Jimmy Greaves: Trailblazer

Picture the scene. It’s the early 90s, and It’s A Royal Knockout is on TV. Lining up to take part before a disbelieving public’s eyes are an improbable selection of celebs including Cliff Richard, Jayne Seymour, Viv Richards, John Travolta, Meatloaf and Rodney Trotter. Paul Daniels is performing guest umpiring duties, and Princess Anne’s Red Team, clinical and lightning fast, is winning comfortably, looking as if they have been soaking other people with water cannons for their entire lives. Key to her side’s performance is ex England and Liverpool captain turned star of A Question Of Sport and Sporting Triangles Emlyn Hughes.

And, sadly, that’s how those of us of a certain age remember Emlyn. Curiosity drives us to YouTube rather than our own memory banks. It’s there that we can view clips of him holding various trophies aloft or trying to cajole England through the worst period in their history. In our minds, though, we see him giggling like a schoolboy, standing next to Princess Anne on TV, covered head to toe in orange gunge. In a Pringle sweater.

And so this little foray down memory lane leads us to another question: what do you think of when you read the name “Jimmy Greaves”?

Pic: That’s livin’ alright

Sure, we all know what we’re supposed to think of. We’re supposed to think of that phenomenal scoring rate for Tottenham. We’re supposed to think of the 44 goals in 57 appearances for England, a strike rate that will probably never be bettered by an English international footballer. We’re supposed to think of the young Greaves of Chelsea, the quickest player (at the time) to reach 100 league goals, a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday. We’re supposed to think of all these magnificent achievements, and more. You could even say we’re supposed to think of the darker times: the alcoholism played out on the back pages of the newspapers in the 70s, or the sad tale of injury during the 1966 World Cup that meant – though fit again – that he didn’t feature in the final. When it comes to Jimmy Greaves, there’s a lot to think about.

But just be honest for a moment: it’s likely that most people reading under the age of 50 never actually saw Greaves play football. If you’re from the UK, then when you read the name “Jimmy Greaves” you’re almost certain to instantly picture a rosy-cheeked, beaming TV presenter sitting next to Ian St John, chortling about “Chilly Jocko-land” and funny old games. His stint in front of the cameras with St John on Saint and Greavsie lasted around seven years, and the show was hugely successful for the first five of those, feeding a football-hungry audience that had been surviving on the odd live game to watch here and there but very little else.

Greaves, you could argue, was the face of football on TV in those days; the BBC’s contender for that title being Jimmy Hill – enjoyably full of opinions but sworn at by viewers up and down the land, and eventually cast aside when the networks went in search of a smoother, modern figure for the hot seat.

Despite being more interesting than most pundits, Hill wasn’t popular, but likeability was something Greaves, St John and Hughes had in spades; they were friendly, jokey and extremely cheesy. This gave them mainstream, prime-time appeal, even if time hasn’t been kind. Their appearances are looked on today as slightly naff and embarrassing, yet that shouldn’t really be the case; instead they were at the forefront of a new wave of ex-footballers that took advantage of increasing amounts of media work as the channels realised they needed to adapt and satisfy the nation’s hunger for football.

Back in the 1980s, of course, the BBC and ITV were not the sophisticated broadcasters of football that enrich our lives so much today. Twenty five years ago, for example, the very idea of watching Andy Townsend explain from the inside of a specially-built Tactics Truck that someone ‘has got to be looking at doing better and hitting the target there’ (for his money) was the stuff of a madman’s dreams. Much as it still is today (for my money). Retired players, of course, found themselves either running pubs or sitting in them. A few, like St John, made the break into TV as studio guests, but it wasn’t until the mid ’80s – and the appearance of shows like Saint and Greavsie - that things really started to change. Although you could criticise both presenters for being the first to dumb down football discussion on TV, their work still paved the way for modern shows like Football Focus, Soccer Saturday, Soccer AM and Goals On Sunday. Ironically it was the loss of broadcasting rights to Sky in 1992 that caused Saint and Greavsie to be cancelled.

Pic: The kind of incisive sporting coverage that paved the way for much of Sky Sports’ output.

Despite being well-known today for their TV work, Greaves and Hill were both blazing trails many years before the media came calling, though. As well as the goalscoring feats, Greaves was also one of the first Englishmen to play in Serie A (heading up a list that includes illustrious names like Franz Carr and Jay Bothroyd) when he signed for AC Milan in the early ’60s. His time at the San Siro was unhappy, and he managed only 12 games for the rossoneri before moving back home, but it remains as fascinating a part of his life as his reinvention as a popular presenter.

Milan came knocking on Chelsea’s door in 1961 after Greaves had bagged 132 goals in 169 games. It was a strange move for a player so young; hardly any footballers moved abroad back then, and Greaves had barely been out of London except to play away matches, but Milan were offering a massive sum: £80,000.

At the time, footballers were in a lengthy and bitter fight to improve their wages. Led by Hill, the Players Union felt that the profession should be better paid (a maximum wage cap of £20 per week was in force) and was threatening to strike. The strike, however, was called off, and after Chelsea said ‘si signor’ to Milan, an impatient Greaves took the first of his bold career moves, presumably swayed by the large amounts of Lira that would be coming his way. Almost as soon as the transfer was concluded, Hill’s Union was successful and the wage cap in the English game was removed.

From day one Greaves was not happy in Italy. He was signed by manager Giuseppe Viani, but he suffered a heart attack before the Londoner arrived, and was replaced by Nereo Rocco. Although Viani stayed on as sporting director, Rocco was the man to bring catenaccio to the club, and along with his defensive system came a cynical approach that even saw the coach issue the instructions ‘kick anything that moves; if it’s the ball, then so much the better’ before one game.

Greaves has referred to his manager as ‘a tyrant’ in the press, and stated: ‘Rocco was said to be anti-English. I don’t know about that but he was certainly anti-me!’

Although he only lasted five months, he quickly realised that Serie A was the most competitive league in the world at the time. Player’s diets were far more advanced, and preparation for matches was strictly regimented. At Milan, sex and alcohol were both banned for three days before a match, making it even harder for Greaves to settle. He admitted afterwards he should have gone to Italy at the end of his career, rather than the beginning.

“There were a few British players in Italy that season, but with the maximum wage being abolished in England, most didn’t last long. Denis Law was with Torino, while I was in Milan, and we once bumped into each other on a train. Neither of us liked the boot-camp mentality at Italian clubs, where you had to go away for half the week, staying in hotels or compounds.

Rocco once locked me into my room, so I escaped out of a window, across a ledge, in a hallway window and out to freedom via the main reception.”

Rocco, frustrated at the lack of effort from Greaves, soon wanted to get rid of the striker. His system needed a high work rate and scoring goals was simply not enough. “Those two [Greaves and Jose Altafini, a Brazilian forward],” said Rocco “need to understand that during a football match you get kicked, not just well paid.”

Tottenham came in for Greaves in November 1961, with a bid of £99,999 (then manager Bill Nicholson chose the fee so that Greaves did not suffer the pressure of becoming the first £100,000 player), and the rest is well-documented history.

Pic: A last ditch attempt by Hill to save his career with a stint as Pete Waterman’s co-presenter on The Hitman And Her was far from successful.

Those few faces that appeared on TV in the 80s have largely disappeared now. Emlyn Hughes tragically died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 57. Ian St John still does some media work but can usually be spotted in the main stands of Anfield and Prenton Park watching Liverpool and Tranmere Rovers, and poor old Jimmy Hill was finally put out to pasture by Sky in 2007 after being usurped by his co-presenter on Sunday Supplement, Brian Woolnough.

Jimmy Greaves largely sticks to the after-dinner circuit these days, but occasionally appears on TV. Setanta briefly brought back Saint and Greavsie for their 2009 FA Cup Final coverage, but perhaps his most telling appearance was a half time interview during the England v Andorra game in June 2009. He had just received a belated World Cup winners medal, and when asked to give his opinion on the first half, he joked that he didn’t have a clue who Andorra were. ‘I’ve never seen such a bad team in my life. I mean that’ said Greaves, before being quickly ushered away from the camera.

In a Daily Mail interview Greaves recalls the incident: ‘We were sitting in the stands, all the members of the 1966 squad, and we were looking at each other as the game is going on and you know everybody is thinking, “Why didn’t we get to play teams like this?”. We couldn’t believe what we were watching. So I said what we all thought. The TV people weren’t happy. They didn’t say it, but I could tell.’

‘When I worked in television you didn’t have to wear rose-coloured glasses at the game. You watch a match now, at half-time a bloke comes on, flashes his teeth and tells you it’s fabulous. And I’m thinking, “No, mate, it was crap”. So, bing, that gets turned over, you watch something else for 15 minutes waiting for the second half to start, get interested in that programme, and never go back to the match. Well I do, anyway.’

Same here, Greavsie. Maybe things haven’t progressed so well, after all.

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