Alan Hubbard

Back in the day, as they say today - it was the late 1980s as I recall - a young lad of about 10 approached me in the street and asked for my autograph. I was somewhat taken aback, as I was hardly on the A-list. 

"Are you sure?" I asked him. The lad’s dad who was alongside him quickly replied: "Course he is. That’s if you don’t mind."

The boy glanced down at my scribbled signature, looked at his dad then at me and declared. "You ain’t Greavsie."

No, I had to admit I wasn’t Jimmy Greaves. "But you look just like him," said my somewhat deflated young fan.

That at least was true. The tash, receding hairline, round face and similar stature. And our birthdays, in February, were only a couple of days apart.

I lost count of the number of times I was mistaken for Greavsie, usually at airports. "Morning Greavsie, how’s the Saint?" they would smile at passport control. Then they would open the passport, do a double take, and add: "Sorry could’ve sworn you were Jimmy Greaves. Don’t half look like him."

Jimmy Greaves remains' Tottenham Hotspur's all-time leading scorer ©Getty Images
Jimmy Greaves remains' Tottenham Hotspur's all-time leading scorer ©Getty Images

Going through security was worse. There, more often than not they refused to accept my denials that I wasn’t Greaves until I handed over my passport again. Then, of course they’d ransack my hand luggage. I’m sure if I really was Jimmy they would have waved him through. 

Not that I minded, it was a privilege, indeed an honour, to be mistaken as a great little man. It continued almost as long as the much-missed football programme on ITV starring Greaves and the former Liverpool striker Ian St John and was the subject of great hilarity. Jimmy and I did meet up and compared our similar visages. My only wish was that I had a fraction of the talent as a writer that he had as a footballer.

Yet it was with a mixture of delight and anger that I read the news that he had been honoured with a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) honour in the latest New Year list. Delight that it was so richly deserved and anger that it had taken so long and was just a paltry MBE, not a superior OBE, CBE or knighthood that was even more deserved, and that had taken far too long.

We are at a point now where he is now so ill physically and mentally it is likely they will have to post the MBE to him rather than have Greaves make the journey from his home in an Essex village to Buckingham Palace.

This ridiculously belated award is typical of the farce that Britain's discredited honours system has become. Why do the Whitehall bureaucrats wait until so many who deserve an accolade are left hanging around until their lives are near closure before they actually receive it?

There are no finer examples of this than Greavsie and the supreme entertainer Sir Bruce Forsyth.

Moreover, back in 1956 two British amateur boxers won gold medals at the Melbourne Olympics - Scottish lightweight Dick McTaggart and English flyweight Terry Spinks.

Terry Spinks was another sporting hero made to weight decades before being granted an honour ©Getty Images
Terry Spinks was another sporting hero made to weight decades before being granted an honour ©Getty Images

McTaggart received an MBE almost immediately whereas Spinks had to wait until he was in his 80s before getting his, and then only after a long campaign by family and friends. Apparently one reason for the hold-up was that he was once pictured with the notorious east London gangland twins, the Krays. Yet Reggie and Ronnie were ex-boxers themselves and great fight fans.

Yet Terry himself was as clean as a whistle and you must shake your head at the incredulity of the fact that a former Member of Parliament, Bob Boothby, attended homosexual parties - illegal in those days - with the gay half of the twins. Yet this did not prevent him later strutting around the House of Lords in ermine.

It has taken a similarly long campaign, again by a newspaper, to get Greavsie his gong finally, yet here is a man unaffected by airs or graces who has served his country brilliantly on the field. The greatest goalscorer England has ever known, football’s cheeky chappie whose sleight-of-foot was a joy to behold, particularly in front of goal.

In 1961, Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson paid £99,999 ($136,000/€111,000) to bring Greaves back from unhappy exile in Italy. He did not want to burden Greaves with the pressure of becoming the world’s first £100,000 footballer.

Jimmy Greaves won the FIFA World Cup in 1966 with England ©Getty Images
Jimmy Greaves won the FIFA World Cup in 1966 with England ©Getty Images

Jimmy would not have wanted to be saddled with that price tag, either, even though he would have no difficulty justifying the expense. At that time, and with the probable exception of the Brazilian Pelé, he was the most valuable player on earth.

Greaves was born in Manor Park in east London in 1940. He should have been spotted by West Ham’s scouts, but instead signed for Chelsea, scoring 124 goals in 157 league appearances. Chelsea sold him to AC Milan, but he failed to settle and six months later was rescued by Nicholson.

Arguably, Spurs had no need to spend a king’s ransom on an inside forward. Tottenham had just become the first team in history to win a league and cup double. Yet Greaves is still Tottenham’s record goalscorer, with 266 goals in 379 matches. He scored 44 times in 57 matches for England, including six hat-tricks. Greaves was in the squash when England won the 1966 FIFA World Cup.

Saint And Greavsie was a national institution, sport’s answer to Morecambe and Wise combining insight with delightfully un-PC irreverence. Woke they were not. Now smartly booted and suited pundits - tactics satiated po-faced men, and women, have taken over.

Jimmy was modest, self-deprecating, funny. And Saint and Greavsie was compulsive viewing, even among those who had only a passing interest in football. They were immortalised as Spitting Image puppets, alongside the leading political figures of the day - such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Jimmy Greaves, pictured on a charity walk with England cricket star Ian Botham ©Getty Images
Jimmy Greaves, pictured on a charity walk with England cricket star Ian Botham ©Getty Images

By then Greaves was a reformed, rehabilitated alcoholic on his way to national treasure status, who devoted much of his time to helping others similarly afflicted.

He always had time for the fans, especially youngsters seeking autographs. "It is a small degree of recognition for him," wife Irene said of the honour, according to the Daily Mail. "But my reaction is that it’s 20 years too late and it’s not a very good honour. I think he’s worth more than that.

"To me, it feels like 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. So I’m not too happy about it, but that’s how I feel."

And so will many thousands more. As you rightly said, too little, too late.

Funny old game, as Greavsie himself used to say.