Jimmy Greaves was constantly overlooked in the New Year’s Honours list, but to those that saw him play, we didn’t need a Royal to tell us how special he was
Whenever a great English footballer dies there tends to be a collective sense of mourning which is often consumed with regret.
We praise them as national treasures, bask in their triumphs, laugh at their anecdotes, marvel at the black-and-white photos of them floating balletically over mud heaps, then ask why their true worth was never recognised.
This time it’s Jimmy Greaves. To those of us who saw him play, he was the greatest English striker by some distance. But also a man who became a beacon of hope for millions struggling with alcohol addiction, when it wasn’t cool to talk about such problems, and a broadcaster of the finest calibre.
It took death for his barely believable goalscoring numbers to be given a proper airing because we’ve been brainwashed into believing the only records that matter are ones that happen in the Premier League era.
Only in his death are we reminded of the cruel humiliation that he and the rest of the 1966 World Cup squad who didn’t play in the final were dealt, by being denied winners’ medals for 43 years. And how Greaves felt the need to flog his for roughly a fifth of what Spurs current main striker, Harry Kane, earns every week.
Popperfoto via Getty Images)
And then there’s the point of most contention, his glaring absence from the twice-yearly Honours List. Or rather his begrudged inclusion in January’s list, following a media campaign, when the 80-year-old, who was five years into a debilitating stroke, was tossed the lowest ranking gong of all, an MBE.
His wife Irene summed up what many believed when she said: “It’s 20 years too late and it’s not a very good honour. He’s worth more than that. They have the attitude that they’ve got to give him something so let’s give him that, because it will stop people going on about it.”
Well I, for one, am glad Jimmy Greaves wasn’t knighted because I’ve seen how the awarding of these trinkets has been exploited by politicians seeking to hijack football’s popularity.
Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell told me how he and Tony Blair had agreed to offer Alex Ferguson a knighthood on the spot if Manchester United won the 1999 Champions League Final.
Campbell, who was Ferguson’s guest in Barcelona, received the nod from the Scot, allowing New Labour to bask in the mountain of positive post-game publicity.
They’d seen it do the trick with Geoff Hurst the previous year, when they offered the hero of ’66 a knighthood, and leaked news of it on the day the 1998 World Cup kicked off. More People’s Game camouflage to disguise all the dodgy honours being dished out to rich pals, hedge-fund backers and party lackeys.
Hurst’s opportunistic knighthood was doubly insulting to Greaves because had he not got injured in the final group game in ’66 he would probably have played in that final and been the golden boy who won the World Cup. Jimmy MBE was certainly, as a goalscorer, in a different class to Sir Geoffrey.
In many ways for those who easily meet the criteria, it’s a badge of honour not to receive a knighthood. It shows they didn’t always toe the line, climb up backsides or allow themselves to be used as political capital.
Action Images via Reuters)
And Jimmy is not alone. Fans of many clubs still feel cheated about the lack of respect shown to certain heroes. But legends like Greaves don’t require a word placed before their name to tell us how talented they were. The record books show that.
He didn’t need a Royal to put a sword on his shoulder to tell us how special he was. Our eyes told us that.
The warm memories of a man with magical feet and funny bones will always let us know that the honour was very much ours.