It’s 58 years ago this month that he scored the first of his six international hat-tricks, a record that still stands.
Jimmy Greaves, I would hazard, is the footballer who most closely resembles our image of how we would want our brilliant player who made measly money in the era when players’ wages were capped: a chirpy chappy who revelled in going to matches on public transport with the fans, who ungrudgingly accepted being unable to buy his own house even after his transfer to Tottenham in 1961 for £99,999 – and who appeared far less impressed than just about everybody else by his dazzlingly intuitive skills as a goalscorer.
He was still only 19 and playing for his first club, Chelsea, when he dazzled Gordon Milne in a match at Preston in December 1959.
Milne remembers it well. The Preston manager, Cliff Britton took him aside before kick-off: ‘Milne, your job today is to be within one foot of Jimmy Greaves. Where he goes you go. Don’t worry about anything else. If he drops off, you drop off; if he goes wide, you go wide. He’s clever but generally he’s in or around the box. Stay close to him.’
‘As you get more experienced,’ Milne says, ‘you realise to do this is not that easy. Especially if you’ve got a bit of imagination yourself you tend to wander off.’
The result: Preston North End four Chelsea five with all the visitors’ goals scored by Greaves.
‘I don’t think I was ever further from him than I am from you now [a couple of feet]. But remember Jimmy with his side-footers? He’d come across you in the six-yard box, just get a touch and it was in.
‘None of his goals were scored from outside the box, none of the goals was a rocket. One was a little glancing header. He was just in front of me and glanced it in.
‘I can remember the dressing room afterwards and I’m looking round and I can see Tom Finney there and Tommy Thompson – Tommy scored three that day… Christ! I can’t remember what Cliff Britton said to me, I don’t think he needed to say anything.
‘I played against Greavsie later in life. I played with him for England. He was just something else. He was great, quite compassionate. He laughed and joked about it afterwards. That was what Jimmy was like, “They were all flukes…”.’
Greaves, 17 years old when he made his Chelsea debut in 1957 – when players could earn no more than £17 a week – scored 124 First Division goals for the club in just four seasons before being sold to AC Milan in 1961. It was a flow that never really slackened with his record of being top scorer in the First Division in six seasons is still unsurpassed.
Also still unsurpassed is his six hat-tricks for England, the first of which he scored 58 years ago this month in a World Cup qualifier in Luxembourg. He added a fourth goal on two of these six occasions and in all he scored 44 goals in just 57 international appearances.
But the match he would have most liked to score a goal in, the 1966 World Cup final, he didn’t. He wasn’t picked having been injured earlier in the tournament.
Greaves’s missing out on the big one at Wembley has tended to overshadow his phenomenal record as a goalscorer.