Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Focus On : The Jimmy Greaves Story

  It must have seemed like a fine idea. In the summer of 1961, English footballers had only just won a battle to abolish a maximum wage of £20-a-week while big-spending Italian clubs were offering far greater sums. It lured four British players to Serie A. But three of them would be back in the space of 12 months – and none of them would play fewer games than Jimmy Greaves. Only Gerry Hitchens, who went from Aston Villa to Inter, stayed for a prolonged period. Manchester City’s Denis Law and Hibs’ Joe Baker lasted a season at Torino. That seemed positively long-lasting compared with Greaves’s £80,000 switch from Chelsea to Milan. Within four months he was heading home. It was a deal which was ill-fated from the start. The 21-year-old Londoner had been signed by Milan legend Giuseppe ‘Gipo’ Viani but he took ill before Greaves arrived in Italy and was replaced by the indomitable coach Nereo Rocco. It was a case of “loathe at first sight”. “He was the Milan trainer, a man with the body of an out-of-condition heavyweight boxer and the mind of a sergeant major,” said Greaves in one autobiography. “He was aggressive and dogmatic, and if you get the idea that he and I didn’t hit it off you are dead right.” Yet when he did get onto the pitch, the young England star showed he could still score goals. He struck one on his debut and would rack up nine from just 14 appearances. 

 His finest hour came in the fixture that matters most to Milanisti. In October 1961, the San Siro was the setting for the first Milanese derby between two coaches who would become legends for their respective clubs. Rocco was in the red-and-black corner, and Helenio Herrera, the architect of the Grande Inter side, in the black-and-blue. The teams were in such contrasting form that fans of the Nerazzurri joked that the only thing in doubt was how many goals they would win by. Greaves played his part in delivering the perfect riposte. The Englishman scored one of the goals in a famous 3-1 victory that is credited with turning the Rossoneri’s season around and setting them on course for the league title.

He would play no part, however, in the Scudetto celebrations. The Italian press kept producing stories about his wild lifestyle – which Greaves maintains were fabricated – while the relationship with the authoritarian Rocco never improved. He jumped at the chance to return to England to Spurs in December 1961 in a deal agreed at £99,000 to avoid making him the nation’s first £100,000 player. “When we docked in Dover, I was so grateful to be home,” he said in a later autobiography. “I felt like falling to my knees and kissing the jetty.” In Italy, he would be known as a “meteor” – a player who shone brightly but all too briefly. It would turn out to be typical of many English players who would try their luck in Serie A in years to come. (Giancarlo Rinaldi)

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