The cavorting, gap-toothed warrior who waltzed around Wembley Stadium on a balmy July afternoon in 1966, while brandishing aloft the World Cup in gloriously carefree abandon, charmed and disarmed a hitherto sceptical nation.
Suddenly Manchester United’s Nobby Stiles, reviled relentlessly by the fans of rival First Division clubs for his single-mindedly abrasive approach, was installed unassailably as part of England’s sporting heritage, nothing less than a national treasure.
The diminutive, homely Mancunian was the epitome of the common man as folk idol. Off the field he wore false teeth and spectacles, he was overwhelmingly inoffensive and invariably kind, and while it would be an exaggeration to put him in the same league as Frank Spencer, the hapless hero played by Michael Crawford in the BBC sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, he was prone to clumsiness and minor accidents.
For instance, once he needed stitches after clashing heads with a fellow motorist when the two men bent over simultaneously to examine the damage to their respective cars following a slight collision, while the frequency with which he tripped over, spilled tea or cut himself shaving made him the endless butt of affectionate dressing-room banter.
On the field, though, nobody laughed at Nobby Stiles. At his work, he was a veritable tiger, his raw aggression and ruthless devotion to winning remarkable even in the remorselessly attritional world of professional football.
Happily, his inevitable pre-1966 vilification in non-United circles was balanced both by adulation from the Old Trafford faithful and widespread respect from his fellow players. Though most of his contemporaries admitted that his occasional excesses needed curbing, they would stress that there was not a vestige of malice in him, and emphasised, too, that he was far more accomplished technically than was suggested by his lurid, unfairly one-dimensional reputation.
Certainly, any objective assessment of Stiles’s mammoth contribution towards fulfilling England manager Alf Ramsey’s seemingly unlikely promise to lift the Jules Rimet trophy represented merely the icing – albeit a joyously welcome layer of confectionery – on a hugely substantial and satisfying cake.
By the time of the World Cup, the Collyhurst-born dreadnought had already proved himself beyond the need of any wider flourish by helping the Red Devils to lift their first league title since the Munich air disaster, and he was destined to garner greater glory yet as United went on to become kings of Europe in 1968.
Though his fame was founded on his prowess as a ball-winner, whether operating alongside centre-back Bill Foulkes for Matt Busby’s team or patrolling in front of the back four in the international arena, it was as an attacking inside-forward that Stiles had hoped to make his mark after enlisting at Old Trafford as a United-mad teenager in 1957.
Yet despite previous success with Lancashire and England Schoolboys, his initial progress as a professional was slower than he had expected. He had imagined he would be plunged straight into the Reds’ reserves, but instead he found himself in the fifth team, his sole whiff of the big time being the cleaning of the boots of his heroes, the likes of Eddie Colman and Tommy Taylor.
Come 1958, when the Munich calamity devastated the club’s playing resources and a generation of rookies was pitchforked into the limelight, still the eager young Mancunian languished in the lower reaches, and he was demoralised when not selected for the party whisked away to Blackpool to prepare for matches during the emotional FA Cup run which was to culminate in Wembley defeat by Bolton Wanderers.
In retrospect, though, perhaps acting manager Jimmy Murphy did Stiles a massive favour. So many of the youngsters rushed into action before their time, through dire necessity, were to fizzle out without fulfilling their fabulous potential, while he was held back and performed solidly when he did make his senior entrance during 1960-61.
Still, though, he was deployed mainly as an attacking wing-half or inside-forward, and though he was in the team more often than not, there was a growing feeling that maybe he was not destined to excel at the top level.
The turning point arrived, in the form of Paddy Crerand, who was signed from Celtic in February 1963. Looking at the scope and variety of the gifted Scotπs distribution made Stiles realise that a change of emphasis was essential, and he identified the position alongside the centre-half in Matt Busbyπs new 4-2-4 formation as his preferred option.
However, that berth was filled already by a fine player, Maurice Setters, and it took a slice of ill fortune for the rugged West Countryman – a knee injury suffered in a stumble in a hotel foyer in Lisbon – to give Stiles his chance.
When it arrived he seized it avidly, striking up a metronomically reliable and mutually beneficial partnership with big Bill Foulkes. The two men complemented each other perfectly, Foulkes dominant in aerial combat, Stiles dropping off and neutralising danger with a mixture of fearsome tackling and almost uncannily precise interception, a massively underrated facet of his game.
Neither man was a showboater, instead being content to win the ball and then offer a short pass to more creative colleagues, such as Pat Crerand, Bobby Charlton or George Best, which suited ideally the needs of the team.
Part of the central defensive duo’s no-nonsense method was never to speak to their opposition on the pitch. Some forwards were chatty, trying to distract their markers, while others adopted a more offensive approach, issuing dire threats of physical violence. But Stiles and Foulkes could not be intimidated and kept their mouths shut, preferring not to warn opponents when they were about to be rattled by a sudden challenge, retaining the vital element of surprise.
Thus Stiles, his timing improved hugely by the use of contact lenses, became a bastion of the side which won the league in 1964-65 and 1966-67, then capped the achievement by European Cup triumph in 1968.
That steamily hot evening at Wembley, Stiles shackled the great Eusebio almost as comprehensively as he had nullified the multi-talented Portuguese in the World Cup semi-final two years earlier. Only twice did the “Black Panther” slip free of the Mancunian’s bonds, once rattling the crossbar and the other time being foiled by goalkeeper Alex Stepney’s superb instinctive save.
During the following campaign Stiles made 57 senior appearances for the Reds, being sent off unjustly for a harmless gesture in the World Club Championship clash with Estudiantes of Argentina, and contesting another European Cup semi-final.
After that his outings were limited by ever-more debilitating knee problems and in May 1971 the battle-scarred 29-year-old was allowed to join Middlesbrough for £20,000. Later he served Preston North End under his close chum Bobby Charlton, before taking up coaching and management, initially at Deepdale, then in the USA, and subsequently with West Bromwich Albion, taking the Hawthorns helm after a spell of working for brother-in-law Johnny Giles, a former United colleague.
Come 1989 there was a return to his beloved Old Trafford, where he coached youngsters for four years, before hitting the after-dinner speaking circuit where his memories, both sensational and everyday, made him one of the most sought-after entertainers in his field.
They were delivered in a self-deprecating, down-to-earth manner which was endearing, but in case anyone ever wondered about the footballing pedigree of this ordinary-seeming little man, let there be not the slightest doubt. For both club and country, Nobby Stiles was a truly extraordinary performer.
In 2013 it was announced that Stiles was diagnosed with prostate cancer and in 2016 it was announced he had advanced dementia.
He is survived by wife Kay and their three children.
Norbert “Nobby” Stiles, footballer, born 18 May 1942, died 30 October 2020