The Soccer Icon From London’s East End: Jimmy Greaves (1940 -2021)

Last Sunday was a sad day for football/soccer and especially English football with news of the passing away of England, Spurs, Chelsea and West Ham (and briefly AC Milan) icon, Jimmy Greaves. Born in Manor Park in London’s East End, Greaves was a member of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad having been the regular striker in the build up to the tournament and the first three group matches against Uruguay, Mexico and France.

He was slightly injured for the quarter final against Argentina when he was replaced by Geoff Hurst who scored the winning goal. Hurst kept his place thereafter with Greaves relegated to the bench not as a substitute, as there were no substitutes those days, but as a spectator close to his teammates battling it out across the line. His dream of scoring a winner in a World Cup final was shattered when he was told by manager Sir Alf Ramsey that, though fully fit, he would not be playing in the final. He probably fell victim to Ramsey’s mistrust of players with great talent not allied with a willingness to graft and cover blades of grass. Geoff Hurst went on to score a hat-trick and Greaves could be seen in footage from the final in a suit running onto the pitch at the end to congratulate his colleagues. It is said that he was nowhere to be seen afterwards. Though obviously devastated at being left out, he did not seem to bear any grudges.

He had started his career as a prolific scorer at Stamford Bridge (home of Chelsea – current Champions League winners) and had his best years at Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs). How ironic that he was to pass away at 81 on the day his two clubs, Spurs and Chelsea, met in an English Premier League match. With Spurs, he spearheaded the first British team to European glory, winning the European Cup Winners Cup smashing Atletico Madrid (the holders) 5-1 in the final in Rotterdam.

That final, which somehow made up for the disappointment of bowing out to Portuguese holders, Benfica in the European Cup semis a year earlier in controversial circumstances, saw Greaves score twice, including the opener. There was also a sour note in that one of the scorers that night in Rotterdam was Scotsman, John White who was to die tragically a year later after having been struck down by lightening on a golf course. The Rotterdam final will be remembered for a touch of Irish blarney by Spurs’ Danny Blanchflower in the dressing room before kick-off. Rather than be cowered by Bill Nicholson’s (manager) highlighting the strengths of the Atletico Madrid team, the Northern Irish stalwart took over and started highlighting the strengths of his own team, including the presence at centre forward of Greaves who had joined Spurs after a brief spell in Italy with AC Milan. There he proved himself as a technically gifted goal scorer scoring nine goals in only a few matches, no mean feat against teams employing a cactus-walled defence. It is well known that he did not get along with manager Nereo Rocco and hated the ‘retiro’ system : players kept in isolation in preparation for the match. It is rumoured that he had his knuckles rapped for meeting and sharing a drink with fellow England international, Gerry Hitchens of Milan’s hated rivals Internazionale.

Greaves left Milan after ten to twelve games and joined Spurs, the English League and FA Cup ‘double’ winners, with whom he was to win two FA Cups, the second in 1967, less than a year after England’s World Cup win. It took several years for Spurs to win its second European trophy (the 1972 UEFA Cup). Well before then Greaves was involved in a swap deal with England World Cup hero, Martin Peters heading in the opposite direction.

Greaves, born in London’s East End, therefore joined West Ham United and forged a striking partnership ironically with Geoff Hurst, the man who took his England place. His career petered out at West Ham and he disappeared from top class football save for a testimonial at White Hart Lane, in October 1972, against crack Dutch club side, Feyenoord Rotterdam, in which he scored in a flattering 2-1 win.

As football aficionado and English political theorist (author of Gramsci’s Marxism), Nigel M. Greaves, no relation to the Spurs icon, reminded me: “The Greaves era was one in which the clubs held all the power and the players were on capped wages. Jim campaigned to get this changed along with Jimmy Hill (former professional footballer and popular TV pundit), and to start a players’ union.” Greaves had all the attributes of a working class hero when English football was truly a working class sport, with aspects of proletarian life shining through the North London area in and around Seven Sisters Road separating the Spurs territory from the ‘invaded’ one of their arch-rivals, Arsenal (they were originally at Woolwich) at my ancestral home (on my father’s side), Islington. The same can be said of the area surrounding Greaves’ last top class side, West Ham United from the East End. These are a far cry from the quite posh area surrounding his first club-side Chelsea and the glittering Kings Road.

And yet as Jimmy’s academic namesake, Nigel Greaves points out “Actually, ideologically, Jim, as with many working class people at the time, got caught up in Thatcher’s populism somewhat. Like a lot of proletarians, he was concerned to put food on the table first but also to transcend the class position, and Thatcher gave the illusion this was possible and people bought into it. He had a sort of cut-through-the-crap style with the media but always with a twinkle in the eye, and he had a cheeky sense of humour. But despite the popular touch he wasn’t a socialist by any reckoning.”

The Thatcher years marked the time of his ‘second public life’, if you will, as a popular TV pundit in the eighties. Alcohol, on his own admission, had earlier taken over his life, though after fighting against this dependency, thanks also to AA, he reinvented himself as a fun-generating and affable TV pundit alongside former Liverpool star, Ian St John in the ‘Saint and Greavsie’ weekly sports show.

Both would alas pass away this year. Greaves will be remembered for his dry humour and rather laid back style, and later for an almost phlegmatic voice when doing commentary alongside Brian Moore during the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup final between Manchester United and Barcelona inside Rotterdam’s De Kuyp Stadium, scene of his only European triumph at club level, the 1963 win with Spurs.

There seems to be a strong connection between English club triumphs (and one defeat) in European finals and the Feyenoord stadium in Rotterdam! Spurs, Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester United all triumphed there, mainly in the European Cup Winners Cup while Aston Villa did so in the ‘big one’ the European Cup in 1982. In 1974, meanwhile, Spurs lost the second leg and overall tie of a UEFA Cup final to Feyenoord there; they were then still under Greaves’ manager, Bill Nicholson.

One ought to remark that the 1963 triumph over Atletico, soon followed by Peters, Moore and Hurst’s West Ham United winning the same competition at Wembley, paved the way for numerous English club successes in Europe. They were followed by the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton and Manchester United in the same competition. There were several others in the Fairs Cup-UEFA Cup-Europa League (one replacing the other) and of course the infinitely more prestigious wins by Manchester United (thrice) Liverpool (six times) Nottingham Forest (twice), Aston Villa (once) and Chelsea (twice) in the ‘cup with the big ears’ (the European Cup or Champions League as it became known in 1993). All these make England the second most successful nation overall, in European club football, after Spain.

It all started with Greavsie and Spurs way back in the early sixties. He will be sorely missed by many a genuine football/soccer fan.


Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).