Chelsea Football Club mourns the loss of a truly remarkable player and one of our own. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Jimmy Greaves’s family and friends at this time of their sad loss.
Those who witnessed Greaves effortlessly breeze through a defence with the ball at his feet, before passing it beyond the goalkeeper and into the back of the net, universally acclaim him as the finest goalscorer to play for Chelsea FC. They normally go further too, and describe the east Londoner as the best finisher English football has ever seen.
The statistics reinforce the opinions, conferring true legend status on an England international who made his name at Stamford Bridge.
Greaves was signed by Chelsea as a junior in 1956. One Saturday midway through Chelsea’s first league championship-winning season, the club’s legendary London scout Jimmy Thompson had telephoned Stamford Bridge to find out the result. Manager Ted Drake informed him it was a loss, but an unforgettable one, with the Blues going down 6-5 to Manchester United.
Thompson, a large-than-life cockney with a remarkable record for uncovering future stars, many from the east side of the capital city, reassured the manager he may just have seen one of the best young footballers ever. The ‘player of a lifetime’ said the bowler-hatted former stevedore. He had just watched Jimmy Greaves.
In a spectacular first full season with the Chelsea Juniors the two-footed Greaves netted a record 114 goals. ‘What a dribbler,’ marvelled Thompson, a Chelsea centre-forward himself in the 1920s. ‘What an individualist. He plays it as we played it years ago: forward – not across the park.’
‘We used to have first team versus reserves,’ recalled Frank Blunstone, well-established as a star of the Chelsea era. ‘This particular Tuesday morning we were short of players – two or three had got injured on the Saturday. So they sent for two players and these two kids turned up – 16, 16½, that particular age group. We didn’t know them and they went in the reserves.
‘We started the game and after about 20 minutes, this kid picked the ball up, started off on a run. And at that time, Albert Tennant was the first team coach and he used to have one of those megaphones on the touchline, shouting instructions, and he’s shouted “Get rid of it!” and this kid went on and beat another one. “For Christ’s sake, get rid of it!” And he went on and beat another one, and drew Reg Matthews out, who was an England goalkeeper, dipped his shoulder, and Reg went that way and he rolled it in the far corner of the net.
‘He jogs back to the halfway line and shouts out to Albert Tennant: “Albert, you didn’t tell me when.” Do you know who that was? Jimmy Greaves, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll tell you what, we knew him after that.’ Blunstone played alongside the youngster for two years, ‘and I still don’t know whether he was left- or right-footed.
‘People say to me was he left-footed and I say I don’t know: he could go either way. If you showed him the right, he’d go to the right, if you showed him the left, he’d go that way.’
News of the prodigy soon spread further afield and it was little wonder Greaves’s debut in the senior team was one of the most keenly anticipated ever. He turned professional in the summer of 1957 and was immediately selected for the big opening-day game. He started as he was to go on, scoring the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. Greaves was just 17 and had been marked that afternoon by Tottenham legend and future Chelsea manager Danny Blanchflower.
‘It was the greatest show I have ever seen from a young player on his league debut,’ said Blanchflower afterwards. ‘The boy is a natural. He is the greatest youngster I have ever played against.’
Three more goals followed in the next two games before Drake briefly withdrew the emerging star from the limelight for a month and a half mid-season. He returned on Christmas Day and promptly subjected Portsmouth to his first hat-trick, in fact scoring four in a 7-4 victory.
His debut season total was 22 goals, and 37 more followed the next campaign, 1958/59, despite the Blues finishing in 14th position. The 32 scored in the league was the joint highest that season with Bobby Smith of Spurs and a new Chelsea record.
By now all football had grown accustomed to the boy of slight build, but astonishing balance and acceleration, showing time and time again an unerring sense for where to find space and how to put the ball past a goalkeeper. His finishing style was diverse and though he was adept at being in the right place for a tap-in, he could equally pick the ball up midway inside the opposition half and ghost past the whole defence before inevitably scoring.
His most regular partner in attack was Ron Tindall who contributed 16 goals to their combined total of 59 in 1960/61, which remains a Chelsea record for a strike partnership.
Indeed, Greaves’s extraordinary goalscoring feats at Chelsea were all the more special because he achieved them in a team that struggled for consistency and defensive solidity. Gone was the mature side that had won the league in 1955 and ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, as they had been nicknamed, were inexperienced and lacked the outstanding quality of the next generation Chelsea team that would soon follow it.
Greaves always spoke of his Chelsea days as great fun, and his infectious humour and personality would have played a big part in that. However he took his football seriously and never did his strike-rate waver. At times it seemed as if the rest of the team simply waited for the youngster to score more than they were conceding on any particular day.
It was largely thanks to his goals that the Blues steered clear of relegation worries in the final few seasons of Drake’s tenure. In 1959/60, Greaves’s third season as a professional, we finished 18th, three points above the relegation zone, yet the striker still conjured up 30 goals.
Greaves saved the best for last, scoring a remarkable 43 goals in what was to be his final season in west London. That haul, with 41 netted in the league, is to this day a club record. It included six of his total of 13 Chelsea hat-tricks, another club best.
He scored five in a game on three occasions (one of those hauls against Wolves more or less ending the career of iconic England defender Billy Wright) and four another three times. His treble against Manchester City in November 1960 took him to 100 league goals at 20 years and 290 days old. This remains a league record.
Frailties at the club persisted, though. ‘If you’d have taken some of the managers of the day, like Bill Shankley, who was just up-and-coming, or people like Harry Catterick at Everton, or Harry Potts at Burnley, they probably would have done very well with that Chelsea squad,’ Greaves once suggested.
‘We had the England goalkeeper, Reg Matthews, and followed him by the other one, Peter Bonetti; Peter Sillett was an outstanding player; “Schnoz” – John Sillett – could do a good job; Peter Brabrook was as quick as anyone in the country; Les Allen, Barry Bridges, Frankie Blunstone, and we’d nearly all come through the youth scheme. Chelsea then, had they had the guidance of somebody like a Bill Nicholson, certainly could have actually been one of the top sides in the country.’
However, an embarrassing cup exit to Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra in January 1961 only strengthened the feeling we were a long way from silverware. Greaves signalled his intention to leave SW6 and the board was happy to cash in on their prize asset, though not to a fellow First Division club.
For his part Greaves was frustrated with the cap imposed on players’ salaries. ‘I used to drive a 1937 Standard 8,’ he later recalled, ‘and it would always break down. I had a ball of string in the boot. Between the accelerator pedal and the actual cable, I never had the actual cable: I used to tie it up with string. And it used to go every so often and we used to go out and change the string.
‘But I used to drive Peter and John Sillett, Peter Brabrook, Ronnie Tindall, to training. I was the only one who had a car. People like Ken Shellito will tell you: if I ever went over a puddle, people had to lift up their feet.’
A lucrative offer for club and player from the feted AC Milan seemed perfect. Greaves, by his own admission was initially interested in a move to Italy but then changed his mind. The salary cap was removed in England but it was too late. The agreement had been signed. Milan paid £80,000 for his services.
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 at the Bridge and before his move to Milan, Greaves was appointed captain for the day.
Inevitably he celebrated the occasion in style, fittingly netting all our goals in a dramatic 4-3 victory. He was carried off the pitch ‘like I were the FA Cup’, as he put it.
In total, Greaves notched 124 league goals in 157 top-flight appearances for Chelsea. He netted eight more in cup competitions giving an overall 132 goals from 169 games. It is the seventh highest total in our history. West London supporters had never seen a striker quite like him and the club was relegated the season after he left.
Greaves endured an unhappy six months in Milan, and soon wanted to return to Chelsea, eventually signing for Tottenham only because the Stamford Bridge board wished to avoid a bidding war for their former star.
At Spurs Greaves continued to break records and on the international stage, he was called up to England Under-23s in September 1957, soon after his Chelsea debut, and scored on his debut, a career trademark. By the end of his second season he was a full international and he scored 16 England goals in 15 games while a Chelsea player.
Unsurprisingly Greaves’s international career statistics also make remarkable reading – 44 scored in 57 games – yet it is for a match he didn’t play that his England career is often most remembered, the 1966 World Cup final when he was not selected having dropped out the side injured earlier in the tournament. Instead it was Geoff Hurst who scored a hat-trick at Wembley.
West Ham was his final league club, a less illustrious time, but having overcome personal problems, Greaves re-emerged in the 1980s as a popular TV personality and newspaper columnist. He was awarded an MBE last year.
He was only an occasional visitor to his former clubs after his playing days ended but was the on-pitch guest at half-time in a game at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2011, when he received a great reception from the crowd. Everybody loves a goalscorer, and no one merited that love more than Greaves.
‘My affection for the club has never been a secret,’ Greaves said in 1995, while reminiscing about his time on the Fulham Road. ‘It’s probably the greatest name in the world: Chelsea. You think about it. What does it conjure up? It conjures up the best part of the biggest city in the world. Chelsea! It’s magical. And they’ve never lived up to it, but I hope they do. I’m a great Chelsea fan, as you probably know. And I’d love to see it all happen.’
Well, it has all happened since those words, but most of those who watched him grace the Stamford Bridge turf would still say Jimmy Greaves is their special one.
There will be a minute's applause before today's Tottenham vs Chelsea game and the players will wear black armbands. There will also be a tribute and armbands at our next home game, on Wednesday.