On the day two of his former clubs meet, the latest in our series on past Chelsea captains looks back at Jimmy Greaves’ time at the club and the memorable afternoon he skippered the Blues…
‘They carried me off like I were the FA Cup.’
In 1961, the Italian Football Association lifted a ban that forbid its teams signing foreign footballers. Almost immediately some of Serie A’s giants turned an interested eye in the direction of England, where players’ earning potential was at that point still capped by the maximum footballers’ wage - £20 a week.
Jimmy Greaves was Chelsea’s star man and our chairman Joe Mears knew he was hot property. The youngest man to score 100 league goals, a record that stands to this day, Greaves’s extraordinary goalscoring touch never wavered from the moment he marked his first team debut with an equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Tottenham in August 1957. His performance that day left quite an impression on the esteemed journalist Charles Buchan, writing for the News Chronicle.
‘Only 17 years old, Greaves showed the ball control, confidence and positional strength of a seasoned campaigner. It was the finest first-ever League game I have seen from any youngster.’
As consistent as Greaves was in front of goal, the defence behind him struggled to keep opponents at bay, ruining any chance we had of lifting silverware. In his autobiography Greaves singles out a meek FA Cup exit at home to Fourth Division Crewe in January 1961 as particularly jarring, helping intensify his desire to move away from SW6.
Mears was happy to cash in on his prize asset but unwilling to sell to a rival First Division club. An offer from the feted AC Milan seemed perfect, then, and while Greaves, by his own admission initially interested in a move to Italy, then changed his mind, it was too late. The contract had been signed. Milan paid £80,000 for his services, with Greaves receiving a signing-on fee of £15,000.
Our final match of that 1960/61 season was at home to Nottingham Forest and to acknowledge the legendary contribution he made during his time in west London and before his move to Milan, Greaves was appointed captain for the day (pictured top, left). Inevitably he celebrated the occasion in style, fittingly netting all our goals in a dramatic 4-3 victory at the Bridge.
That was his 13th Chelsea hat-trick – and his sixth of that season alone - and after the game he was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of adoring supporters, pictured below.
His time at the club ended fractiously when he refused to travel on a post-season tour of Israel, incurring a 14-day ban that also prevented him representing England in that time. An unhappy six months in Milan followed and he soon wanted to return to Chelsea, though eventually signing for Tottenham because the Stamford Bridge board did not want to participate in a bidding war for their former star.
At Spurs Greaves continued to break records and to this day no player has scored more than him in Europe’s top five leagues - his total of 366 goals in England and Italy is one better than the figure recorded by Gerd Muller in the Bundesliga. At Chelsea he notched 124 league goals in 157 top-flight appearances, with eight more netted in cup competitions. These remarkable figures tell their own story.
At White Hart Lane 57 years ago Greaves stepped on the field as a Chelsea player for the first time, against a team he would later represent for over eight years. After the match the Times newspaper observed of the 17-year-old prodigy that ‘Greaves may have a rich future’. Little did they know just how rich it would be.