Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves: Sublime striker, ace team man, funny guy and great survivor

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He begins his run in the opposition half, the ball never more than a foot in front of him. Not tall, but deceptively strong and with a low centre of gravity, he glides rather than ­gallops towards the ­opposition goal, effortlessly changing direction as defenders unsuccessfully try to close in for a tackle.

One final change of pace, one last touch and he is clear of them and the opposing keeper before passing the ball into an unguarded net.

Who is this world-class striker? Lionel Messi? Cristiano Ronaldo? Diego Maradona? Pele? No, he is one of our own, arguably the greatest English-born striker of all time: James Peter Greaves, who celebrates his 80th birthday on Thursday.

Between 1957, when, aged 17, he made his debut for Chelsea, and 1971, when he played his final game for West Ham, Greaves scored a staggering 422 goals in 602 games, many on mud heaps of pitches, with defenders attempting to tackle him from behind, sideways or any other direction.

In 379 games for Tottenham, he scored 266 times — still a club record — and, before that, 132 in 169 matches for Chelsea.

He won 57 caps for England, scoring 44 goals, endured rather than enjoyed a brief spell at AC Milan, scoring nine goals in 14 appearances and, finally back in east London, where he was born, netted 13 times for West Ham in 40 games.

For those who believe that elite football only truly began with the Premier League, just take a moment to absorb that record and then, if you are still sceptical, take a look at the great man in action on YouTube.

If scoring for fun wasn’t fulfilling enough, Greaves also co-drove a Ford Escort to sixth place in the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.

Always a social animal in an era

where hard drinking was not uncommon among professional players, Greaves won his own personal battle with ­alcoholism and then built a ­successful partnership with another former top-flight striker, Liverpool’s Ian St John, on their popular lunchtime TV show Saint and Greavsie.

His laconic sense of humour made him a popular companion, as well as a TV pundit, as Harry Redknapp recalled when a row with West Ham manager Ron Greenwood ended with Redknapp smashing a bottle of lager against the dressing-room door. “Hold on Harry,” said Greaves. “You could have picked an empty one!”

Or, when once asked for the most important piece of advice given to him by an England manager at half-time, Greaves replied: “In the early days of my career, when we played Scotland at Wembley, Alf Ramsey came in at half-time and said to me, ‘Put that fag out!’”

There is no doubt, though, that Greaves took his football deadly ­seriously, which is why he was ­devastated not to have played in England’s greatest-ever triumph, the 1966 World Cup Final.

He had played in the first two group matches, against Uruguay and ­Mexico, but in the third, against France, was raked down the shin in a tackle and sustained a gash which needed 14 stitches.

His replacement, Geoff Hurst, scored the winner against Argentina in the quarter-finals and went on to create history with his hat-trick in the final against West Germany.

“I danced around the pitch with ­everyone else, but even in this moment of triumph and great ­happiness, deep down I felt my ­sadness,” he said. “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.”

Tottenham's all-time leading scorers

Player Games Goals
1) Jimmy Greaves 379 266
2) Bobby Smith 317 208
3) Harry Kane 277 181
4) Martin Chivers 367 174
5) Cliff Jones 378 159

Greaves played just three more times for England after that, scoring one more international goal to put him fourth in the all-time scoring list behind Wayne Rooney, Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker.

Greaves suffered a severe stroke almost five years ago, but his footballing legacy remains undimmed despite the passing of the years and there is now a media campaign to see him knighted.

With typically self-effacing humour, he once talked about an England v ­Brazil match during the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where a stray dog stopped the game.

“No one could catch it,” he said.

“So I got down on all fours and ­managed to get hold of it. I picked it up and it peed down my shirt and we didn’t even have a change strip in those days!”

(Getty Images)

The Brazilian legend Garrincha, who was playing in the match, was so taken with the incident that he adopted the dog and, as Greaves would later remark: “After that, I was known as Garrincha’s dog catcher!”

Jimmy Greaves, ace dog catcher and striker supreme, very many happy returns for your 80th birthday on ­Thursday!

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