‘This is no life for him. He doesn’t want to be here’: Wife of football icon and recent MBE Jimmy Greaves says he begs her to ‘give him something so I can go’ in heartbreaking interview raising troubling questions about end-of-life care
- Jimmy Greaves, 80, greatest goalscorer in British history, was awarded an MBE
- Wife Irene, 81, said the award was ’20 years too late’ and ‘not a very good honour’
- She believes Greavsie, who suffered a stroke in 2015, deserves a knighthood
Greavsie. So secure is his place in the nation’s heart that the fond nickname alone identifies him. The greatest goalscorer in British football history has this week, thanks in no small part to a Daily Mail campaign, belatedly been awarded an MBE.
Is this a fair acknowledgement of Jimmy Greaves’s dazzling talent and contribution to sport? His wife Irene, 81, who has stood by him through triumph and tragedy, joy and sadness for more than 60 years, believes not.
Speaking exclusively to this newspaper, she said: ‘The MBE is a small degree of recognition for him but it’s 20 years too late and it’s not a very good honour.
‘I think he’s worth more than that. He still holds all these records and he’s done so many things in his life. Now he’s 80, he’s had a devastating stroke and they’re finally doing something about it.
‘I think they feel they’ve got to give him something to stop people going on about it. But Jimmy really deserves a knighthood and I told him so.
England and Tottenham Hotspur footballer Jimmy Greaves pictured with his wife Irene at a restaurant table in London in 1965
‘He seemed to agree. He said, ‘Yes, yes’, but if I mention it again he’ll probably have forgotten all about it.
‘I’m not too happy about it and I want to say what I feel,’ she concludes. ‘He won’t decline it — he’s a royalist — but I don’t know how we’ll get him to the Palace. It’s not straightforward.’
Jimmy, once so dazzling on the pitch, enjoyed a second career as a gloriously un-PC television football pundit. Now he is confined to a wheelchair. His speech is slow and halting, his memory poor. It is sad to see his great talents so diminished.
Carers attend four times a day to look after his basic needs. ‘And they’re fabulous. During lockdown they did the shopping, went to the chemists, doctors; everything,’ says Irene.
For the past five years she has not left Jimmy’s side for more than an hour. ‘He cried when I told him about the MBE,’ she says from their home in the Essex village of Little Baddow. ‘Believe it or not, he had a small glass of wine — his first drop of alcohol since 1978 — to celebrate.’
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Greaves in 1969. He joined Chelsea in 1957 and in 1961 had a short spell with Milan before coming back to England and Spurs
Did he go on a spree? ‘No he did not,’ she says with a laugh.
Jimmy, an alcoholic, once said he spent the whole of the Seventies drunk, but he has been sober for more than 40 years.
His wife is a strong woman, warm, funny and loyal. Irene’s love for Jimmy — and his for her — has endured through vicissitudes that would have floored a weaker relationship. They married in 1958 when they were both teenagers, then lost a child — their firstborn son, Jimmy Jr — at five months to cot death.
They even divorced when Jimmy’s drinking was at its worst, though the separation lasted for only 18 months.
Capable, forthright and hardworking, Irene trained as a nurse while raising their four other children — Lynn, 62, Mitzi, 59, Danny, 56, and Andy, 54 — during the dark days of Jimmy’s alcoholism.
Jimmy Greaves marriage to Irene Barden at St John the Baptist church in Danbury, Essex on September 7th 2017. The couple, who have four children, divorced in 1977 only to reunite a year later when they found they couldn’t live without each other
Then he returned to her and stopped drinking. But although they have lived together ever since, they remarried only in 2017.
‘We’ve always adored each other, without a doubt,’ she agrees. ‘I never wanted anyone else. But I look at him now and think he’s not the man he was. I’ve lost my best mate. There was no one like him.
‘He was so charismatic, so funny. Now he’s a shell of the man he was. After his last stroke (he had a minor one in 2012 and the latest, severe, one five years ago) I didn’t think he’d make it. And in a way I think it would have been better if he’d gone.
‘This is no life for him. He doesn’t want to be here. He says: ‘Get me something so I can go.’ And I tell him: ‘You’ll have us both in jail.’ Sometimes I wish he could just slip away peacefully. I know that’s what he wants.
‘And although many people have worse lives, as a carer you feel a bit trapped. My eldest daughter Lynn lives nearby and she’s in my bubble, so she calls round quite a bit. But I can’t leave Jim for more than an hour.
‘Sometimes we have a tiff and I say: ‘That’s it. You’re going into a home!’ But I don’t mean it, of course. I’d never, ever do that. I’ve promised the children I won’t, too. I’d never want that for Jim.’
Those who follow the beautiful game — and many who do not — feel they know Greavsie: his affable appeal was universal. His workrate on the pitch remains unequalled: he scored 44 goals in just 57 games for his country.
He is also the only member of the victorious 1966 England World Cup squad who lost his place during the tournament because of injury: a crowning moment of sporting history and personal glory cruelly denied.
He teamed up with fellow former footballer Ian St John to discuss the day’s matches, their ITV show — Saint And Greavsie — was an instant success
In half a century, no one has surpassed his record-breaking tally of 357 goals in top-flight English football, for Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham. Yet while other players were immortalised in statues or honoured with titles, he was overlooked.
In his heyday he would be mobbed by girls wherever he went, Irene tells me, but she never worried about him straying. Life was simpler then.
‘Jimmy was only paid £17 a week in the Sixties and £100 if he played for his country. But they were happy days and we weren’t short of a bob or two. We used to walk down to the Bell & Hare pub on Tottenham High Road after a game and have a drink with the supporters. They couldn’t do that today, could they?
‘The money the players get now is obscene. No one’s worth that much. They complain about the pressure and Jimmy would say: ‘Where’s the pressure in playing a game you love when you’ve got a natural talent for it?’
‘And the WAG wars you read about [the feud between footballers’ wives Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy is progressing through the High Court], they both need to grow up really, don’t they?’
They were, in many ways, golden days but tragedy scarred their happiness. Jimmy and Irene had been married for only three years when they lost their baby son Jimmy. ‘He was five months old and there was no rhyme or reason about it,’ says Irene. ‘It just happened. He’d been a healthy baby, 9lb at birth, and when he died we didn’t speak about it — you were told to go home and get on with your lives. There was no counselling.
‘But I still think of him. You always do. I’ve still got a lovely picture of him hanging on my wall with all the other family photos.’
Then in 1965, Jimmy suffered a health setback: he had infectious hepatitis diagnosed. Thanks to his huge determination, he regained fitness and was picked for the 1966 World Cup squad. But a deep gash on his leg, sustained during a winning match in the group stage against France, cost him his place in the rest of the tournament.
Although Jimmy was match-fit by the time England reached the final, manager Alf Ramsey stuck with Geoff Hurst — who scored the hat-trick that led to England’s historic win against Germany. Only those who played in the final received medals.
‘Today they have substitutes but in those days they didn’t,’ says Irene. ‘They had 11 players on the pitch and that was it. So Jimmy wasn’t even on the bench.
‘All my life I’ve hated Alf Ramsey for it,’ she says, without any real rancour. ‘Totally illogically, I know, but it was dreadful at the time for us. We went off on holiday very quickly afterwards.
‘It should have been Jimmy’s crowning glory but I think he got over it more easily than I did.’
Did it precipitate his alcoholism? ‘I think the drink problem would have come anyway,’ she says.
Jimmy has always said it wasn’t disappointment or the pressure of playing in the top flight that caused the problem, but more the void left to fill when the structure, rigour and discipline of training lessened.
He also felt snubbed when, despite scoring a record 266 goals for Spurs, he was told his services were no longer required at the club and he was sold to West Ham.
At about this time his drinking escalated and by the early Seventies he was an alcoholic. ‘He’d just shut himself away in a room at home and drink,’ says Irene.
At his worst he was downing 20 pints of beer and a bottle of vodka a day. One can only imagine the torture this was for Irene, left trying to raise their four children single-handed.
‘I just got fed up with him,’ she says. ‘I realised it was no good nagging or pouring his drink down the sink because he’d hide bottles everywhere. I had to wait until he was ready to stop himself.
‘He’d promise to give up but he carried on. I’d say to him: ‘You’ll drink yourself to death and you won’t be here to see the kids grow up.’ But nothing worked. So we divorced. I told him to go. He moved out into a flat and I trained as a nurse while looking after the children. Andy, our youngest, was about ten at the time.’
(Irene went on to work as a practice nurse at their local GP surgery for 13 years.)
‘But 18 months later Jimmy came back home. He said: ‘I’m ready to give up drinking now’ — and I just knew he meant it this time.
‘Lynn drove him to Warley Hospital (for psychiatric patients) in Brentwood. He’d been there twice, unsuccessfully, but it was third time lucky. There was a small pub on the corner. He went there and had his last pint of beer. And that was it. He stopped.
‘That’s the strength of the man, really. We’d have drink in the house and he’d pour me a wine — before he had his stroke, of course. But he never touched it again until he had that one glass to celebrate his MBE.’
They moved to their current home — ‘It’s a lovely place to live, surrounded by National Trust woodlands’ — and Jimmy began his second successful career as a TV football pundit.
He was a natural, bringing his own brand of relaxed joviality to the screen, and when he teamed up with fellow former footballer Ian St John to discuss the day’s matches, their ITV show — Saint And Greavsie — was an instant success.
‘Everyone loved it. He’d say cheeky things, very un-PC and I don’t think they would be allowed today. They were all off the cuff because he’s a bit dyslexic and couldn’t read the autocue, so he’d ad-lib. Just say what he wanted.’
Then, as a new breed of sharp-suited broadcaster arrived, replacing convivial banter with crisp, forensic analysis, Greavsie retired to a life of dog-walking, armchair sport and the companionship of his beloved Irene.
‘If he watches sport on television now, it’s normally cricket and rugby. He very rarely watches football. He reckons they can’t play anyway.’ She laughs.
In 2017 they remarried — a small ceremony in their village church. ‘Oh, it was a lovely day,’ says Irene. They were joined by their four children, ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
‘We’ve been together 63 years now and we always considered ourselves married, even when we weren’t. We still went out for our anniversary.’
On balance, she thinks, Greavsie’s era of football was the best. ‘We were never millionaires but Jim made a good living. He loved what he did and sometimes I think he’d have done it for nothing.
‘People love Jim. He’s a thoroughly nice man and he’s been incredibly generous.
‘It has been an unconventional life but an amazing one, really.’
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