quality of life has never been the same. At 79, he is wheelchair-bound, completely disabled down his right side. His vision is impaired, his speech has suffered and he requires assistance from carers four times a day.
‘He still greets everybody,’ said his son Danny. ‘If people want to shake his hand he shakes their hand, he kisses ladies’ hands, he signs autographs even though he’s not as good at it as he was. Even in the condition he’s in, he’s still a people’s man; he wants to engage. It’s fantastic.’
One positive factor to emerge in nearly four years since the stroke is a distinct improvement in the relationship with Spurs. Tracey Levy, wife of chairman Daniel, has embraced the Greaves family.
He was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016, rather belatedly for someone who scored 266 goals in 379 games during their most glittering era might but Jimmy, being Jimmy, had rejected the opportunity on several occasions.
Greaves was a supreme talent who does not get the recognition he deserves
‘I’m not privy to what the relationship was like before,’ said Danny, 56. ‘That was between Dad and Tottenham but, since the illness, I can say Tracey has been absolutely different class. The club are helping us not just with a bit of financial support but by allowing Dad to watch training or go and look around the ground when nobody’s there to stimulate memories.’
Greaves was able to spend time at White Hart Lane before the old stadium was demolished and replaced by the magnificent new home which hosted its final test even on Saturday and will open for its first Premier League fixture on Wednesday, when Spurs play Crystal Palace.
He was taken to the centre of the pitch, where he gazed around at the scene of so many memories and muttered: ‘I wish I could have a kick about’.
His roguish charm and ordinariness shines on, as does the spirit of a time when players played for the love of playing, a quality always central to his popularity when Greaves moved successfully into television having conquered the demons of alcoholism which took hold, ravaged his family and threatened to kill him until he quit booze in 1978.
‘I always remember a day going to Wembley as a kid with my brother,’ said Danny. ‘It was a game when England beat Italy 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier, Trevor Brooking crossed for Kevin Keegan to score the winner, and Dad was doing the commentary for TV. On the way he was telling us about playing at Wembley in a game when England won 8-3 against Northern Ireland and Terry Paine scored a hat-trick.
‘My brother Andy said: ‘Dad, that must be brilliant scoring a hat-trick at Wembley, did you score’ and he replied, ‘Oh yeah, I scored four of the others’ which I always think sums Dad up, with his wonderful sense of humour, never bigging himself up but just saying to score a hat-trick is a great achievement and he scored four.’
Greaves was a tricky, diminutive player with an eye for goal, not dissimilar from Lionel Messi
Tracey Levy (left), Daniel Levy’s executive assistant and wife, has been a huge help to Greaves
Greaves claimed six hat-tricks for England – a record still standing – although the one scored by his friend Sir Geoff Hurst in the World Cup final always looms over any reflection on his career.
Dave Tossell’s new biography ‘Natural’ with a foreword by Hurst and contributions from friends, family and former teammates, explores a colourful life and how Greaves’ story revolves around ’66, and how what should have been his crowning glory became his deepest disappointment.
He had started the tournament in the team, the star striker, but suffered an injury and, though fit again, was omitted from the final as Sir Alf Ramsey stuck with Hurst.
Whether it accelerated the end of his career and a descent into alcoholism is hard to know. The names of Ramsey and those who played in the final against West Germany will forever be etched into English football history and Greaves has not enjoyed the same sense of belonging.
He has given away his 57 England caps over the years to charities. His family have his two FA Cup winners’ medals but the medal is lost from the European Cup Winner’s Cup final in 1963, when he scored twice in Tottenham’s 5-1 win against Atletico Madrid.
‘One day we were sat in the boardroom at Tottenham’s training ground with Pat Jennings and Ossie Ardiles, Alan Gilzean and Cliff Jones,’ said Danny. ‘The conversation got on to what those in the room might be worth in the modern game and, to a man they all went, that’s nothing compared to what Jimmy would be worth.
Greaves, pictured here against France in the 1966 World Cup, was a prolific goalscorer
‘They said he was the Messi of the ’60s, because that’s how he played and how good he was. It’s a good comparison. They were similar; small, quick, left-footed, could go past people and had a great eye for goal. He was very much like Messi who a lot of people think is the best to play the game, so that’s not bad company.
‘As a nation we don’t necessarily sing about our heroes and our great players. He wasn’t politically correct and always said what he felt, and he was perhaps the first big name to come out and admit he was an alcoholic. Whatever the reason, Dad probably hasn’t got the recognition he deserved.
‘Personally, I think if he’d played in the final and scored, people would have viewed him as the player he was. That’s not a criticism of anything or anybody but, hopefully, the book will let people enjoy reading about his career and his life and make them go: actually, this guy was a phenomenal player of his era and one of the best we have ever produced.’
As Tottenham open their new stadium at White Hart Lane there is the perfect opportunity to create a permanent something in honour of Greaves before it is too late for him to realise what he meant to those who saw him play and passed on his nourished his legend through the generations.
It might offer a sense of closure for the great man and confirmation of his place in English football history.
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