Following the death of Jimmy Greaves on Sunday, we tell the story of the day he captained Chelsea for the first and only time, saying his farewells in the way he knew best...
‘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 knew Greaves’ value and was not afraid to sell, although ideally he would not transfer to a fellow English club, so when AC Milan came calling a deal was quickly struck.
The forward’s final game for the club was our final match of the 1960/61 season, at home to Nottingham Forest. Greaves was named as captain to honour his phenomenal efforts in a blue shirt (pictured top, left), and he signed off in the way only he knew how to, by finding the back of the net – four times! Chelsea won a thriller 4-3, and it was the perfect way for the Stamford Bridge hero to bow out.
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.
At White Hart Lane 64 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.