Jimmy Greaves: 'John Terry sleeps with some bird and everyone's up in arms'

The genius goal-poacher is taking to the stage for his 70th Birthday Show. Here he opens up on his battle with alcoholism, missing the 1966 World Cup final and how one of his perfect partners would have been Dion Dublin. Phil Shaw speaks to Jimmy Greaves
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The Independent Online

Jimmy Greaves will soon take the stage for a 70th birthday theatre show and tour, but right now he is on his soapbox about the John Terry saga. The supreme goal-poacher came out of Dagenham to make his name with Chelsea and England; Terry made the same journey from neighbouring Barking. Greaves, sounding more like Clare Short than an avowed Tory, has scant sympathy for Fabio Capello's embattled captain yet calls for a sense of proportion.

"I was on Sky about my show and two lads with them were talking about Terry," he says. "I asked if they'd heard of the Chilcot Inquiry. They went, 'No'. I told them it was about a guy who took us to war in Iraq. We've lost hundreds of soldiers, 100,000 people have been killed and nobody in this country gives a toss.

"John Terry sleeps with some bird and everyone's up in arms. Yes, he was wrong to do it, and I feel very sorry for his wife, who seems to have been overlooked in all this, but what's going on? The world's gone mad."

Politics is not on the agenda for Greaves' special night at London's O2 Arena. What there will be is ribald humour (including, he hopes, a gag about Terry) and nostalgia for an age long before millionaire players, WAGs, rapacious agents, round-the-clock media coverage and intrusive sponsors became the norm.

No one embodied the era better. From the late 1950s to the early '70s, Greaves' scoring feats for Chelsea, Tottenham and England – Alf Ramsey permitting – lent colour, excitement and genius to English football.

Sceptics and younger readers are urged to watch a breathtaking goal for Spurs in 1965 against Manchester United on YouTube. Receiving the ball with his back to goal 30 yards out and a marker breathing down his neck, Greaves spins, slaloms through the defence and rounds the keeper before rolling it into the net. And all in eight seconds. It is a mistake, though, to assume that Greaves lives in the past or to pigeon-hole him as consumed by despair over missing the 1966 World Cup final and scarred by his battle with alcoholism a decade later.

He addresses those old chestnuts but, in a wide-ranging conversation, also defines his prowess in terms of a science-fiction movie franchise and invokes a cast of characters from an Indian batsman to a Scottish jester.

The sci-fi allusion comes when he reflects on how he was capable of bicycle kicks and flashing headers as well as the vanishing art of dribbling. Did he feel he was doing something extraordinary? "No, it was my job. That was that. I started doing it in the school playground. It's instinctive, natural. I've no idea how I scored the goal against United. If you thought about it, you wouldn't do it as well.

"Watch Roger Federer or Sachin Tendulkar and it's the same. Someone hurls the ball down at Tendulkar and in a split second he's moved his feet and with a flick of the wrist it's four runs.

"Have you ever seen the Stargate films? They go through this brightly lit ring into a parallel world or another dimension. When I came out on to the pitch at White Hart Lane, Wembley or wherever, I became a totally different person to how I was in the dressing room. I knew what I had to do and was confident I could do it. I wasn't necessarily that assured off the pitch. In a way, when I passed through that tunnel, it wasn't me any more."

Greaves' gift earned a move from Chelsea to Milan in 1961, but despite nine goals in only 12 games for the Rossoneri he did not settle, and soon came home to join Double-winners Spurs. "People ask if I expected I'd win the championship there but it didn't occur to me that you had to win anything. I just wanted to play. Danny Blanchflower said it was about glory rather than winning things and I'd go along with that. At the show, most of the guests on stage will be Tottenham people – Dave Mackay, Pat Jennings, Steve Perryman, Ossie Ardiles and so on – which says a lot."

Spurs have still to follow up the title triumph Greaves missed out on, in contrast with their nearest rivals' hoard of silverware under Arsène Wenger and George Graham. Wenger, he says of Arsenal's conversion to the finer arts, "stole Tottenham's clothes and hasn't given them back yet".

If it is then surprising to hear him say he does not enjoy watching Arsenal, his reason is even more unexpected. "They don't play directly enough. If it's played accurately, the long ball can be devastating. But I watched them against Manchester United, and United just got back behind the ball and said, 'If you wanna fart about, you can, you're not doing us any damage.'

"Passing it around is all very well if you've got Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Most clubs haven't got players like that and adapt accordingly. I remember John Beck's team at Cambridge United. Everyone moaned about kick-and-rush but they got a couple of promotions. I would have scored loads playing off Dion Dublin!"

Denis Law, his more flamboyant contemporary at Old Trafford, was his favourite striker, and George Best the finest player he faced. Ron "Chopper" Harris was his toughest opponent, with Bobby Moore and Mackay the best he played with at international and club level respectively. Today he admires Wayne Rooney, who is "starting to show he's a truly great player", and would love to partner Didier Drogba. "He's quick and as strong as an ox. I'd have said, 'Look, Didier me old pal, don't fall over. Knock 'em over. You and me will get 80 goals in a season'."

It would take the Stargate wormhole to make it happen. If Greaves could step through it he might also try to avoid the French tackle that cost him his place in the later stages of the World Cup and watch his vodka intake, although it is "a silly myth" that the two were connected; he amassed a staggering 96 goals in the three seasons after '66. "People think I became an alcoholic because Alf Ramsey chose Geoff [Hurst] ahead of me. The drinking came much later. I was very pleased for the England boys, but I wanted to play. I don't particularly like watching football. I'm not someone who's in love with the game. I have an interest in it, but I don't know if I ever had a passion for it. I just loved playing."

Ramsey's biographers suggest the manager deemed him unreliable and an individual rather than a team man. "I honestly don't know how he saw me," says Greaves. "He was hard to work out. Big Jack [Charlton] reckons Alf hated him – said hello before his first cap and never spoke to him again for seven years." But, Greaves adds, the success of Sir Alf's wingless wonders meant managers became "obsessed with work-rate and forwards tracking back, and that's when the fun went out of it".

Why did the drinking get out of control? "I feel it's a genetic thing I inherited, which was brought to the surface by certain episodes. All I know is that the years from '74 to '78 were lost to me. When I went on They Think It's All Over, I said me and George Best were collaborating on a book about our lives in the 1970s, 'so if anyone can tell us where we were, we'd be very grateful'.

"I don't know how I slid into it. I even found myself in a mental home for several months. One day, 28 February 1978, I just thought, 'I can't do this any more'. And that was it. I haven't had a drink since. Long may it continue, though there's no guarantees."

That anniversary beckons, as does the birthday bash plus a 13-date tour, opening in Wolverhampton next Thursday. The O2 show will feature jokes and reminiscences before he throws it open to the audience. At Crewe, a man asked whether he would have scored more goals "if he had not been lazy". An old Chelsea team-mate, Frank Blunstone, was present and sprang to his defence, wagging a finger and informing the questioner that "you don't score five goals against Wolves and five away to Preston if you're lazy".

Greaves always liked a laugh, recalling like a naughty boy how he and Bobby Moore used to mimic Ramsey, a fellow East Ender who had taken elocution lessons. "Alf tended to forget himself, putting an 'h' on the start of words that didn't have them and taking it off ones that did."

While preferring Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies and Ken Dodd to "the modern comics", he was greatly amused by the one (Andy Parsons on Mock the Week) who, when asked to suggest the question if the answer was 10 per cent, came up with: "How much blood is there in Amy Winehouse's blood?" He has also studied the way Billy Connolly commands the stage and creates an atmosphere in which everyday observations can be hilarious. "I'm not a stand-up comedian, more a story-teller," he says. "A raconteur!"

His wife, Irene, could doubtless tell some tales, having married him in 1958, filed for divorce when his alcoholism took over, then taken him back. Mrs Greaves will not be present, however. "She's never seen me," he says. "I could not perform in front of her. I'd be too embarrassed. It's a dreadful way to earn a living, isn't it?" Maybe so, but that Terry gag would come in handy.

Life and times

Height 5ft 8in. Playing weight: 10st 8lb.

1940 Born East Ham, 20 February.

1957 Scored on Chelsea debut at Tottenham, aged 17. Charles Buchan in the 'News Chronicle' called it "the finest first-ever League game by a young player I have seen".

1959 Goalscoring debut for England against Peru. Scored 44 goals in 57 full internationals, including six hat-tricks.

1960 Youngest player to reach 100 League goals aged 20 years 290 days.

1961 Joined Milan for £80,000, scoring nine goals in 12 games before Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson bought him for £99,999. Scored with spectacular scissors-kick against Blackpool on debut.

1963 Two goals as Spurs beat Atletico Madrid 5-1 in Cup-Winners' Cup final.

1966 First-choice striker going into World Cup but injured and replaced by Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the final against West Germany.

1970 Joined West Ham in part-exchange for Martin Peters. Finished sixth with co-driver Tony Fall in the London to Mexico World Cup Rally.

1971 Retired from League with 423 goals in senior club games, 357 coming in 516 League appearances.

Post-playing career After facing up to alcoholism, became a pundit for ATV in the Midlands. From 1985-92 he was paired with Ian St John on ITV show 'Saint & Greavsie'. Later the television critic for TV-AM, and a football columnist for 'The Sun'. Currently has a column in 'The People' and works as an after-dinner speaker.

2009 Went to Downing Street with the "other" 11 members of England's 1966 squad to be presented with a World Cup-winner's medal. "It's been my misfortune in life to be the guest of two socialist prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Harold Wilson," he says.

2010 Now a great-grandfather. Approaching his 70th birthday and preparing for gala night and tour.

Jimmy Greaves' 70th Birthday Show is on Saturday 20 February at Indigo2 at the O2 Arena. Tickets available from 01202 475600. Tour information at jimmygreaves.net