Sun, 12 July, 2020


Arise Sir Jimmy?

Posted: February 21st, 2020

If you like the football of old, or want to know how it feels to file a world exclusive under pressure and against the clock, this account from one-man word factory FRANK THORNE is for you.

JIMMY GREAVES – former Chelsea, Spurs and England great – celebrated his 80th birthday this week, marked by a TV documentary on the BT Sports network. Support is growing for Jimmy to receive an honour for his services to football. Today’s players as well as heroes from football’s past have joined the campaign, and newspapers, blogs and websites are filled with anecdotes and tributes. Frank Thorne supports the campaign, and recalls “It’s a funny old game”…

It was a normal Friday afternoon in the busy Sunday People newsroom some 42 years ago, but news editor David Farr was still looking for a Page One splash. Sports editor, the late, great Neville Holtham, and his able chief sports reporter Brian Madley, were about to come to the rescue.

I admired the People sports department for their news sense and the fact that they were always willing to share their sports related information with the news team – even when it was potentially detrimental to their own patch. I was called over by Farr and told sport had a tip that former Spurs and England international football star Jimmy Greaves had checked himself into the alcohol unit of Severalls Hospital, Colchester, but had checked himself out again in the early hours of the morning.

It was the first anyone had heard that England’s greatest goalscorer, who had helped the team win the 1966 World Cup – but missed out on a medal and the final due to injury – had a drink problem.

It was a cold, wet winter’s day in late January 1978 when myself and photographer Brendan Monks arrived at the Greaves’s large Tudor-style home in Hornchurch, Essex. It was already dark when we knocked on the front door after 6pm to be greeted by Jimmy’s wife, Irene. When I asked to see Jimmy and explained why we were there, a worried looking Irene, a sweet blonde lady, invited us in and showed us into the lounge.

We got off on the wrong foot with her daughter, however, who, with a face like thunder, pointed to the white fitted carpet and told me: “You’ve walked mud into the carpet.” Not a great start when I was trying to be as nice and polite as I could to stay in the good books of Mrs Greaves, who did not know me from a hole in the ground. Fortunately, the ice was broken by Brendan, who piped up: “We both have”, apologising, and saying it was wet outside.

Irene told us Jimmy was not at home, but to my surprise she invited us to sit down. And then she opened up. Over a cup of tea, she unburdened herself after I told her the newspaper knew about Jimmy’s alcohol problem. We had already confirmed the hospital report, the truth about Jimmy’s problem was out.

Irene opened her heart, she seemed relieved, explaining how for years as a qualified nurse she had tried everything to help Jimmy over his terrible addiction to alcohol. She said Jimmy would conceal bottles of booze all over the house – even in their family rubbish bins. She had taken him to the best professors in the business to try to wean him off the booze. Everything had failed. An emotional Irene was clearly at the end of her tether. Like the loved ones of many an alcoholic or gambling addict, she knew that unless Jimmy wanted to help himself, nobody else could help him kick the addiction.

Finally, Irene told me that Jimmy had been admitted to another alcoholic unit at Warley Hospital near Brentwood, not far away, where he was that night. After about an hour, Irene asked us to leave but said if we could return in the morning – Saturday – she promised to get Jimmy home and we could talk to him in person. Our muddy marks on the light coloured carpet had been cleaned off by the time we left on friendly terms. No stain on our character.

I left the house knowing I had a Page One exclusive, whether Jimmy turned up to speak to us the next morning or not. We could go big simply with what Irene had told us, exclusively. Brendan, a total professional and top partner, bravely did not push it and had not taken any pictures. It was all to play for the next day…

I did have some concerns, however, having once visited an alcoholic journalist friend in hospital, that Jimmy might have some mental issues. So back at the office in Orbit House I went in to see Sunday People editor Geoff Pinnington and told him of my reservations about the ethics of putting a person like Jimmy Greaves under pressure. From what his wife had told me he clearly had complex issues. Pinnington was a wise old bird and told me there was absolutely no reason why I should not go back and see what Jimmy had to say, now that his problem was a matter of public record. Geoff was confident I would approach the delicate subject professionally and with compassion and understanding.

Brendan and I arrived back at the Greaves family home by 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, January 28, 1978 on tenterhooks, our adrenaline running high. A nervous Irene had kept her word and showed the pair of us into the living room. Standing there was the great Jimmy Greaves. It was not a warm greeting. “Right, you bastard, what do you want to do about it?”, he said, and squared up to me in a boxing pose.

When I was a football-mad schoolboy in Manchester standing on the Stretford End terraces at Old Trafford, the big game was always Tottenham Hotspur and, of course, Jimmy Greaves was up there with Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best – the Holy Trinity. And here was I, feeling like that little schoolboy again, but squaring up to one of my heroes. I don’t know where it came from as it was not the welcome I had expected. But I bit the bullet and told Jimmy forcefully: “Look, Jimmy, we can have a fight if you like and I will go. But, mate, I’ve already written the story – and you’re on Page One.” I added: “And the News of the World are outside…”

About half an hour after Brendan and I arrived that Saturday morning, another car pulled up outside the Greaves home. It was Peter Moore of the News of the World, whom I knew, and a photographer. Irene played her part and did not open the door to them. In a way, that helped Jimmy make his decision to do an exclusive deal with us.

Jimmy, who looked emaciated and worn out, slumped into an armchair and gasped: “How much are you going to pay me?” My heart was going ten to the dozen, I felt like I had electricity in my veins. Brendan didn’t flinch. I don’t know what was going through his mind at the time, but he was a huge Spurs fan from childhood – and still is – so I guess he felt the same as me. But he remained cool, calm and collected.

The moment Greavsie collapsed into that armchair, the job took over. I told Jimmy I needed a quick synopsis of his story to put over to the office so the editor could judge the buy-up and we could negotiate a price for his exclusive. So we quickly ran through Jimmy’s battle with the booze, his highs and lows. Great quotes tumbled out, I couldn’t write them down quickly enough: “I used to go on the pitch at West Ham pissed…” and: “After I stopped playing, I was looking for the roar of the crowd in the bottom of a vodka bottle…”

Jimmy told me the police often stopped him while he was driving his car – but when they saw who it was, they would let him go. Other times, when winter closed in, he would wake up in his car parked on Warley Common at 4 o’clock, and it would be dark. But Jimmy, waking from a drunken stupor, would not know whether it was 4 p.m. or 4 a.m.

This all took place long before the days of new technology. By the time a formal legal contract had been drawn up and faxed direct to the Greaves home, signed and sealed and witnessed by me on behalf of the newspaper, we were into early Saturday afternoon.

I needed to interview Jimmy in minute detail about his football career, his drinking and the descent into chronic alcoholism which was threatening his life; plus somehow write a splash and spread as the prelude to a three-part series, as agreed on the contract, to include exclusive pictures and any collects we needed – i.e. family, personal and career photos.

In desperation and up against the clock, I borrowed Jimmy’s daughter’s portable Olympus typewriter. Once I had bashed out a Page One intro, I more or less went into Jimmy telling his story, and as his quotes and memories came out like gold bars, I crashed them out as quickly as I could. If it was a bit rough around the edges, I knew the excellent subs at the Sunday People would knock it into shape. The important thing was to get my copy over as soon as possible and give them something to work on. So I would break off to file to our brilliant copytakers – all of whom could spell way better than me. And at a time like that, against deadline on such an exciting exclusive,  chief copytaker Norman Gray became just as involved as the journalists and could not do enough to help.

Meanwhile, Brendan held his camera steady. He took one or two warm-up shots of Jimmy talking but basically he waited and waited, then click! Jimmy struck a pose and poked finger into his cheek, and the picture seemed to emphasise just how sick he was. It was a truly shocking Page One picture, reproduced above, which has stood the test of time. It’s over 40 years ago now, but to me it seems like yesterday, and BT Sport’s TV documentary brought it all back.

Despite my fears and panic about organising the synopsis so the boss would agree terms, sorting out and signing the contract, doing the exclusive interview like I was speed dating, typing out the story and then dictating it over the phone, I made the deadline by 5pm that Saturday. Wow – that was real Sunday journalism. Incredibly, it all worked out.

Following shock reactions to the story, the Sunday People had its biggest mailbag in many years, with football fans and members of the public alike offering Jimmy all kinds of support. Comedian Jimmy Tarbuck offered Jimmy and Irene the free use of his villa in Spain. Alcoholism experts rallied round and offered Jimmy free counselling and treatment. Jimmy did not realise how much he was loved.

But basically – in an echo of Irene Greaves’s words – Jimmy had been named and shamed. He had reached rock bottom, and now the world knew it. He could not sink any lower, so the only way was up.

The good news is that he never touched another drop. I like to think myself and Brendan had something to do with that. From that Saturday afternoon, Jimmy began his battle against the booze and eventually turned his life around. Once he had completed his three-part exclusive deal with the Sunday People, he landed his own newspaper column. And then came the wonderful Saint and Greavsie football pundit show, which was later parodied on TV’s Spitting Image. Jimmy had turned from a sad, washed-up alcoholic to a well-paid, highly successful, household name.

To round things off with Jimmy, I was invited to Thames TV HQ on the South Bank when they lunched the Saint and Greavsie book “Funny Old Game”, entitled after Jimmy’s catchphrase on the show. Jimmy kindly acknowleged my part in his recovery with the signed dedication, pictured below: “To the man who made the great discovery. Best wishes Frank. Jimmy Greaves.”

Happy 80th birthday Jimmy. Here’s hoping the authorities recognise you with an OBE, MBE, or even – come on Boris – “Arise, Sir Jimmy”.

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