Great Britain

Booze destroyed some of the best but teetotal muddy legend Greavsie should be celebrated after turning 80

THERE is no doubt Jimmy Greaves should be honoured after reaching his 80th birthday on Thursday.

But regardless his name is already safe in the memory of anyone who saw him play in the 14 years of his football career or on film over the next 40.

He was fabulous. With 357 goals in the top flight and 44 more for England, the only sweeter goalscorer in the First Division was arguably George Best but in nothing like the quantity.

I’m not old enough to have seen Greaves play for Chelsea, Spurs or even West Ham.

But friends and relations who did take a deep breath and try to find words to describe his deadly instincts in front of goal.

So I watched Tuesday night’s BT Sport film as it fleetingly captured the ravishing ballet of Greaves on the move through thickets of defenders with the seemingly inevitable result.

It came as a shock to everyone he decided to retire at the incredibly young age of 31.

And it is tragically coincidental. Best was 29 when he walked out of English football, both on a lethal path towards alcoholism.

He moved like a skimming gull across pitches that today’s footballers would consider an insult to their ball control

The drinking culture in football claimed other victims of which the most horrible was the unravelling of Paul Gascoigne whom England dispensed with, yes, at 31.

With all the might at his command, Greaves threw off the curse of booze and is proud that for more than 40 years he hasn’t touched a drop.

It killed Best and destroyed Gazza’s already shaky equilibrium.

His successful resistance owes a lot to his wife, Irene, who went through nightmare times but succumbed for only three months of their 60-year love affair when she divorced him but returned, eventually to remarry five years ago.

It’s clear, too, just how much his children love him.

Greaves, on a black and white screen, moved like a skimming gull across pitches that today’s footballers would consider an insult to their ball control.

Not that anyone could stop Greaves in full cry.

As an 18-year-old, the slight youth scored five in Chelsea’s 6-1 drubbing of Division One champions Wolves in August 1958.

He continued scoring in threes, fours and even a five or two, an East London lad destined to break the world record of goals scored and probably jokes made, too.

The odd thing is Greaves spent his football life being rewarded by goals all over the place but outside gluey goalmouths not by much else.

His Spurs record of 220 could be overtaken by Harry Kane, 26, already owner of an MBE.

Indeed, he missed out by a year on Spurs’ Double in 1961, couldn’t get back into England’s World Cup winning team and has been ignored by the types who decide on where the Queen’s gongs go.

But as I say, football people would never judge the quality of a player by whether he scores a medal at Buckingham Palace.

Nor for that matter how funny he was (and he was very funny) on Saint and Greavsie.

Stunned by a serious stroke, he is too ill to respond publicly to well-wishers. But I suspect he would say to each one of them ‘Thanks, mate. Glad to be of service.’

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