I read Football’s Greatest Heroes and Entertainers, because I have quite a bit of time for Jimmy Greaves. In my opinion, he is the premier football pundit of his generation. There may have been more outspoken or contentious pundits of his era but the brother put the mark on what it was to be an ex-pro making his way in the press industry. To all intents and purposes he really did well for himself whether it was columns for the Sun or a television show with Ian St. John or his various appearances on different non-football shows like the TV review gig he did for TV-AM.
What made him so good was his down to earth way of speaking his mind. He didn’t need to swallow a dictionary and get all fancy. He would be straight to the point with some degree of reason behind, but more often that not just as his football was, he speaks by instinct and gut feeling. He’s not looking to make friends particularly, but it works a treat that many can relate with his way of speaking.
It’s not a tragedy that he doesn’t have as pronounced a media profile as he did in the 80’s, that’s the nature of time. Things change, we move on, it’s not about carrying on with the same things that we’ve had before, whether that’s with styles of football, flavours of the month in terms of players and so with football pundits. It is good that Greaves hasn’t completely melted into the background and still pops up with books like these.
I was surprised to see how many books he has written – he’s definitely committed quite a number of words to paper and his writing style is close to his voice. So in as much as he acknowledges the help from Norman Giller especially with the stats, what you read in this book is all the voice of the opinionated Greaves.
The deal behind the book is going on the who is the greatest talking point. Greaves has taken it upon himself to profile the top 51 players over his time in the game from eager watching youth to veteran elder statesman. I don’t see any real justification for it being 51. We’re told it has to do with some tough decisions that Greaves had to make in choosing one or two of the contenders, so he was given lee-way for the extra one. In fact throughout the book we’re told quite a bit about what the editors allowed and didn’t allow which takes the tarnish off the project. For example if you were told you were going to read the greatest, you’d be expecting the greatest, but there have been plenty of stipulations put down that Greaves has evidently had to adhere to which meant he could only choose a certain amount of foreigners, a certain amount of players in certain positions and the mix had to reflect the years. So it’s not so much the greatest, but a collection of the greatest over that space of time with those restrictions. It does make you wonder who would be included if such restrictions were removed.
This aside there can be little argument with the selection Greaves makes. The usual suspects crop up on the list – Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Best. There are not really any major surprises. Readers of a certain age won’t have a clue about Len Shackleton or Francisco Gento Lopez, but the insights that Greaves gives about these players allows you to understand why they are in the list, and you cannot grumble at the reasons, especially knowing the limitations that the editors have put on the brother.
What I like about Jimmy is that this is not about who is right or wrong, this is about what Jimmy thinks and why people merit a place on his list. Just because they are great players, doesn’t mean they are great people and Jimmy isn’t reluctant to voice his opinion about certain players whose characters left a bit to be desired. What is also amusing is how Jimmy ingratiates his own story into the profiles, whether it’s as a good friend of Johnny Haynes, Bobby Moore and George Best or it’s failing to beat Lev Yashin on four occasions in the same match, whilst beating Pat Jennings and not mentioning it.
The book is especially a good overview on how the tastes and styles of football have changed over the years. Greaves is very perceptive and outspoken on how the game’s latest characters may not have had the creative and individual flair and spark of his era. The turning point is definitely the inclusion of Kevin Keegan in the list, who Greaves himself didn’t have that much time for during his career, but acknowledges because of his achievements and impact on the game. The description of Keegan’s industry as opposed to natural talent is as much a reflection of the changing face of the game as a whole. When you read profiles like Keegan’s you get a little hint as to who would and who wouldn’t be included in his list if it was just his top 50 of all time with no restrictions.
Later profiles don’t fall too much into the trap of being comparative and on with the ‘not like in my day’ whinges that are typical of Greaves and others of his generation. Indeed there are quite a number of contributions that accept how players these days are able to capitalise on the financial benefits offered in the game without having some of the qualities and virtues of the greats in bygone eras. So as a book of celebration and recognition of players who have made indelible marks on the game, this is a worthwhile read. Maybe some of those named as modern greats won’t be in similar lists in ten or twenty years time, but you can only play with the cards your dealt, especially when there are those restrictions to consider.
There’s also a section where he chooses the manager to take charge of the team and when you consider those in contention who are limited to those who have managed in England over the span of time, then the selection is hardly a surprise.
For all of that, the book is a good read, not too taxing and something to appreciate for all generations of football lovers and those who appreciate that Greaves shoots from the lip and has no particular axe to grind on the part of others.