MOST of you will remember, with particular fondness, your own heroes from Stoke City teams of the past. Players who despite the passing of time, still stick in your mind and whose exploits you remember as though they happened only last week. For some of the more senior supporters it was players of our great teams of the 30s and 40s — Matthews, Steele, Soo and Franklin. In the 50s it may have been King, Bowyer, Coleman or Oscroft. In the 60s there was Ritchie, Mcllroy, Banks, Burrows and of course, Matthews again! From the 70s there were players such as Conroy, Smith, Hudson, Pejic and a whole host of other fine players.
For me, and for many others who started watching Stoke in the late 60’s/early 70’s, there is one player whose name stands out high above the other players of his time. That man is of course Jimmy Greenhoff, a forward player so naturally gifted in the art of football it was enough to make you weep with joy. Jimmy Greenhoff was quite simply the perfect striker. He could make the most of almost any opportunity and was capable of sticking the ball into the back of the net in a great variety of ways — close range, long range, volleys, tap ins, glancing headers, diving headers, you name it, he could do it! To this day I have yet to see a better ‘volleyer’ of the ball (well, maybe Mark Hughes might come close) than our Jimmy.
Many times, while standing on the Boothen End I have heard supporters discussing his great goals and his awesome ability. I have heard fathers telling their young sons about him, and how he wouldn’t have missed the sitter our forward just did. Whenever Stoke supporters do talk about him, it is usually with a reverence normally reserved for monarchs and the like, such is the esteem that his name carries.
That he ever came to play for Stoke City was due to a very good piece of luck on our part. Tony Waddington actually spotted Greenhoff whilst spying on John Mahoney during an England v. Wales Under-23’s match. Waddington was not deterred by the assertion of Leeds United coach, Maurice Setters, that he was lazy, and promptly snapped him up for £100,000, Stoke’s first six-figure transfer fee!
Despite a tricky settling-in period Jimmy soon became a favourite with Stoke supporters, who appreciated his fine skills, his eye for an opening and his tendency to produce the spectacular, and on occasion, the unbelievable. There was an excited buzz of expectancy around the ground whenever he had the ball near goal. You could almost sense that he was going to produce something special.
He played a key-role in our cup-runs of the early 70s and collected his second League Cup winners medal when he helped us to defeat Chelsea (his first medal had been gained at Leeds). In 1973 he almost kept us in the cup in a 3rd Round match at Maine Road, scoring twice in the second half to wipe out the home team’s two goal advantage. Unfortunately Manchester City still managed to go through, grabbing a late winner.
At the start of the 73/74 season he scored the two goals that won us the Watney Cup. A year later and it was his flying header in the dying seconds that earned us a League Cup replay against Chelsea. Five days after that draw we won the said replay by an impressive 6-2 (No goals for Jimmy though!).
It was during the 74/75 season that the two games involving Jimmy Greenhoff that I most vividly remember took place. The first of these was against Birmingham City at St. Andrews. Stoke had gone top of the table the previous week and were keen to dispel all the press talk of them being a “One Week Wonder”. Stoke won the game 3-0 with Greenhoff netting two and Ian Moores grabbing the other. I can’t remember the exact sequence of goals, but one of Greenhoff’s was a sight to behold. He received the ball about chest high, some 25 yards out and with his back to goal. In the time it takes to bat an eyelid (well, pretty quickly anyway) he chested the ball, swivelled on the spot and hit a first time volley over the head of the startled Blues keeper into the far corner of the net. He had created a goal from absolutely nothing, it was a moment of pure genius.
Later that season we met the eventual champions Derby County in a top-of-the- table cash at the Baseball Ground. With little over a quarter of an hour remaining the home team were leading through a Kevin Hector goal. However, the home crowd would be stunned by two moments of pure Greenhoff magic. First he volleyed home a far post cross to equalise (nearly bursting the net in the process) and then in the very last minute he contorted himself in mid-air to get his head to a cross that looked to be going behind him. He met the ball perfectly, steering it into the bottom corner of the net for a dramatic winner.
After that game I truly believed that Jimmy Greenhoff was the greatest footballer of all time, and to be perfectly honest, I still believe it now.
In January of 1976 disaster struck the club. The roof of the Butler Street Stand was partially destroyed in a fierce storm. Little did we know at the time, but it was an event that would eventually lead to Jimmy Greenhoff leaving the club later that year. Stoke’s ambitious free-spending policy in the early 70’s had left the club’s coffers all but empty. There were simply insufficient funds available to finance the necessary repairs on the damaged stand. Consequently, the team was systematically sold off to raise the cash required. Hudson, Mahoney and Pejic would all leave, much to the annoyance of the supporters, but it was the sale of Greenhoff in November 1976 that shocked us all. Manchester United picked him up for a pathetic £100,000 or so.
Just to really rub it in, in his last game for us, against Middlesbrough, he bagged a couple of goals. A farewell present?
As the manager, Tony Waddington was singled out for blame by a bitter and angry Stoke support who saw him as the man who had betrayed them. His days at the club were well and truly numbered. It has since transpired that Tony Waddington had never wanted to sell Greenhoff but had been forced to by a poverty-stricken Board. Unfortunately for Waddo, no-one knew this and the Board let him take the full force of the fans fury.
After Greenhoff’s departure the fortunes of the club quickly plummeted and we slid alarmingly down the table. In marked contrast to this, Jimmy’s career was flourishing at an appreciative Old Trafford. I remember watching Star Soccer on a Sunday afternoon and seeing him hit a hat-trick against Newcastle United. It was our Jimmy scoring the goals that would have kept us in Division One had he not left.
At the end of the season we were relegated whilst Jimmy scored the winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool (albeit with an outrageous fluke!). It was almost too much to bear.
From time to time, when Manchester United hadn’t got a game, Jimmy would come to watch Stoke at the Victoria Ground. It never took long for the Boothen End to spot him, sitting in the special section between the Main Stand and the Boothen End. We would sing for his return and chant his name over and over again, ignoring the game in progress. Jimmy once said that it brought a lump to his throat knowing that Stoke supporters still idolised him, a full two to three years after he had left.
Every time he came to watch us play, the rumours of his impending return to Stoke City would sweep the terraces like wildfire. We lived in hope, it was a forlorn hope, he never came back.
He faded from our thoughts somewhat as Alan Durban took us back to Division One. In 1980 Jimmy joined Crewe Alexandra for what turned out to be a very short spell, eleven games to be precise. He then moved on to the North American Soccer League to play for Toronto Blizzard before coming home again to join Port Vale. After playing a part in Vale’s promotion to the Third Division in 1982/83 he moved on to become Player-Manager of lowly Rochdale. This venture into football management was not a success and Jimmy was sacked after only eight months in the job. His connection with football was over!
In over 20 years of following Stoke City I have not seen anyone at the club who has been as highly regarded by the supporters as Jimmy Greenhoff. He was our hero and we worshipped him accordingly.
In his excellent book, Dudley Kemick, says that Jimmy Greenhoff was not a very good club man and that he was often reluctant to attend or participate in club activities during his own time. This may well be the case, but I don’t care, he did all that I wanted from him on the playing field, where it mattered.
Unbelievably, never capped at full international level (he was picked for the Wales v. England Centenary match in March 1976, but had to withdraw due to a rearranged Stoke game) Jimmy was nevertheless one of the most exciting players seen in the First Division during the 1970’s and he made a lasting impression on the minds of many supporters. He was A CUT ABOVE the rest.
On a cold winters night in December 1982, I ventured up to Vale Park to watch Port Vale entertain York City, managed of course by Denis Smith, with Viv Busby also a member of the visiting team. What with Jimmy Greenhoff in the Vale team, it was almost like the good old days at the Victoria Ground!
Midway through the first half the Vale won a corner at the Bycars End (I was standing directly behind the goal). Instead of the corner being played in to the penalty area, it was swung out to Jimmy Greenhoff, standing some 25-30 yards out. What followed is probably the best goal I have ever witnessed at a football game. Jimmy smashed the ball first time on the volley and, before the York keeper could even move, it had rocketed into the top of the net via the inside of the angle of post and crossbar.
It was the first time I had seen Jimmy play in nearly six years but even this seemed a short time to wait to witness such breathtaking brilliance!
This article first appeared in Issue 19 of The Oatcake on October 14th 1989.