Tambling on Greaves: ‘Chelsea’s most natural goalscorer was like Messi’

Bobby Tambling was asked to take over from Jimmy Greaves as Chelsea’s main striker and in becoming our all-time leading scorer prior to Frank Lampard, he succeeded. Here Tambling recalls what he learned from watching Greaves in action, explains why he was so crucial to the Chelsea side of the time, and remembers when he was desperate to play in goal...

I got the best education a young forward could hope for by playing and training alongside one of the greatest goalscorers in the history of the game. Many people might look at the 1959/60 season as a disappointment for me, seeing as I only played four matches in September, but what they don’t realise is how much I was learning from Jimmy Greaves.

Chelsea at this time was now a mix of older players coming to the end of their playing days and raw, promising young players full of running but not a lot of experience. Greavsie seemed to be slap bang in the middle of this; still in his teens, he already had 50 goals in the First Division to his name. He was a carefree youngster with the natural ability and smarts to make any defender look like an amateur. What a talent he was, and here I was, a lad of 17, with the best seat in the house.

For those who never had the privilege of seeing Greavsie in action, I honestly don’t think it would be an unfair comparison to liken him to Lionel Messi. If he received the ball anywhere in the opposition half, you knew a goal could be just around the corner as he had that ability to weave his way through defenders as though they were statues. And, like Messi, you’d rarely see him put his foot through the ball. His shots were like an artist stroking his brush across the canvas, and he’d pick out the bottom corner with unerring precision. It was a joy to watch him.

'Myself, Frank and Kerry were natural goalscorers. But Jimmy was the best of the bunch'

photo of Bobby Tambling Bobby Tambling

I remember being sat up in the old North Stand for one of his best goals in a game against Wolves, who were one of the top sides at that time. The players looked like Subbuteo men, we were that far away, and Mickey Block hit it from the halfway line with his left foot, just drove it high to the edge of the box. Jimmy was facing the ball and as it came to him he volleyed it over his shoulder with his left foot. It was unbelievable. I just wish it had been done today, with all the different camera angles, because it was a goal you wanted to watch again and again. I’m pretty sure he scored five that day. That’s what he was capable of.

The only time I ever saw Jimmy shirk a challenge was in a game against Bolton once. They had a very northern side, if you catch my drift, and their back four were all massive, no-nonsense defenders who could kick the living daylights out of you. And the referee usually let them. Most of their surnames began with H, too: Hartle, Higgins and Hennin, with Edwards the odd man out, although I’m sure his middle name must have been Hardasnails.

Anyway, Ron Tindall and Jimmy were both taking a bit of a kicking from these guys, and when Reg Matthews, our goalkeeper, went down injured, you have never seen two centre-forwards run back to their own goal so quickly. The race was on to see who could get the goalkeeper’s jersey! Ron won – he was the designated keeper anyway – and I’ve never seen Jimmy look so disappointed.

Our team that season was a good, honest side, but it wasn’t so well organised. Football in those days was more man against man, 10 little battles taking place all over the field. The team which won most of these battles usually won the game – but if you had Greavsie then he could win it on his own. He’d win his battle four or five nil!

We relied heavily on Jimmy. With someone that good, you rest everything on him. You think, ‘Oh, Jimmy will score, just give him the ball.’ Let’s be honest, his record for Chelsea was unbelievable. He scored 100 league goals before he’d turned 21, which is a record that stands to this day. I won’t say he was like a machine because that makes him sound boring, but when it came to goalscoring I’ve never seen someone that reliable.

As I said, I only played four games that season, but watching Jimmy in action was worth so much more than that. Frank Lampard has written about it, and it’s true: any goalscorer has to have that desire within them to score goals. I think it’s a burning desire in you, I don’t think it can be coached. It’s what I call a natural goalscorer – where others react, we anticipate. The difference is split seconds but that’s all it takes. That’s the difference between a defender getting his toe to it and poking it clear or the centre-forward getting to it.

I put myself in that category, Frank’s certainly in there too, and Kerry Dixon is another. But Jimmy was the best of the bunch.

Bobby Tambling's words on Jimmy Greaves first appeared in his autobiography 'Goals In Life'

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