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Jimmy Greaves, England and Tottenham great, dies aged 81

Gareth Southgate led the tributes to Jimmy Greaves on Sunday following the death at the age of 81 of the man widely regarded as being English football’s finest marksmen.

The England manager said Greaves’s place in the game’s history would “never be forgotten” and emphasised the way in which admiration of the former Chelsea, Milan, Tottenham and West Ham forward’s rare talent has and does unite football fans.

“Jimmy certainly deserves inclusion in any list of England’s best players, given his status as one of our greatest goalscorers and his part in our 1966 World Cup success,” said Southgate. “I know the entire game will mourn his passing. His place in our history will never be forgotten. Jimmy was admired by all who love football, regardless of club allegiances.”

Related: Jimmy Greaves: a life in pictures

Greaves will forever be synonymous with goals. He registered 44 in 57 appearances for England, including six hat-tricks, and became Tottenham’s all time top scorer with 266 in 379 games. Earlier, he claimed 132 goals in 169 matches for Chelsea after kicking off his career in 1957. “We are extremely saddened to learn of the passing of the great Jimmy Greaves, the finest marksman this country has ever seen,” read a Tottenham statement.

After arriving at White Hart Lane from Milan as a slight 21-year-old in December 1961, the 5ft 8in forward starred in Bill Nicholson’s famous 1963 Cup-Winners’ Cup victors as Spurs became the first British club to lift a major European trophy. Operating in an era when defenders were permitted to kick lumps out of forwards, his game married incision and guile with considerable courage.

Greaves would prove a key component of Alf Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup plans and featured in his country’s first three games at the tournament before succumbing to injury. He was fit in time for the final but was forced to watch his replacement, Geoff Hurst, score a hat-trick against West Germany in an era before substitutes were permitted.

Hurst paid tribute to his former England and West Ham teammate. “One of the truly great goal-scorers,” he tweeted. “Terrific guy with an absolutely brilliant sense of humour, the best. It has been a difficult time for him, he can now rest in peace.”

Greaves was always distinguished by his humility, humour, and ability to connect with people from all walks of life. In May 2015 he suffered a severe stroke that left him in a wheelchair, partially paralysed and with severely impaired speech. Doctors said he would never walk again.

Jimmy Greaves is approached by a young spectators following Tottenham Hotspur’s 6-2 victory over Manchester United in October 1962
Jimmy Greaves (centre) is approached by a young spectators following Tottenham Hotspur’s 6-2 victory over Manchester United in October 1962. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Almost exactly 48 years earlier he had played his last game for England. Although he remains the country’s fourth all-time leading scorer, behind Gary Lineker, Sir Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney, with his achievements an enduring reference point for leading strikers, Greaves’s life was far from plain sailing.

Still badly affected by the death in 1961 of his four-month-old son, Jimmy Jr, he struggled to cope with the disappointment of missing out on a World Cup winner’s medal. He subsequently entered a lengthy battle with alcoholism before having his final drink in 1978. Greaves later helped many fellow addicts overcome their addictions.

Related: Jimmy Greaves was a genius, the purest finisher England has produced

In 2003, he told the Guardian: “I lost the 1970s completely. I was drunk from 1972 to 1977. I woke up one morning and realised it was a different world. I’d been living in it but I hadn’t been aware of it.”

Having played just over a season at West Ham, Greaves played for various non-league sides before hanging up his boots in 1980. Married with four children, he needed a new job and reinvented himself as as an enormously popular TV pundit. In his capacity as the witty, innovative and often brilliant co-presenter of Saint and Greavsie, the hit ITV weekend football show, he remained a household name, but such fame failed to insulate him from financial troubles later in life. Indeed although Greaves was finally presented with a World Cup winner’s medal in 2009 after sustained campaigning by football fans, he sold it for £44,000 five years later and struggled to fund the medical care he required in recent years.

Alan Mullery, a former teammate of Greaves at Spurs, prefers to remember happier days. “Jimmy was a wonderful, wonderful footballer, the best goalscorer to ever play,” he said. “He scored goals for fun, you’d be irritated he’d not touched the ball and then, bang, it was in the back of the net. He was the best I’ve ever seen.”

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The England captain and current Spurs centre forward, Harry Kane, highlighted Greaves’s place in football’s pantheon, describing him as “a true legend”. Meanwhile the former Tottenham and Argentina midfielder Ossie Ardiles offered a more personal salute. “Great player, great man,” he tweeted. “Very funny. Humble. Jimmy epitomises what Spurs is: ‘To dare is to do.’”

As a former England and Spurs striker turned television presenter himself, Lineker’s appreciation of Greaves has always been unwavering. “Terribly sad news,” tweeted the BBC Match of the Day host. “Quite possibly the greatest striker this country has ever produced. A truly magnificent footballer who was at home both in the box and on the box. A charismatic, knowledgeable, witty and warm man. A giant of the sport.”

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