Jimmy Greaves is watching Jimmy Greaves play. “I can’t remember the last time I saw myself like this,” says the man who scored 357 times in top-flight English football — the all-time record. He has an iPad in his lap, on which he is watching the Pathé News highlights of the day when England beat the Rest of the World at Wembley, on 23 October 1963.
“Most people only remember the World Cup in ’66,” Greaves says, not taking his eyes off the newsreel. “That’s what everybody talks about. It all paled into insignificance when ’66 came along.” Three years before England won the World Cup in 1966, they played what was billed as the Match of the Century, and that was only partly hype. To mark its 100th anniversary, the Football Association had invited the Fédération Internationale de Football Associations to put together a team to provide the opposition in a centennial match. The FA versus FIFA was England vs the Rest of the World.
It was a match that England won 2–1, in which Greaves, then 23, scored the winner and provided the assist for the first goal (if assists were recorded in 1963). Now 73, he looks up from the match footage for a moment, with memories of the game swirling in his mind for the first time in half a century. “The thing I do recall the most was the goal I scored that the referee disallowed,” he adds. “Funny how your mind works like that.”
The Technicolor Pathé footage is exactly what you are imagining in your mind’s eye: the clipped tones of the commentary; the disjointed action that often stretches the definition of the word “highlights”; many shots of smiling, clapping fans, mostly men and boys in collar and tie. “The best forward on the field is Jimmy Greaves,” says the voice-over, “and after 53 minutes he leaves no doubt about it. We slowed the motion down to show a wonder move. He’s fouled but keeps going.”
“This is it,” says the Greaves of 2013, as the Greaves of 1963 has his heels clipped on the edge of the penalty area evading two tackles, rounds the keeper and smashes the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle with his left foot — before his celebrations are cut short. Greaves had given an accurate, blow-by-blow account of the disallowed goal before watching the newsreel. As he sees it in slow-mo, he gives a little wry exhalation through his nose.
“The ref said he blew, but I didn’t hear him and I don’t think anyone else did.” The referee was Bob Davidson of Scotland. “I don’t remember him personally at all — which probably means he was a good referee!”
A couple of minutes later, he offers no comment as he watches himself score the winner: a tap-in, three minutes from time, after the substitute keeper Milutin Šoškić of Yugoslavia fumbled the ball. The one that got away was far more memorable than the one that didn’t. England’s first goal was equally quotidian: a tap-in by Terry Paine, following up a saved Greaves shot.
“I’m in the mists of time here,” he says, handing over the iPad when the footage ends. “I haven’t kicked a ball for 40-odd years. I only know, through knowledge of my own history, that I have been a professional footballer. I worked in TV for 17 years, which was longer than my career in football. People come up to me and say, ‘Are you the footballer?’ and sometimes I say no. I am what people want me to be, I suppose.”
James Peter Greaves is the greatest goalscorer in English football history. Arthur Rowley and Dixie Dean scored more goals than him, but their totals include goals in lower division football. Greaves scored all of his 357 league goals in the old First Division, in 516 games over 14 seasons, playing for Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United between 1957 and 1971. He also scored nine goals in 14 games for AC Milan in 1961.
If you consider cup games for club and caps for England — 44 goals in 57 full internationals and 13 in 12 games for the Under-23 side, which was the forerunner of the current Under-21 team — then the final reckoning is 477 goals in 674 games. That’s an average of 0.71 goals per game.
Do a similar goals-per-senior-game calculation, and, before the start of the current football season, Lionel Messi’s average is 0.75 (350 goals in 466 games) and Cristiano Ronaldo gets 0.57 (365 in 635 games — in his four full seasons for Real Madrid, he scored 201 goals in 199 games). Football does not really have an accepted method of historical comparison because, so it is said, the game has changed so much — too much — for the juxtaposition of players from different generations to be valid. But comparing the ratio of goals per game in particular eras is no less fair and valid as comparing cricket’s bowling and batting averages, or comparing golf course records, or performance in the tennis Grand Slams over time.
In the case of Messi and Ronaldo, they are spoken of as footballers out of their time, scoring goals at freakishly high rates: their goalscoring efforts are somehow extra-special, on another level, one-offs. In England, Jimmy Greaves was performing similarly back in the Sixties.
“I tell youngsters who wonder how Jimmy played the game to watch Messi,” says the sports historian Norman Giller. “He is like a mirror reflection of Greavsie in action, the same low gravity and perfect balance, the close control, the sudden acceleration and ability to shoot with either foot.
“One major difference is Messi does not have to suffer the violent interruptions from ‘assassin’ defenders like Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, and ‘Anfield Iron’ Tommy Smith. Another difference: Messi works much harder than Jimmy, who could disappear from games for long passages and then suddenly pop up with a goal. You rarely mentioned work rate and Greavsie in the same sentence.”
Giller was the chief football writer of the Daily Express from 1964–’74, after which he left journalism to write scripts for This Is Your Life and the majority of the 94 books he has authored. He has every intention to write six more to make a round hundred; the 94th, Bobby Moore The Master, was published last year. When England played the Rest of the World, he was at the match on behalf of the Daily Herald, the newspaper that a year later would become The Sun, and five years after that be bought by Rupert Murdoch.
“The press box was like a cattery,” says Giller, who is 73, like Greaves, “with choruses of purring as each player in the Rest of the World team was named. For a young sportswriter like me, it was as if I was hearing a roll call of the footballing gods.”
The Rest of the World team that day was: Lev Yashin (Soviet Union); Djalma Santos (Brazil); Karl-Heinz Schnellinger (West Germany); Svatopluk Pluskal, Ján Popluhár, Josef Masopust (all Czechoslovakia); Raymond Kopa (France); Denis Law (Scotland); Alfredo Di Stéfano (Spain, formerly Argentina, captain); Eusébio (Portugal) and Francisco Gento (Spain). Five substitutes were announced as second-half replacements: Jim Baxter (Scotland); Milutin Šoškić (Yugoslavia); Uwe Seeler (West Germany); Luis Eyzaguirre (Chile) and Ferenc Puskás (Hungary).
The three Czechs had been runners-up to Brazil at the 1962 World Cup. At the time of England vs the Rest of the World, Masopust was the reigning European Footballer of the Year. “A Frank Lampard with bells on,” Giller says of the midfielder, “[he was] a box-to-box powerhouse who could win the ball with tigerish tackles and then use it with skill and accuracy.”
Yashin, commonly regarded as the greatest goalkeeper of all-time, succeeded Masopust as European Footballer of the Year, the only time a player in his position has won the award. His excellent display for the Rest of the World will have helped him win that 1963 award. Santos, who died in July of this year, won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Schnellinger was voted into the team of the World Cup in 1962, and would go on to play in two more tournaments (becoming one of the few players in history to play in four different World Cups). Kopa, Gento and Di Stéfano all won multiple European Cups for the great Real Madrid side of the late Fifties and early Sixties, with the latter still considered one of the greatest creative midfield players.
(Earlier this year, World Soccer magazine did a poll of national coaches and journalists to pick an all-time Greatest XI: Yashin and Di Stéfano were in it, as was the England left half they faced playing for the Rest of the World, a 22-year-old Bobby Moore, winning his 14th cap.)
Eusébio had led Benfica to the previous two European Cup finals, winning in 1962, while Denis Law scored for the Rest of the World. “[The Scotsman was] at his electric, darting best and thoroughly deserved his goal,” Giller says. “Surrounded by the best players in the world, Denis looked as good as any of them. What stands out in my memory, apart from Greaves vs Yashin in the first-half, is the performance of Denis Law.”
Of the subs, Puskás was 10 years past Hungary’s famous wins over England, but in the two seasons prior to this match had scored 71 goals in 79 games for Real Madrid. His career goals-to-games ratio, after scoring 700 in 709, would be 0.99.
The best team ever assembled?
“It needed just one more player to make that a statement beyond dispute,” Giller says. “Pelé was unable to make it, although invited [his club Santos declined Fifa’s invitation]. If there has been a better selection it can only have been in heaven. England winning underlined that Alf was on the right track and confidence in the team soared. Alf was so sure he was getting a winning combination together at this time that he made that out-of-character boast: ‘We will win the World Cup.’”
Jimmy Greaves is more down to earth. “It’s a dreadful thing, because looking at that,” he says, of his exploits of 1963, “I don’t get any sense of feeling or emotion about it. It’s just a heap of players, of which I’m one, I know that. It’s a dreadful thing to admit. I loved playing football, but I never really planned to be a footballer. I never watched football; I was never interested in football. I was useless at everything else to do with the game apart from playing it.”
He is in the green room of the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage, on the afternoon before an evening performance of his one-man show Jimmy Greaves Live. Parts of the walls, those visible behind posters for pantomimes and cover band shows, are indeed painted green. Greaves is mainly blue and brown: a button-down pale blue shirt, over cement-coloured slacks, and an excellent tan, which he says he got “from walking the dog every day” near his home in Suffolk. He walks the dog daily for exercise after suffering a stroke last year. He watches football on TV occasionally, and still refers to himself as a recovering alcoholic, despite having not had a drink since 1978.
“I don’t feel old at all,” he says, as a pile of white T-shirts, each one with a blue number eight on the back, steadily becomes signed Jimmy Greaves memorabilia. “I feel better now than I have done for a long time, mainly because I had a stroke and got away with it. You just think, Christ, suddenly you’ve found a new way of life. Like when you stop drinking.
“You look at the life you had, and to be honest, it doesn’t become meaningless, but you think, ‘That’s not going to help me over the next few years.’ But I’m not looking for meaning — that’s why I can’t find it!”
Greaves’ ability with a one-liner is given its full airing later on stage in Stevenage. The Gordon Craig Theatre has a capacity of 501. Tonight there are about 120 in the crowd, mainly middle-aged men, each paying £20. “This is the last one we’re going to do in a theatre,” says Greaves, a few minutes before he goes on. “The audience is dying — literally.”
The welcoming applause is warm, and Greaves explains that there is an addition to the programme: Ron “Chopper” Harris. “Dear old Ron”, one of Giller’s assassin defenders, will be doing a bit, too. Harris played 795 games for Chelsea, the club record (Frank Lampard is third on that list, and would need to play four more full seasons of 50 games each to top it). “What people don’t know about Ron is,” Greaves tells the audience, leaning on the microphone stand with the ease of a stand-up comic, which tonight he effectively is, “that he got a blue at Cambridge.” Pause. “If some silly bastard hadn’t have jogged his elbow, he would have got the pink and the black as well.” Laughter.
A camera phone goes off. “Who took a picture then? I don’t mind, but not too many for security reasons.” The good vibe in the room drops a couple of notches. “Social security reasons.” Long and loud laughter.
Seven minutes in: “I was speaking to a bloke before this for an interview, for Esquire magazine, and he said ‘What do you do now?’ and I said I was working for Sky last winter but I got fed up and quit. Bloody freezing putting those dishes up.” Laughter.
Answering that question beforehand, he had said: “I’d like to do a decent job again, but it’s not likely to happen at my age. It’s not going to happen, being realistic. I’m not going to go back into television, because I’m too old. I’m not going to go back into football, because I’m too old. I haven’t got the qualifications to go back into football anyway. So you live with what you’ve got. I’m in the calmest phase of my life, and I enjoy it.”
The show comprises a 40-minute stand-up set and 15 minutes of amusing stories from Harris before the interval, followed by 20 more minutes solo and a 20-minute joint Q&A with Harris. Greaves the raconteur is as natural as Greaves the footballer. His flow only stops twice. Early in the first half, glancing at his sheet of prompts — which is on a low table next to the microphone and also has a bottle of water on it — he sees the word “Gazza”.
“Dear old Gazza. He’s in trouble again. I usually tell a couple of gags about him but I don’t think it’s opportune.” In the audience, 120 heads nod in silent unison. “I wish him well. Things are pretty poor. I don’t know what he does. Something might turn him around, but it’s a difficult situation. So let’s move on.”
Then, about 10 minutes before the interval, he loses his train of thought for a moment telling a joke about being stretchered off after an injury. “Where was I?” he asks, and a man in the audience shouts “Stretcher!” Greaves, with a grin, mimics him by shouting the word in the same way, then immediately starts to retell a joke he told earlier about doing his show at an Alzheimer’s association dinner. Exactly the same wording, but this time with a vacant stare on his face. As a planned ad-lib, it’s very good; as a genuine one, it’s brilliant. It earns a round of applause, and the biggest laugh of the night.