For a club that likes to pride itself on finding local talent, over the years there have been some who slipped through the West Ham net whose success at rival London clubs has been particularly hard to swallow.
Barking-born John Terry, for example, was even with West Ham a youngster before going on to be the cornerstone of the Chelsea Russian revolution.
Tony Adams – born in Romford, raised in Dagenham and a legend in Arsenal colours. But arguably the biggest miss of the lot was one right under the club’s nose – Jimmy Greaves.
Born in Manor Park, just about as close to Upton Park as any player has ever have been, it was not until the end of his career that one of the greatest strikers world football has ever known was finally claimed by his local side, and sadly by that stage Greaves’ glory days were a thing of the past.
But there is a claret and blue thread running through his career to such a degree, from his birth, to 1966, to Blackpool and beyond, that even now, Greaves remains as widely respected and admired among West Ham fans as he does at Chelsea and Tottenham, the clubs that saw the best of him.
In fact, the whole football community feels that way, because Jimmy Greaves was that kind of player – and person.
David Tossell’s book ‘Natural: The Jimmy Greaves Story‘ covers the full arc of his life, through the highs and lows, and he told Blowing Bubbles that even if they had tried, it is unlikely that West Ham would have managed to snare the young Greaves.
‘Jimmy mainly watched non-league football as a kid, rather than having a team of his own, but his dad wanted him to go to Spurs, so it was always between them and Chelsea – I don’t think West Ham stood much of a chance,’ he explained.
‘Chelsea realised east London was a very fertile breeding ground, maybe more so than their own more affluent patch, so they had a very active scout called Jimmy Thompson, who also picked up Les Allen, father of future Hammers Paul and Clive Allen, and later Terry Venables.
‘Even when he was at school, it was clear that he was a big deal. Martin Peters – someone who went the other way when Jimmy left Spurs for West Ham years later – was a couple of years below him and idolised him, and a young John Lyall, later his coach at Upton Park, remembered watching Jimmy run rings around his own school team.’
Joining newly crowned league champions Chelsea, however, proved to be less than Greaves had hoped, as their 1955 title triumph turned out to be a Leicester-like flash in the pan. Not for the last time in his life, for someone whose timing on the pitch was second to none, off it, he was just that vital moment out.
‘For all the goals he scored, across all of his career there’s not a huge amount of honours,’ said Tossell. ‘He joined Chelsea after they won the title, when he went to Spurs it was just after they won the double, and when he arrived at West Ham, the team of the sixties was starting to break up.
‘Chelsea thought Jimmy could take them to the next level, to be serious contenders, but they weren’t professional enough for him. It was a bit too much like happy amateurs, and “let’s hope we can score one more than they do,” which is why he left.’
After a short but extremely unhappy spell at Milan – on the pitch he did well, but he was a victim of club politics – in December 1961 Greaves joined Tottenham, where he established himself as England’s top striker. But for all his talent, just like his close friend West Ham and England captain Bobby Moore, his attitude was not always appreciated.
‘They were real kindred spirits – over the years, Jimmy and Bobby were incredibly close, and in so many of the stories you hear about either one of them, the other turns up as well,’ said Tossell. ‘The people running the England team in those days viewed the likes of them with a degree of suspicion.
‘When you got a call-up you were sent a letter and a third class rail ticket, and you were supposed to feel grateful, but Bobby and Jimmy weren’t from that generation, they were a bit glib and didn’t take things too seriously.
‘Particularly since the abolition of the maximum wage just a few years earlier, they were among the first players to have people telling them their worth, and to know it. They weren’t going to be the types to stand to attention for people. They had a certain strut and cockiness to them that players just 10 years earlier would never have had.’
The 1966 World Cup was the making of the legend of Moore, and of a major part of West Ham history. But what should have been Greaves’ professional pinnacle was anything but. Much like Moore’s relationship with Ron Greenwood at West Ham, for all Greaves brought to the England team, things were just not quite right with the manager.
‘Jimmy clashed with Alf Ramsey,’ Tossell explained. ‘No big fall-outs, but his light-hearted approach and the fact he wasn’t a great trainer would aggravate him, so I think there was always something in the back of Jimmy’s mind that if there was a reason that he could be left out, he would be.’
In another example of unfortunate timing in Greaves’ career, a bout of hepatitis in winter 1965 took the edge off his game in the run-up to the 1966 World Cup, and when he gashed his shin in the group game against France – symbolically, his only injury to leave a lasting scar – Greaves was out, Geoff Hurst was in, and the path of England and West Ham history took a new turn.
‘Might Geoff have played anyway? Alf alluded to it in comments in future years,’ Tossell explained. ‘Some players think Jimmy might have been dropped and the injury allowed Alf to make the decision in a non-controversial way. Jimmy was fit for the final, but there was no way Alf would change a winning formula, and the rest is history.’
West Ham 4, West Germany 2. Moore, Hurst, Peters, the statue and all that. Greaves watched from the sidelines – 1966 was the last World Cup with no substitutes – and by the time of the 1970 tournament, despite continuing to score well, his England career had fizzled out.
‘Jimmy’s career didn’t go downhill after 1966, he still had a few great seasons of scoring for Spurs, but his England career ended after a misunderstanding with Alf, and by 1970, things in his career and personal life made a comeback impossible anyway.’
When England flew off for to Mexico to defend the World Cup, Greaves was a West Ham player, as he left his spiritual home for his birth one.
Ironically, part of a deal that took Greaves to West Ham saw his former starstruck school colleague Martin Peters go in the opposite direction, partly because he had grown disillusioned by being regarded as the third member of West Ham’s World Cup-winning trio. A trio that would never have existed, of course, had it not been for Greaves losing his England place to Hurst.
‘As much as Jimmy didn’t want to leave Spurs, the thought of teaming up with Bobby, his England roommate, at West Ham made him happy about going there,’ Tossell said.
‘They had such a close bond that existed through many ups and downs in careers and personal lives. From a football point of view, he liked the idea too, so he saw it as a positive thing. West Ham seemed like a decent alternative to life at Spurs but unfortunately he was very firmly on the road to full-blown alcoholism by then, and the scene he found at West Ham wasn’t ideal for someone on that route.’
As he did for Chelsea, England, Milan and Tottenham, Greaves made a scoring debut for West Ham, but the 1970-71 season was to prove to be his last in league football, with the turning point being the notorious Blackpool night out – inevitably, involving Moore – in January 1971.
West Ham fans know the story all too well, how Moore, Greaves, Brian Dear and Clyde Best went out on the town in Blackpool the night before an FA Cup tie that looked certain to be called off, only for it to be played, the Irons to be thumped 4-0, and then later a fan told Greenwood they had been seen breaking curfew.
‘Blackpool was the beginning of the end,’ Tossell said. ‘Jimmy felt they weren’t being treated as adults, it was all reasonably harmless but he was very upset at the way Ron Greenwood chose to handle it. He’d been toying with the idea it might be his last season anyway as he wasn’t getting the enjoyment out of it any more, and I think Blackpool made his mind up.’
The move to West Ham was sprung upon Greaves by Spurs, rather than something he had much say in, and Tossell says that despite having had the best intentions, in hindsight, it was an unhappy time.
‘It was probably a misstep, but he didn’t have much choice in it. Bill Nicholson phoned him and told him, it wasn’t like something he spent a long time thinking about, it was foisted upon him,’ he said.
‘Jimmy would look back on it as something that forced him to take those final couple of steps towards the life he was about to lead for the next few years, the life of an alcoholic, before it all came out in public and he turned his life around.
‘Joining West Ham had promised some fun times with his friends, but from a football point of view, he was probably a bit surprised at how things were there, and the atmosphere between Greenwood and Moore wasn’t great, so there aren’t many positives to take out of it.’
Greaves later played for Barnet, during which time he went public about his drinking and put a stop to it, but even after he retired, the West Ham connection still lingered, with Moore being the manager in Greaves’ son Danny’s final season at Southend.
Post-football, Greaves went on to a new career as a hugely popular television presenter, but two strokes in 2012 and 2015 have taken a major toll on the health of one of English football’s most mercurial talents. His reputation and the respect in which he is held, however, remain intact.
‘When you’re writing a book about someone, it’s as revealing who turns you down for an interview as it is who agrees to talk to you,’ said Tossell. ‘This is the first book I’ve written where everyone said yes and wanted to talk about the subject. No-one declined an interview, everyone wanted to talk about Jimmy as a player and as a man and their real admiration for him.
‘Jimmy always felt like the common man, there were no airs and graces, he didn’t take himself too seriously and people felt like he was someone they could have a laugh with – and add to that the huge admiration people have for him as a footballer. Whenever his agent posts anything on social media about going to see him, the responses are all so positive, and that means so much to the family.
‘I’ve written about a lot of characters from football in that era, and for all Jimmy has achieved in life, I wanted to write about him because he deserves to be put back into the public consciousness. Whatever team you support, there’s still such a strong groundswell of goodwill towards Jimmy. And I say that as an Arsenal fan.’
West Ham the club may not have seen the best of Jimmy Greaves, but West Ham the place is where his story began. And throughout the remarkable life of one of the greatest football characters and goalscoring talents England has ever produced, somewhere in the picture there has been a hint of claret and blue.