A long way to Mexico

Though not picked for England, there was no way Jimmy Greaves was going to miss out on being in Mexico in 1970. So he drove there – and it nearly cost him his life…

An extract taken from The Official Tottenham Hotspurs Opus.

Tick-tick-tick… The engine of the Ford Escort turned over slowly. Inside the car, now stranded on the side of the road, Jimmy Greaves stirred, his head slumped against the dashboard. He looked down. His racing overalls, once covered in oil, were now splattered in blood, as was the car windscreen, which was cracked and split from the impact of the crash. Greaves checked himself for cuts. Fortunately the blood was not his own; nor was it that of the driver, the rally champion Tony Fall. So whose could it be?


As Fall also began to stir, Greaves started to make sense of the blur of the accident. He had been asleep, but was jolted awake by the sound of screeching brakes as a horse galloped out of nowhere in front of their car on this lonely stretch of Panamanian road. Too late. A ton-and-a-half of souped-up Ford Escort had met half a ton of horse at 100mph. The horse came off worse, its head ripped clean off as it flew over the car.


Both drivers were shocked, but unhurt. Shaking, they stepped out of the car to inspect the damage. The windscreen was a mess, but the dent in the bonnet was not too bad. Feeling nauseous, the pair set about wiping the blood from the glass before climbing back into the car and speeding off on their way again. They left the dead horse behind.

Greaves and Fall had been making steady progress in the South American leg of the 1970 World Cup Rally and were among the leading 10 drivers, but this accident was to set them back in the race order.

Only two more weeks to go…

When Greaves, the 30-year-old Spurs striker and England international, announced he would be competing in a cross-continental rally in 1970, the football community scratched its head. That one of the game’s most prolific strikers should take up rally driving as a hobby (imagine Michael Owen taking up snowboarding) was amusing. That he should compete in one of the sport’s most gruelling events – the World Cup Rally – on the eve of the 1970 football World Cup tournament in Mexico was insanity.

The rally was the brainchild of Wylton Dickinson, a race promoter with friends in The Football Association. The idea of a rally featuring every country participating in the World Cup Finals and culminating in the capital city of the host nation was conceived at a dinner party.  Within a month, the brainstorm was viewed as an excellent opportunity to showcase the motor industry and sponsorship with the Daily Mirror was arranged.

Kicking off at Wembley and culminating in Mexico City, the rally was viewed as a unique sporting event: the registration of a few celebrity drivers assured the nation’s interest.

Greaves’s registration with Ford and the 30-year-old Fall (winner of the notoriously difficult Rally of the Incas the previous year) was initiated by the car manufacturer, whose main plant in Dagenham was located near Greaves’s Essex home. Ford had been looking for a high-profile driver to spearhead their campaign and Greaves, who had friends at the plant, had proved ideal.

Fall was also keen to work with Greaves. “My carrot was a two-week holiday in the Caribbean with my wife, courtesy of Ford after the race had finished,” he said. “Jim hadn’t done any racing before this point, so Ford wanted me to get him through the race in one piece. I had to teach him what to do, so in reality I was the brains behind the duo and he was the name.

“They introduced us and we got on very well, but before we started planning for the World Cup Rally, we went on a short trip in the car to Yugoslavia to see if we could get on over a long period of time. It was here I realised just how famous Jimmy was. My first taste of his celebrity came just after we set off for Dover. We got to the docks and the car was mobbed as soon as people realised who was in it. Even the Customs office emptied.

“When we finally got to Yugoslavia, we ended up at a hotel and as soon as he walked through the door the receptionist did a double-take, rang everybody he knew and the nightclub downstairs emptied as we were mobbed by football fans.”

With training underway, Greaves’s interest in the World Cup Rally was heightened by the frustration of being dropped from the Spurs side after a disappointing defeat in The FA Cup at the hands of Crystal Palace. Greaves also knew he wouldn’t be travelling with Sir Alf Ramsey and the England squad, so this would be his route to the World Cup Finals in Mexico. He also felt his game was losing its edge; it was a view shared by Bill Nicholson, the Spurs manager. “By this time Greaves’s reactions had slowed,” Nicholson said. “Reflexes are the first thing to go in a footballer, and he relied heavily on them.”

Greaves said: “Bill dropped me for the first time in my career. For several weeks my career came to a standstill and I spent more time on motor rally runs than I did on football matters. My co-driver, Tony, was giving me crash lessons – not literally, luckily – in rally driving.”

Worse for Greaves was that his preparation for the rally had alarmed Spurs. Nicholson had asked him to commit himself to Spurs part-time, hoping that it would rejuvenate his career. The striker was required in only twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – allowing him to concentrate on his business interests with his brother-in-law, Tom, and also to practise for the rally. The whole-heartedness with which Greaves approached the forthcoming race concerned Nicholson – his mind was clearly not focused on football.

“It was probably my first big step towards retirement,” Greaves said. “Football was pushed down my list of priorities and I began to think more and more about making a complete break from the game. I took the rally so seriously that Bill Nick read it as a sign that I was losing my appetite for football. Maybe he was right at the time, but it would quickly have been rekindled with a recall to the first team. Once Nick had made up his mind to drop me, I became an embarrassment to him. It was none of my doing, but the first time he selected a team without my name in it, the press pestered him.”

With the transfer gossip raging around the club, Nicholson turned his attention to finding a new striker, while Greaves fielded offers from Joe Mercer, manager of Manchester City, and Derby County’s charismatic general, Brian Clough. In the meantime, Nicholson located his target: Martin Peters of West Ham United. Peters – a 1966 World Cup winner with England and a former international team-mate of Greaves – was likely to drain the Spurs coffers of about £200,000. Spotting the financial difficulties of such a move, Nicholson shrewdly set up an exchange deal involving Greaves moving in the other direction.

So it was that on March 16, 1970, Greaves became the property of the Upton Park club.Spurs fans and players alike were shocked. “We couldn’t believe what Bill had done,” Alan Mullery, the Spurs midfielder, said. “We were gobsmacked. Greaves was still a great player.”

Greaves was just as surprised, but went along with the deal. “Looking back on that day, I wish to God I had told them that I was not interested [in moving],” Greaves said. “I knew I could have done a lot better financially because I’d had several offers on the old hush-hush while I was in the Spurs team. I was receiving nothing illegal or mind-boggling from West Ham, but the thought of meeting Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, and the fact that the Hammers’ training ground was only 15 minutes from my home and my businesses, lulled me into a signing I have regretted ever since.”

The West Ham deal allowed Greaves to focus his efforts on the motor race once again (manager Ron Greenwood was not concerned at his new signing’s extra-curricular activities after Greaves had scored two goals on his debut against Manchester City), and with only two months of the football season remaining, Greaves’s sights were set firmly on the World Cup Rally.

He would come to regret the decision to compete in that almost as much as the one
to join West Ham.

On April 19, a balmy spring afternoon, Sir Alf Ramsey, the England manager, waved the Union Jack that signalled the beginning of the Daily Mirror World Cup Rally. Bobby Moore, the team’s captain, had already cut up the Wembley turf and placed a slab in the boot of each of the 96 cars revving their engines on the starting-line. Twenty-five thousand spectators waved the racing fleet off.

In car number 26 – a black and white Ford Escort – sat Greaves and Fall. Both knew the 16,245 mile journey across two continents and 25 countries would be arduous, but neither was prepared for the gruelling eight weeks ahead. The plan was for Fall to take on the bulk of the driving responsibility, with Greaves assuming the role of navigator and taking the wheel when the terrain and twisting contours of the road weren’t too demanding. Greaves had proved to Fall that he was a competent driver, and the pair were the bookies’ second favourites at 12/1 (Prince Michael of Kent, who had also been signed up for the race in a fantastic publicity coup, was ranked as one of the outsiders at 20/1).

Greaves was embarrassed at the publicity that surrounded him, though. He had made it clear in several interviews that Fall was the professional in the partnership (“a fantastic driver,” Greaves said soon after, “and despite all the doubts about rallying, one I’d like to be able to partner again in the 1972 London-Sydney marathon”). Ford, in turn, had been impressed by Greaves’s ability behind the wheel and had entered the car in his name, expecting it to achieve great things.

The cars set off, heading for Lisbon via Vienna, Sofia, Yugoslavia, Monza and northern Spain. It soon became apparent that, after only a few stages of the rally, the race was not going to be the enjoyable challenge for which Greaves had hoped.

“We were going 55 hours in one stretch without any sleep as we navigated the toughest terrain in the world,” Greaves said. “We were travelling at speeds of up to 100mph on mountain roads that were built with only donkey travel in mind.”

“Greaves was physically fit,” Fall said. “But he found the rally pretty tough. He wasn’t used to the conditions and the lack of sleep, but he got used to it after a while.”

The Serbian stretches of the race proved to be particularly demanding. Split into two ‘primes’ of 120 miles, the route claimed several cars as they careered off mountain roads where tarmac would give way to cracked tracks and half-finished paths. Such was the haste to stage the race that organisers had failed to close off all the roads to the public. Several cars were written off when they swerved off the road to avoid wandering spectators and pedestrians. The Escort Mexico, driven by Finnish partnership Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm in The Telegraph team, drove so hard on this particular stretch that their car flew over a wooden bridge with planks missing in a spectacular jump. Oh, and there was an earthquake, too.

Despite the hazards, Greaves and Fall were beginning to show championship qualities. Forty-five minutes had been lost in the second Serbian prime, but the next journey to Italy saw them complete the second speed test two minutes quicker than any other car, despite one section of the road being swamped by a herd of rogue cows. Those Italian football fans who were familiar with Greaves from his short-lived but dramatic three-month spell at AC Milan in 1961, lined the roads at Camporosso, in northern Italy, where the cold weather conditions had served to ice the track.

“We were travelling at speeds of up to 100mph on mountain roads that were built with only donkey
travel in mind”

However, punctures were beginning to cause them problems, and Fall, a skilful driver who relied on speed and dexterity rather than power when negotiating the roads, became frustrated with the technical difficulties which were increasingly plaguing their car. By the time the pair approached Lisbon, they had a good chance of gaining on the race leaders, only to run out of petrol. The pair pulled over and walked to a garage where they attempted to pay for their fuel with a $20 note. “We had a broken axle in the Serbian stage,” Fall said. “And we had to carry that problem for the rest of the rally. There was nothing we could do about it. Still, we were finishing our stages in good times.”

The pair boarded the boat to where the next section of the race would take place:
Rio de Janeiro and the South America leg. “We had a much-needed three-week break,” Fall said. “And the sponsors arranged for us to have a holiday in Rio. It was a great chance for us to let our hair down and we did a lot of what Jimmy would call relaxing.” Mikkola also recalled the break. “It started with a nine-day ferry crossing. And with Greaves in our party, we didn’t go thirsty,” he said.

Greaves said: “Seventy-one cars left for Rio for speed tests that took place during tropical floods, which made driving treacherous and dangerous. We sped through clouds of red dust and then along miles of flooded, cramped and bumpy roads. It was such a tough stage of the rally that at the end of it only 52 cars were left.”

With 10,000 miles remaining, Greaves and Fall negotiated the Argentinian Pampas, which challenged them with 1,000 miles of treacherous paths and tracks in the toughest stretch of the race. An average speed of 60mph was required here, but the thin air, on account of being at altitude, reduced the cars’ engine capacity by half.

The drivers suffered, too. “It was difficult to breathe up there,” Fall said. “We didn’t have the technology they have today, so we had to deal with the altitude sickness without the aid of drugs. A lot of competitors passed out.”

Battered by the abrasive twists and the harsh elements, the cars themselves began to buckle. “We were 15,000 feet up in the Andes on a narrow, winding mountain road when we lost a rear wheel close to the finishing line,” Greaves said. “We had already used our spare and we finished the stage with me at the wheel and Tony at the back, pushing.

“We lost a wheel again on the next stage, but it so easily could have been our lives. Tony was driving and I was navigating as we came down a steep and narrow mountain road. Suddenly an old peasant woman crossed the road in front of us. Miraculously, Tony swerved the car past her and skidded to a stop on the mountain edge as a wheel axle broke. We were literally feet from death. I hardly dared breathe as my brilliant co-driver manoeuvred the car back into the centre of the road before we jacked it up and started urgent repairs.”

“In some sections of the South American section – particularly Colombia – all the locals were chewing on the root [cocaine], and were out of their heads most of the time, so they would wander onto the road,” Fall said. “We drove past an electrical generator and watched these stoned guys touching the live wire with a coat hanger, laughing as it gave them a shock and threw them up in the air. You could smell the burning hair.”

The cars were finally on their way to the finishing line. Peru was the first stop on the home stretch and there the roads were lined with football fans who had watched
Greaves score a hat-trick in England’s 4-0 stuffing of Peru in 1962. By now, though, the seven-week stretch on the road was affecting the drivers’ health. ”Our skin was taking a real hammering,” Fall said. “We hadn’t eaten any fruit or vegetables for weeks. There was plenty of red meat – all you’d eat was steak – but the lack of vitamins was a real problem and we began to feel very ill.”

Only 32 cars made it to the Peruvian capital, Lima, which had recently been devastated by an earthquake. Landslides and tropical monsoons plagued the journey through Ecuador before engine problems in Chile nearly ended Greaves’s rally.

“We broke down in the middle of nowhere,” Greaves said. “But I finally managed to thumb a lift on a bus that was going back to the garage [they had passed one on the road]. Half an hour later I was walking back to Tony, who was wondering if I had got lost forever, with my hands in my pockets and head bowed. It was worse than the feeling of being sent off the field. The bus had gone the opposite way to the direction I wanted. Shows what a good navigator I was!”

Greaves and Fall finally made their way down the last 100 mile-long stretch to the Aztec Stadium. It was a route that took the local bus 11 hours to complete, but Greaves and Fall would finish it in under an hour and a half. As the car crossed the finishing line in the tiny village of Fortin de las Flores, just outside Mexico City, Fall and Greaves were showered with petals thrown by local girls.

Only 23 cars completed the race. One cyclist, a driver and a rally official had lost their lives along the way. Greaves and Fall had finished in a creditable sixth place, with the Finnish partnership of Mikkola and Palm
taking first place.

“Jimmy Greaves has earned the admiration of the motoring world,” Graham Hill, the former Formula 1 world champion, said during the medal ceremony. “It is an outstanding achievement for him to finish so high in a field against some of the greatest rally drivers in the business. The rally puts unparalleled demands on the durability of both men and machines. It takes guts and a lot of driving ability to get through.”

Greaves was equally astounded to have made it through the event in one piece. “If I had realised how hard the race was going to be, I doubt I could have summoned up the courage to face it,” he wrote in his autobiography, This One’s On Me. “Those rally drivers are amongst the toughest and most fearless sportsmen I have ever met. There were times when I felt physically sick over the demands of the race, and several times I wanted to quit, but there was no way I was going to let Tony down.”

‘Graham Hill, the former Formula 1 world champion, said during the medal ceremony that “Greaves  has earned the admiration  of the motoring world”’

Greaves and Fall celebrated their achievement by jumping fully clothed into a nearby swimming pool. Enthroned on a chair that had also been tossed into the water, Greaves proceeded to drink himself paralytic. “I conscientiously followed the rule of the road: ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’,” he said. “The only alcohol I consumed during the rally was while we were on the boat from Lisbon to Rio after we had tackled the mountains of Serbia in the European half of the event.”

There was still the small matter of the football World Cup.

Arriving to defend their crown, the England team had recently set up camp in Mexico, awaiting their captain, Bobby Moore, Greaves’s new West Ham team-mate and former England room-mate. Falsely accused of stealing a bracelet in the Colombian capital, Bogota, when England played a warm-up game there, Moore had been embroiled in a major diplomatic incident which had repercussions that went all the way up to Prime Ministerial level. Having just been released from his Bogota jail cell, Moore was holed up in an embassy house in Mexico City to avoid the attention of the world’s media.

Deciding Moore would welcome the company, Greaves roped in Fall and the Daily Express journalist Norman Giller to help him find the embassy and shin over the wall. “I got into the back of the house through some French windows,” Greaves said. “Mooro almost dropped his lager in surprise when he saw me approaching from the direction of the kitchen. He was even more surprised when I asked him where he’d hidden the bracelet!”