At my age I’m fairly certain of what’s important in life. If I haven’t figured it out by now, frankly it’s too late. But even for someone as jaundiced and careworn as I, there are still moments when those priorities become crystal clear. Last Thursday, when my train halted in Kent as St Pancras was evacuated for a bomb scare, my groan turned heads in the carriage. If it had been work, an interview, a woman even, I would have remained stoically philosophical. But this, this meant something, because I was on my way to meet Jimmy Greaves.
I don’t do heroes. I admire certain people for who they are and what they do but in the end they are all flawed, just like you and me, and I’m no hero. But Jimmy Greaves was the closest I have ever come to idolising a fellow human being. As an impressionable football mad only-child growing up in the late sixties, Greaves was the biggest star of many in that Tottenham team. Kids aren’t fussed about records, they have no perspective of history, so I didn’t care that he was our best ever scorer. What mattered was, Greaves delivered. He always scored, or so it seemed. The ball in the box, is he on the end of it, yes and must be a goal.
More than this, he did so with style, and even this sheltered boychick knew it, just by looking. Greaves was different, and ever since I’ve searched for flair, the distinctive individual. It’s hard trying to explain his football to those who never saw him. Goodness knows I’ve tried with my kids, but there is no one in the modern game to say even, ‘Jim was a bit like him’. Was he fast? Not a sprinter, but he outpaced defenders with the ball at his feet, gliding over the turf with perfect balance, the ball two feet in front of him. Was he quick in the box? Apparently not, but he got to the ball first, so often. Powerful? Not really, but the ball sped into the net, passed rather than belted. In these days of inflated superlatives, Greaves was unique and remains so. His was a frail, almost shambling figure who was transformed when the ball was at his feet.
I never dreamt for a moment that I would ever have 15 minutes on my own with the great man, but if it had crossed my mind, the setting would not have been as surreal as the back upstairs table at Burger King, Leicester Square. I shake hands with the PR guy (Jim’s flogging World Cup burgers), glance around and there in the corner, lost amidst the indifference of tourists and office workers gulping down a bite or two before moving on to something better, is a small, rotund man, healthily tanned, chatting quietly into a microphone. One of the game’s greatest goalscorers sits anonymous, surrounded by discarded burger wrappers and plastic carriers.
As he greets us there’s a touch of weariness around the eyes. It’s been a long day already, we are the last in line, two packed into a single slot as time has almost run out, and there’s a car waiting for a radio interview so it’s not over. Yet there is genuine warmth in his firm handshake and a willingness in his tone to talk football. “Ok here we go chaps, how are you, all right? Start, don’t worry.” A legend takes the trouble to make me feel relaxed.
First up, some punditry, and he’s refreshingly honest. Asked how England will get on in the World Cup, he replies cheerfully, “No idea.” He elaborates with care.
“We’re a fair side, don’t think we are a great side. There are 10 teams as good as us, a lot depends on how the competition goes. With a bit of luck and staying injury free, who knows. I’m sure Capello would like to start with the team he feels can win it and finish with that same team.”
I wondered about his appetite for the game these days. Does he still watch a lot of football?
“I don’t watch a tremendous amount of football”, he admits, kindly lining up the recorder closer to him to ensure nothing is missed. “These days mostly the top teams, obviously the World Cup. Haven’t thought about it really, it starts tomorrow and we’ll start watching it. No point in getting excited until it starts. England have as good or bad a chance as anyone else.”
Still on the World Cup, what’s his solution to one of our biggest conundrums, who partners Rooney up front? His response is characteristically forthright.
“Crouch. Don’t see how anybody could be anti with his goalscoring record. We’re talking about a guy who has a great goals ratio. Surely front runners are there to score goals. There’s talk of Heskey making Rooney a better player, well, I don’t really hold with that. Otherwise Alex Ferguson would have bought Heskey a couple of years ago.”
He paused. “It’s every player’s responsibility to do his best and Rooney would know that, whoever he plays with. Let’s wait and see.”
Some of my correspondents last season would not be so certain of Crouch’s abilities, but Jimmy was having none of that.
“Need more? Need more what? He’s scored plenty, more than Rooney. Play him, it’s that simple.”
Time to talk Tottenham. I wondered what he thought of the current team.
“Yeah, Harry’s got a good team there. I don’t know what he’s got in terms of money to spend but they’ll have a good season next year. I can see a good future for Tottenham.” He chuckled, “it’s the first time you’ve been able to say that for a while.”
Regarding any of the modern players who stood out, he was less certain. Eventually he said, “I like the Croats he’s got, they are good players and reliable.”
Jim’s an engaging storyteller and appears more relaxed with reminiscing. He needs little prompting to warm to his subject, in this case Harry’s credentials as a young manager. They played together for a while at West Ham – was Harry always cut out for the comfy heated touchline seat?
“No not at all. The first time was when I was doing a job down in Oxford and I met up with Bobby Moore. Harry was there, I said ‘how are you mate?’ He said he was helping Bobby. What are you doing in non-league, where do you want to go? He said, ‘I want to be a manager, you’ve got to start somewhere’. He started there and has gone from strength to strength.”
Up and running now, there’s no stopping him.
“Bob didn’t have a clue really. With respect, Bobby was a world class footballer and suddenly trying to buy players and know the level of non-league football. Barry Fry, he knew every name of every footballer and every non-league club in the country because that’s where he was.”
Not thought about being a manager yourself, Jim?
“No, never fancied being a manager because I didn’t see a career in football after I retired. If I’d known that you could get millions for being absolutely crap and getting the sack, I’d have been in like a shot.”
Greaves was a fine striker but who was the man he most enjoyed playing with? He had no hesitation.
“Alan Gilzean. I had a great partnership with Bobby Smith. When I first joined Tottenham, Les Allen was centre forward because Bobby got injured. People think I took his place for a while but I didn’t. Les went to centre forward. I had a good relationship with Bobby Smith because we played for England together. Gilly was absolutely phenomenal. We had a great relationship, we could read each other’s minds. Yes, Alan without a doubt, phenomenal touch.”
I expressed my anxieties for Gilly, the subject of a forthcoming book, ‘In Search of Alan Gilzean’, who has largely disappeared from view amidst concerns for his health.
“I know where Gilly lives,” he scoffs. “He’s fine. He can’t understand what the fuss is all about.” He warms to his theme. “I was chatting to Steve Perryman about 3 or 4 weeks ago. Steve sees him quite regularly. He’s happy, just doesn’t want to get involved in anything. He can’t understand this rumour about being a recluse.” So there you are.
I squeeze in a quick question about then and now. Does he envy the money of the modern players?
“At the end of the day I was a professional footballer. It would be nice to be on the wages that they’re on but I’ve got to work for Burger King instead!”
As the PR ushers him away, Jimmy remains a true gent. “Thank you, there you go chaps. Sorry we didn’t have longer really.” You and me both, Jim.
He makes time to sign two programmes for me, the first of the game in 1969 against Newcastle where I saw him run 50 yards to score, the second a photo of the goal in the programme of the next home game. No chance for me to ask if it was his favourite, or indeed anything much about his time at Spurs, but despite the urgings of his PR, he took the time to sign it carefully, a full signature rather than an impatient scribble. I assured him that they will not appear on ebay. “I’ve heard that one before” and with another chuckle he looked up and was gone.
On the way out my son pointed to a Chelsea fan in the burger queue, late teens or early twenties, standing near a undignified cardboard cutout of Jimmy grinning and holding the sponsor’s product. We couldn’t resist. ‘Jimmy Greaves. He’s upstairs! Greavesy!’
The guy looked puzzled, as if he was trying to figure out the words of a foreign language. He then turned away and he and his mates shook their heads in sadness. Greaves is one of their finest goalscorers too, but they’ve never heard of him.
It was a privilege to meet him, for which I’m eternally grateful, my only regret being that I didn’t have the full time with him, one to one. Not because I was denied the opportunity to obtain a better interview or ask a searching question, but simply because talking with Jimmy Greaves is an absolute pleasure. Maybe heroes don’t disappoint after all.
I didn’t have the chance to ask Jimmy about the one matter that fellow Spurs fans seemed most concerned about, his omission from the Spurs Hall of Fame. He’s not been honoured, whereas Freund has. Peter from Spurs Odyssey did ask him about it. Full details in his superb piece (link below), but the gist of it is that he won’t do the dinner. He believes that players should be honoured for their achievements on the pitch, enigmatically adding that this did not seem to be the case.
Thanks to Jack Clothier at Cow PR and to Burger King http://whopperlegend.com/ where you can watch a video and enter a competition to watch the World Cup Final with Jimmy Greaves.
Thanks to the lovely Dan at the excellent Tottenham Blog, link in the sidebar. For more, Peter Garnett on the Spurs Odyssey site is required reading http://www.spursodyssey.com/0910/pjmetjg.html