Mike Rowbottom: Poignant Greavsie increases the pain of familiar failure

From Left Field

Generally speaking, I'm not an impulse buyer. Other than in pubs, where I encounter a strong impulse to keep buying more of the same thing, sometimes past the point of good sense.

Generally speaking, I'm not an impulse buyer. Other than in pubs, where I encounter a strong impulse to keep buying more of the same thing, sometimes past the point of good sense.

That one sector apart, I am by and large immune to the silken sirens of commerce who so readily seduce other, shall we say, more female members of my family.

Last week, however, I randomly bought Jimmy Greaves' new autobiography, having spotted it in an airport shop while considering whether to take issue with the foreign gentleman who had just queue-jumped me for a packet of Hamlet cigars. To row, or not to row? (Suddenly I'm recalling that old line: "My girlfriend called me a wimp and I was so annoyed I nearly said something.") Happily for me, and perhaps even for my cigar-smoking friend, I diverted to the tale of Tottenham and England's master scorer.

Last weekend I may have been the only Englishman at a little hotel near the Zawisza Stadium in the Polish town of Bydogoszcz, scene of the European Cup athletics place, but in "Greavsie" I had a familiar, cockney voice as my companion.

The more foreign the field, the more avid I am for reminders of home. For years I have carried with me a book of poems by Edward Thomas, who managed, before he was killed by a sniper at Arras in 1917, to make England appear more poignantly beautiful than any other writer I can think of. (Take the concluding verse of "Adlestrop": "...And for that minute a blackbird sang / Close by, and round him, mistier,/ Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.") Greaves' book does not aspire to poetry, although an elegaic mood is not far away when the subject considers "the beautiful game", recalling lost glories of rattles and rosettes, managers' hats, players' moustaches, the full back's opening "let-him-know-you're-there tackle" and the architectural oddities of a handful of League grounds.

Not all Greaves' memories are fond, however. One gilded footballing myth is totally deconstructed when he recalls how his top class career ended in grief at West Ham. As an 11-year-old supporter at the time, I was thrilled with his contribution to a mudlarking 5-1 win at Manchester City, as he kept up his record of scoring on every debut, and added another for fun.

Yet Greaves reflects that the performance did him no favours in that he set himself a standard he knew his flagging abilities could not maintain. And his description of the so-called West Ham "Academy" as lax and shambolic sets all those bright, perennial pre-season hopes of the side which boasted Moore, Hurst and - before Greaves arrived - Peters into a more depressing context.

As the scorer of 44 goals in just 57 England games, Greaves has, perhaps disappointingly, only one throwaway comment to offer about the International team currently under Sven Goran Eriksson: "The 5-1 victory over Germany in 2001 apart, I settle down to watch every England game at eight. An hour and a half later, my watch says quarter past eight." You would like to think that the timeless simplicity of Wayne Rooney's talent, displayed so effectively against Croatia and so fleetingly against Portugal, has prompted him to reconsider his view. Eriksson's men, alas, will not now win Euro 2004, but no one can deny their, and in particular, Rooney's ability to stir the English blood.

When he was put through for his second goal against Croatia, the 18-year-old finished with a cold-eyed aplomb not seen since the days of... well, Jimmy Greaves. Perhaps he can hope for the luck Greaves never got in a World Cup.

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