Only two Englishmen ever, played in finals of the World Cup and the European Cup, and won both. One was world-revered Bobby Charlton, the other, his less celebrated Manchester United club mate Nobby Stiles.
Anyone of a certain vintage and many of us who weren’t around to see it, football fans or not, will never forget toothless Nobby’s post-match jig, as he held the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. England had just defeated West Germany 4-2 after extra time in the 1966 World Cup Final.
It’s one of the iconic moments of English football history.
Norbet Peter Stiles, who has died today after a long illness, endeared himself to an entire nation with those impulsive, joyous, post-match celebrations.
Stiles was born in the cellar of the family home in north Manchester during an air raid, the son of Charlie, a manager in an undertakers’ parlour and Kitty, who added to the family income, working as a machinist.
A catholic alter-boy who attended the same school, St Patrick’s, Collyhurst as another of United’s 1968 European Cup winning team, Brian Kidd, Nobby signed for his beloved Manchester United in 1959. His dad drove him round to Old Trafford to sign his first forms in his hearse.
He’d begun his Manchester United career as a right-back, but Busby recognizing the need for someone to win the ball and feed his star front three of Best, Law and Charlton converted Stiles into a holding midfielder, not such a common concept back then.
It was to transform Stiles’ career.
He became United’s fulcrum in midfield and it wasn’t long before England team manager Alf Ramsey took notice, he needed someone to do the same job for Charlton in the national team.
The greatest moments in Nobby’s career came in a cluster in the mid to late sixties, winning the Championship with United in ‘65 and ‘67, the European Cup in 1968 and the World Cup with England in 1966.
But he was not everyone’s cup of tea at national team level. Even during the World Cup finals, in which he played every minute for England the press were giving him a hard time.
“I got slaughtered in the papers, absolutely slaughtered,” Stiles said.
“My job was to win it, give it to Bobby and let him get on with it. The criticism never put me off.”
But the FA was also on the bandwagon, and after receiving a retrospective booking after the group victory over France, demanded that Ramsey drop Stiles.
“I was a liability, they said,” Stiles recalled.
“Alf told them he’d resign if he couldn’t pick who he wanted. He was prepared to resign in the middle of a World Cup over me. I never found that out until he had died. What a man.”
Ramsey’s hard-headedness, if that’s how it should be described, won the day. Stiles was retained, his zealous, ball-winning in the midfield helping England overcome an over-robust and hostile Argentina in the quarter-final, before nullifying Portuguese great, Eusebio in the semi-final.
“Alf always called me by my full name of Norbert. Just before the Portugal match he took me to one side and said: ‘Norbert, I want you to take Eusebio out,’” Stiles said.
“I replied: ‘Do you mean for the game Alf, or for good?’”
Eusebio survived. Portugal didn’t. And England were on their way to the World Cup final
It would be wrong however to view the 5ft 6in Stiles only as an enforcer. Alf Ramsey claimed he had five world-class players in his 1966 World Cup team and amongst the five he included Nobby. Bobby Charlton too has consistently spoken down the years of how well Stiles could read a game, influence the team, tackle and pass.
He was a relatively reserved man off the pitch, short, diminutive, with huge milk-bottle type glasses, which covered half his face. Nobby was considerably short-sighted. In the early years, Matt Busby noticing something was wrong, sent him for eye-tests, the outcome of which produced some powerful contact lenses. Mis-timed tackles were maybe not completely eradicated thereafter, but they became much less frequent.
He will always be a hero in Manchester too of course. Stiles possibly wasn’t as effective against Eusebio in the ‘68 European Cup final as he had been two years earlier playing for England in the World Cup semi-final. His knees by now were beginning to cause problems. But he would do enough to help United get over the line and win their first European Cup.
Just three years later, his time at Old Trafford was up. Between 1960 and 1971 he’d made almost 400 appearances. United sold him to Middlesbrough for £20,000. A brief stop-over in the north-east was followed by an equally short spell with Preston North End as player/coach under Bobby Charlton, who had become the new manager at Deepdale.
He and Charlton exited Preston in 1975, when both objected to the sale of centre-half John Bird to Newcastle United. But Nobby went back as manager two years later, earning the club promotion, before relegation in 1981 saw him facing the sack.
It was not uncommon around this time for old English pros to head out to the US and join the developing NASL. Stiles went as manager of Vancouver Whitecaps in 1981, remaining there for three years.
His last job in management was at West Bromwich Albion in 1985/86, but it didn't go well. Stiles later revealed he’d struggled with depression in the job and found it difficult working in the Midlands, involving the daily commute from Manchester where his family remained.
Stiles said, “The time I had in management was all part of learning and all part of life. In my case it made me realise I was no good at it.”
But there were others acutely aware of his value. United invited him back as youth team coach in 1989, where he worked with and nurtured the developing talents of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt.
Neville today paid tribute. “Rest in Peace Nobby. Thank you for all you did for us. You taught us how to fight for everything in that red shirt.”
He also became a big hit on the after-dinner speaking circuit, regaling stories of days gone by, before deteriorating health intervened.
Nobby suffered a heart attack in 2002 and the first signs of dementia emerged shortly afterwards. In 2013 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
In 2010, after a mini-stroke, he decided to sell his medals in order to leave something to his family. Manchester United bought them for £200,000 and the medals are now housed in the club’s museum.
Stiles is survived by his wife Kay, the sister of United and Leeds midfielder Johnny Giles. He is survived by her and their three sons – John, a former professional himself with Leeds United and Doncaster Rovers, Peter and Rob.
Norbert Peter Stiles - born Collyhurst, 18 May 1942. Died, 30 October, 2020.
Note: Stiles is the seventh of England’s World Cup winning team to pass away. The four survivors are, George Cohen, Geoff Hurst, who scored three times in the final, Bobby Charlton and Roger Hunt.
He is the fifth member of United’s 12-man line-up in the 1968 European Cup final to pass away. From that team he is survived by; Alex Stepney, Pat Crerand, Bobby Charlton, Brian Kidd, John Aston, David Sadler and Jimmy Rimmer.