Jimmy Greaves

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By Jeremy Miles

THERE are times, says soccer legend Jimmy Greaves, when he wishes he'd been born 40 years later. And no wonder. With his unbelievable on-pitch talents the chances are he'd be well on his way to being a multi-millionaire by now.

Or would he? Greaves thinks not. In his day he may have been the ultimate footballing hero - a strange mixture of down-to-earth bloke next door and lethal goal-scoring machine. But he was, he says, very much a man of his era.

"Of course I'd like to be 21 again - show me any 61-year-old who wouldn't - but I don't know whether I could cope with the kind of pressure players are under today."

Greaves had trouble coping with pressure the first time around.

After a glittering career that saw him reach superstar status with Spurs and earned him 57 caps for England, things started to go wrong.

He was famously left out of the victorious 1966 England World Cup team, and many say he never recovered.

Gradually, his form fell away, and he hit the bottle big time.

By the end of the decade he was out of Spurs and heading for what would be the twilight years of one of the most spectacular careers in 20th-century football.

During the 1970s he gradually descended into full-blown alcoholism.

Finally, Jimmy Greaves - the player who scored more than 350 top league goals - hit rock bottom.

The man who had been a boyhood hero, a role model to thousands of young fans, was a shaking, sweating, sickly mess desperately trying to dry out in a grim mental hospital in Middlesex.

"It was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he says ruefully. "They almost had a permanent bed for me in there."

It was, he says, a horrendous time. His marriage was in tatters, his self-esteem was all but destroyed. "I was trying to give up drinking, but I just couldn't."

Amazingly, after repeated bouts of treatment failed, Greaves managed to kick the habit all by himself. He went cold turkey, shutting himself away in a one-room flat in Wanstead.

The date was February 28, 1978, and Greaves hasn't touched an alcoholic drink since.

Even though he was being divorced by his wife, Irene, he says it was first time in years that he had felt a sense of hope.

"It was strange. It wasn't really sad or lonely because I felt that for the first time I had a chance of cracking the problem.

"In fact, it was quite an enlightening period because, after having been in a haze and a mist for so many years, I was finding myself again."

Gradually he got better and he and Irene got back together again.

"I used to go home to see my kids and eventually I just moved back in," he says. Ironically, the divorce came through after he arrived back in the marital home. He and Irene never got round to getting married again, but have been devoted ever since.

Parallels are inevitably drawn with Greaves' long-time friend George Best, another soccer genius who is battling with the bottle.

Greaves says he has neither been asked for advice by his old pal... nor offered any.

"George is a very intelligent guy. He doesn't need anyone to tell him that he's got a problem, he knows. He also knows how to go about solving it. It's whether he's got the desire or will to succeed. Only time will tell."

After coming so close to destroying himself, it is perhaps even more remarkable that Greaves went on to build up a second successful career as a TV soccer pundit.

This remarkable rollercoaster life provides plenty of fascinating material for his one-man show, An Evening With Jimmy Greaves, which was on at the Bournemouth International Centre during the summer.

For real fans, though, even more fascinating than the booze and the benders are Greaves's memories of what it was actually like to be a soccer hero 40 years ago.

"Football has got a lot more comfortable," he says. "These days they play on pitches that are exactly the same, week in, week out.

"In my day, one week we'd play on a bone-hard ground that was covered in ice; the next week you'd have a thaw and you'd be ankle-deep in mud.

"It was like horse-racing. There were certain teams that would perform better on heavy ground, that sort of thing, and there were players with different physiques. You just don't get that any more. Everything's much of a muchness these days and the game's less interesting because of it."

In the days before the big money - for years, the maximum wage for footballers was just £20 a week - players enjoyed none of the celebrity status that is accepted as the norm today.

Greaves recalls the heroes of his youth signing for a club... and a job for life.

"Take people like Tom Finney. He played his entire career for Preston North End. These days he would have played two seasons for Preston and then gone straight to Manchester United. Every team had a number of outstanding players in those days because they couldn't go anywhere else.

"They asked for a transfer and if the club said `No' that was it."

It was Greaves's old mate Jimmy Hill who changed the face of things when he led a threatened strike over pay constraints.

The removal of the maximum wage indirectly led to the advent of the modern game.

"Football owes Jimmy Hill a huge debt. I don't think he gets enough credit for what he did," says Greaves. "With players earning a wage that they could negotiate, the clubs suddenly woke up to the fact that they had to become more commercial."

Today, of course, commercial awareness is translated into huge financial rewards.

The wealth and fame of soccer stars is stratospheric.

With the right sponsorship they can, and do, earn millions.

Jimmy Greaves never made more than £100 a week as a footballer (and that was with bonuses) but he says he doesn't particularly envy current superstars like David Beckham.

"The constant scrutiny from the press must be difficult.

"I was a back page boy myself. Well, most of the time....

"It must be tough for the big-name players today, but they're getting the rewards, and they have to deal with the consequences."

That includes the hassle they get on the pitch.

"We've all had to put up with abuse over the years, and I must admit it would have been nice to have done it for a whole load of money, but times change."

© Jeremy Miles 2017