Phil Shaw

Jimmy Greenhoff: sold halfway through a cup final

Dec 04, 2012 8:49 AM GMT

There is a twinkle in Jimmy Greenhoff’s eyes as the conversation turns to his almost telepathic understanding with Alan Hudson. “People ask if we went out socialising,” he says, smiling at the memory of their partnership at Stoke City. “We socialised on the pitch.”

The fusion of Greenhoff’s finishing and Hudson’s finesse prompted calls in the mid-1970s for the pair to be picked together for England. It never happened, and while Greenhoff reveals that he was once Don Revie’s undisputed first choice, it was only as the caller for the bingo sessions which were an infamous feature of life at Leeds United in the 1960s.

One of the late manager’s myriad superstitions was that Greenhoff had to start all the “Legs 11” malarkey when Leeds’ squad gathered to play housey housey. Years later, when one was in charge of England and the other spearheading Stoke City’s challenge for honours, the call from Revie was conspicuous by its absence. Many labels can be applied to Greenhoff: the only man to be sold halfway through a cup final; the player who reluctantly joined one of the world's biggest clubs because a stand roof blew off; and the scorer of the bizarre goal that won the FA Cup.

The tag that sticks to him most firmly, however, is that of the best Englishman never to win a full cap. Now, as he about to turn 65, he says that is for other people to decide. Yet when he is asked whether he feels he should have represented his country, the response is instant and unequivocal.

“Yes. Most definitely. We should,” he says, incorporating Hudson into his answer. “People who know me well will tell that I’m not an arrogant person, but when it comes to football I think I know my stuff. When clubs played Stoke, they were worried about Terry Conroy, John Ritchie, Geoff Salmons. But they would also have been telling their defenders to get hold of me and Huddy or they had no chance. We were tearing defences to shreds.”

Did he suspect that Revie, having offloaded him to Birmingham City in 1969, was unwilling to admit a mistake? “Yes. Don did pair me and Huddy, though only for the England Under-23s when I was 29! He came to Hungary to watch us, too, but they put Huddy on the left wing where he couldn’t link with me. So it was pointless.” Greenhoff stops short of repeating the twice-capped Hudson’s view – which stems from the bad blood between his previous club, Chelsea, and Leeds - that Revie wanted them to fail. Having grown up, in football terms, as part of what Revie called his “family”, and shared in their triumphs and tribulations, his perspective is more nuanced.

He makes no apologies for revelling in the 3-2 victory for Stoke in February 1974 that finally stalled Leeds’ unbeaten start after 29 matches. “I was captain that day,” he says. “I went in the local paper and said ‘We’ll be the first team to beat them’. Don wouldn’t have liked coming to the Victoria Ground. “But I didn’t see them as ‘Dirty Leeds’. I saw them as top notch, like Liverpool a few years later. You just wanted to beat the best. And to me, Terry Cooper, Peter Lorimer, Paul Reaney, Paul Madeley, Norman Hunter and Eddie Gray were even better than the Manchester United group which had David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.”

As a boy in Barnsley he had aspired towards Old Trafford, where local boys Tommy Taylor and Mark Jones became Busby Babes before perishing in the Munich disaster. Oakwell was a more realistic venue for observing football in the raw. “I was always first in at the boys’ turnstile and I stood on bricks, because I was small, right next to the dug-outs. I loved the smell of linament and wanted to rub that on my legs.

“I remember Arthur Kaye, a little winger they sold to Blackpool; the centre-forward Lol Chappell; Duncan Sharp, Barnsley’s ‘6 foot 2, eyes of blue, Big Jim Holton’s after you’ type of centre-half; and Harry Hough the keeper. They were my heroes. For a treat my dad might take me to Hillsborough - in south Yorkshire, Sheffield Wednesday were the glamour club.”

At grammar school it was “football, football, football” for Greenhoff. “In the second year they graded the kids into five levels, from A to F. I was in class 2B. But sport took over so much that if I’d stayed on, I’d have been in 5F. I used to run to school in the morning to copy my homework off other lads.”

He was an attacking wing-half – “put it this way, I didn’t like tracking back!” – in the Barnsley Boys team that won the English Schools FA Shield in 1961. When the seven-stone, 14-year-old Greenhoff strutted his elegant stuff on a Valley Parade quagmire in the quarter-final against Bradford, he caught the eye of Leeds’ manager Jack Taylor.

Taylor soon gave way to Revie, who was equally keen. Leeds were neither fashionable nor successful, but on the advice of his father James, an ex-Lincoln player who worked in the steelworks at Stocksbridge, Greenhoff signed for them 50 years ago this summer. “Dad had wanted me to be an accountant or at least get a trade. But clubs wanted to sign when I was 15. I’m not being big-headed but I knew I could make it, so I asked my parents to buy me out of school. It cost them £10. I’d left the choice of club to Dad. He picked Leeds because he was so impressed by (Revie’s senior coach) Syd Owen when he talked about the game. Dad’s judgement was spot-on. I always think, ‘You did me right there, Dad’. I believe Syd had told him what he’d seen in ‘your James’ – I was always James then, and still am in Barnsley, even though everywhere else I’m Jimmy.”

Greenhoff swiftly benefitted from Revie’s readiness to trust in youthful talent. In May 1963, against Southampton at The Dell, he became the eighth teenager to play in the Second Division side that season, aged 16 years, 330 days. He made his home debut in a 5-0 rout of Swansea Town, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s reporter pronouncing his potential to become “another Danny Blanchflower”. He was still a £7-a-week apprentice.

“I was in midfield with the maestro, Bobby Collins, who was so helpful to me. But it was always going to be a struggle to get in at right-half because Billy Bremner was the regular No 4. He was the crowd’s idol and later captain. I think Don reckoned I was ok, though, because he tried to find me a place. It was Syd Owen who suggested trying me up front. He realised I might be better with my back to defenders rather than having to face them or having to turn and chase back, which wasn’t me.”

Greenhoff bagged a hat-trick at Fulham in 1968, and remembers slapping Jack Charlton across the head in his excitement. But by then Mick Jones had arrived as first-choice attacker. When Leeds won their breakthrough trophy, beating Arsenal to lift the Football League Cup, Jones was ineligible. Madeley deputised, with Greenhoff on the right wing. “With Don’s way of playing in those days I was effectively the first right-back, ahead of Paul Reaney, and Eddie Gray was the first left-back, in front of Terry Cooper. We had to get our tackles in first, before it got to them.

“Once we got to 1-0, Don used to make whoever was on the wings even more defensive. That’s what people meant when they said he should have taken them off the leash earlier. That team loved their training, which was always with the ball. They were always ready to learn, too, and once you told them something, it stuck with them. There were no thickies there whatsoever. That’s why I think Don should have been less cautious. They could have won so much more, but he created an anxiety and it put pressure on them. I don’t hold with this idea that they played too many games. I wanted to play every single one; I never wanted to be rested.”

By the start of 1968-69, when Greenhoff played in the first leg of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final against Hungarian club Ferencvaros, his frustration at being a bit-part player came to a head. “Don was fed up with me because I was forever knocking on his door,” he says. “I just wanted away.”

Before the second leg in Budapest, his wish was granted. In retrospect it looks ridiculous for a versatile, experienced player of only 22 to have left a leading club to play outside the top flight; baffling, too, that Revie should have accepted a mere £70,000 for him. “Don isn’t here to answer for himself but he told me nobody had been in for me except Birmingham. I knew Bertie Mee had been after me for Arsenal. And there was a piece in the Weekly News where Bill Shankly said if he’d known I was for sale he’d have taken me to Liverpool. Don didn’t want me joining one of Leeds’ rivals.”

A year later, with Greenhoff desperate to return to the First Division, Birmingham agreed to sell, with a £30,000 profit. There was no lack of suitors. So why Stoke? “I felt something when I met Tony Waddington. He had a reputation for signing veterans, like Roy Vernon and Dennis Viollet, bless them. I thought it best to be honest and said ‘I’m not coming here to do all the running for the old players’. He promised he’d play the youngsters. He kept his word and we did all right. I was very relaxed with Tony. I didn’t feel he was looking me up and down. Don was always worried about whether players had the right girlfriend or wife [Greenhoff married Joan, a Leeds girl, in 1968 and they are still together]. He’d ask the other players, ‘What’s she like? Is she all right?’ Tony’s team talks were like, ‘Who’s taking the penalties?’ He’d have a quiet word with individuals but he didn’t need to instruct someone like George Eastham, Peter Dobing or Alan Hudson how to play. He trusted us, left us to it.”

Greenhoff had played in Leeds’ 3-2 defeat at Stoke late in 1967-68, when Dobing's hat-trick hampered Revie's title ambitions. “Peter used to love playing against Jack (Charlton). He was the fastest thing I’ve ever seen over 15 yards. He could’ve been an England player if he’d wanted it, but he used to say football interfered with his fishing. As long as he had his pipe and a whisky he was happy.”

As much as Waddington tolerated, even encouraged such attitudes in his refuge for ball-artists, he wanted his values to deliver some silverware. After remarkable FA Cup runs in 1971 and ’72, both culminating in semi-final defeat by Arsenal, they won the League Cup in the second of those congested campaigns.

Greenhoff had been an instant cult hero to the Boothen End, his status surviving a sticky start when he “ran around like a headless chicken and couldn’t score for love or money”. He did not find the net against Chelsea at Wembley either, but his shot led to 35-year-old Eastham snatching the winner. “It was a volley. I loved volleying and worked hard on it in training. I couldn’t believe (Peter) Bonetti saved it. But George stuck in the loose ball.

“The only downside was that I hurt my shoulder badly. Peter Osgood did me! I wasn’t going to come off. Not likely. If you watch the video, you can see at the end when Micky Bernard puts his arm round my shoulder, I go ‘Aaagghh’.”

Hudson, a member of the losing team, would join Stoke within two years. “(Chelsea manager) Dave Sexton didn’t like Huddy and Ossie because they enjoyed a few bevvies. Tony quite liked that. Huddy loved him to death and still does. Tony and Huddy would go out drinking together after games. Normally other players would say, ‘That’s not right’. The lads were fine about it. They thought it was a match made in heaven.”

On the pitch, the celestial combination was Greenhoff and Hudson. “When I say we socialised on the pitch, sometimes we partied. We loved playing together. Instinctively we knew where the other would be. I wish I’d played with him from day one. I might've got the European Footballer of the bloody Year! Johnny Giles was the best two-footed player I ever played with. But overall, I rated Hudson even more highly."

Greenhoff endured two “big disappointments” at Stoke. One was their failure to win the League in 1974-75. Leading with three games left, they finished fifth as Derby came through the field. “Tony said later we had nobody who’d been there before and knew what to do. I can’t remember if we relaxed too much in training, or stepped it up. Whatever it was, it didn’t work.” The other was the manner of his departure the following year. A gale ripped the roof off the Butler Street stand and Stoke, uninsured, needed to raise money. Manchester United’s offer of £120,000 seemed too good to refuse for a 30-year-old, and he would earn £250 a week.

He was also joining his brother Brian at United, but even now, discussing the break with the Potteries fans makes him emotional. “It wasn’t a case of not wanting to join United. I just didn’t want to leave Stoke. But if you have to go, what a club to join.”

His new manager, Tommy Docherty, shared Waddington’s footballing principles and easy-going style. “He was a funny man; a laugh a minute. He had lots of enemies but I loved him. Though it was a young side, he had Big Alex (Stepney) in goal and Martin Buchan, a very good skipper, at the back. The Doc told me I was the final piece in the jigsaw.” His ability to form partnerships came to the fore again, this time with Stuart Pearson. “We were both mobile but also both target men. United liked to find one of the front two below head-height. Everything was played on the grass. It suited me perfectly.”

Supporters still tell Greenhoff they loved the “cavalier” football of that era, when United reaching three FA Cup finals in four years. He had adored the competition since he watched the “Matthews final” of 1953. In 1977, after a clutch of semi-final losses with Leeds and Stoke, he had the opportunity to emulate the master Potter as a winner.

Liverpool, going for an unprecedented treble of League, Cup and European Cup, barred United’s way. Greenhoff’s header sent Pearson through to put United 1-0 up only for Jimmy Case to equalise. Then, as Greenhoff hustled for possession, Lou Macari swung at the ball. It struck Greenhoff and looped into the net. “There weren’t 20 TV angles on each goal in those days. But one thing’s for certain, if I hadn’t been where I was it would still have been 1-1. Lou hardly mentioned it for 15 years. Now he keeps bringing it up. I don’t know why! At the time it didn’t matter who scored it. Winning the Cup was what mattered. We were running back to the centre circle and I saw my name on the scoreboard. Afterwards, (TV commentator) Brian Moore asked who was claiming it. I said if it was going towards goal when Lou shot, it was his. If not, it was mine. We watched it and Lou went, ‘It’s yours’. What made it worse for him was me getting a golden boot!”

Greenhoff's bullet header earned another victory over Liverpool in the semi-finals two years later, although Arsenal beat United at Wembley. The distinctive blond thatch and adhesive touch were later seen at Toronto Blizzard, Crewe Alexandra and Port Vale, where fans still drool over his thunderous volleyed goal against York in 1983. “One of my best,” he confirms bashfully.

Out of the game since a year as Rochdale player-manager, Greenhoff remains a popular visitor at the Britannia Stadium and Old Trafford, where Jon Walters and Javier Hernandez invariably excite him. Asked to choose the best manager he served, the reply is diplomacy personified: “I always loved coming in to work at Stoke. And at United. That’s where I enjoyed playing most.”

* From BACKPASS magazine. For subscriptions: