Heart Of Football

Fate favours Rooney but Greaves is down on his luck

England's Wayne Rooney covers himself during their Euro 2016 qualifying soccer match against San Marino at the Olympic stadium in Serravalle, San Marino, Sept 5, 2015.
England's Wayne Rooney covers himself during their Euro 2016 qualifying soccer match against San Marino at the Olympic stadium in Serravalle, San Marino, Sept 5, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Whatever happens this weekend, Wayne Rooney's England scoring record is up there with that of Bobby Charlton.

You might think that fate is making it easy for the current Manchester United and England captain to eclipse the record of the former United and England top scorer, who bagged 49 goals in 106 games for England over 12 years up to 1970.

Rooney began last night's Euro 2016 qualifier against San Marino on 48 goals from 105 games over the past 12 years.

San Marino. It gets no more inviting than this, against the team from a tiny, autonomous republic off Italy that have the mighty record of just one victory - 1-0 against Liechtenstein in 2004 - to their name.

Last May, he (Greaves) suffered a stroke that makes him dependent on daycare. Others are trying on his behalf to raise money for 500 hours of physiotherapy over and above what Britain's National Health Service provides.

That is one win from 129 international matches. San Marino has a population of 32,576, and the team were until last year ranked joint last, with Bhutan, among the 209 Fifa nations.

We should not scoff.

Part of football's attraction is that it is open to all, and that on a given day the old saying is that anything can happen between 11 men on each side.

In truth, Charlton had his fair share of rabbit-shooting in an England shirt. And if, during the night, Rooney failed to get the required brace of goals against Alessandro della Valle (a goalkeeper whose day job is behind a desk as a bank clerk) and Aldo Simoncini (a central defender whose job is also in finance), the next opportunity comes against Switzerland at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday.

I neither intend to belittle these opponents nor to raise up Rooney as the modern equivalent of Charlton.

Let's just say that San Marino and Switzerland are not Argentina and Germany, and that qualifying for the 2016 European Championships is not up there with winning the World Cup, as Charlton and his fellow team-mates did in 1966.

But there is a third name in this story of England scoring greats - a name that is in the news this weekend for a different reason.

Jimmy Greaves, a contemporary of Charlton, actually outdid the pair of them in terms of goals per game.

Greaves struck 44 goals in his 57 games for England. He missed out on the 1966 World Cup because Alf Ramsey, the manager, did not consider him as a hard enough worker, a team player.

To be fair, Ramsey's preference for Geoff Hurst's greater physical presence and tireless running paid off when the player struck a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over West Germany in the final.

Such a luxury of choice, and such home advantage in those days, was a blessing for the England manager. Nowadays, the manager Roy Hodgson has one proven striker, and tries to serve Rooney with the pace of Raheem Sterling and Leicester City's Express Train, Jamie Vardy.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Rooney's problems with Man United, interpreted by many as his own decline, triggered the club's amazing £36 million (S$77.6 million) signing for the teenager Anthony Martial last week.

Rooney's problem is a lack of pace; Martial has pace in abundance. United have been panicked into paying a world-record fee for teenage potential.

All these sums, and the wages of the modern player, are in a different league to the Charlton-Greaves era.

And, poignantly, Greaves is back in the news right now for a reason that he never would have wanted.

He in his heyday was the happy-go-lucky Londoner whose goals were amassed for Chelsea and then Spurs on the minimum of training. He was great company in the pub but later (some believe triggered by him being dropped by Ramsey) suffered as an alcoholic.

Often laughing at the way most footballers took themselves and their game too seriously, Greaves built up an after-life on the public speaking circuit, writing a humorous popular newspaper column, and as a TV presenter.

All of those life choices fuelled his drinking habit, and we might judge for ourselves how much the descent into alcoholism came through a man pretending on the surface to shrug off being denied the opportunity to fulfill his talent in the greatest game of his lifetime.

Greaves himself dismisses the theory as nonsense. He always claimed that playing, and his knack of finding and converting the scoring chances, was just something that he was born with.

Why am I going over old, very old, ground? Because the story around Greaves today is a pitiable one. He sold his medals and gave up the heavy drinking.

Last May, he suffered a stroke that makes him dependent on daycare. He is 75 and by all accounts is fighting the disability with enormous willpower.

Others are trying on his behalf to raise money for 500 hours of physiotherapy over and above what Britain's National Health Service provides. The target for the appeal is £30,000.

The FA has made a donation. The Professional Footballers' Association will help, as it did in the past when Greaves needed knee replacements in both limbs, no doubt a legacy of his marvellous ability to dodge and weave, twist and turn in the goalmouths.

But newspaper reports yesterday put the running total on the Jimmy Greaves "Just Giving"? appeal no higher than £17,496 - half the target required to guarantee the rehabilitation process.

The FA is considering making an appeal at Wembley on Tuesday, the last day the fund remains open.

Frankly, I'm puzzled. The amount is small change to Rooney, and to any of the current players who occupy the clubs - Chelsea, Tottenham, even briefly AC Milan - where Greaves made his name.

Sport is built on legends. Greaves in his own, apparently carefree way, gave us a thousand memories, more for sure than any striker at all his former clubs can boast today.

He won't beg for their charity but they might consider giving it anyway.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Fate favours Rooney but Greaves is down on his luck'. Print Edition | Subscribe