James Lawton: Manchester United deserve a medal for doing right by Stiles

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The Independent Football

When the cashpoint spat out the message, "insufficient funds," Nobby Stiles had some reason to believe that all the glory of his football life had come to nothing.

Yesterday, though, many years after a crisis that briefly took him to the brink of suicide he had some cause for re-appraisal. Crucially, not all of them were to do with the few raps of an auctioneer's gavel that on Wednesday directed £424,438 into his bank account.

Stiles was grateful, certainly, that his old club Manchester United swelled dramatically the yield from the sale of his football memorabilia with winning bids of £188,200 and £48,300 respectively for his World Cup and European Cup-winners medals. It meant that Stiles, suddenly, had a legacy for his three sons.

He also, and at last, had deliverance from the pain that, however well suppressed, had accompanied most every one of his steps since he left Old Trafford, after 14 years of superb service, with shattered knees and an imperilled bank balance.

Some of those strides were away from that cashpoint, where he had gone to draw some petrol money for his daily commute down the M6 to West Bromwich, where he worked as a coach.

He once recalled them with forlorn precision, reporting, "I stood mesmerised by the blinking screen. It felt as though someone had stuck a knife in me. There were people behind me in a queue but I didn't know if they had seen what happened or noticed who I was. I didn't know because I couldn't bear to risk catching anyone's eye. I walked away with my head down, went back home and scratched around for the price of a few gallons of petrol that would get me to the work that was no longer enabling me to pay my way."

Later Stiles lost his job at the United academy, partly because he could no longer tell so many bright-eyed kids that their football dream was over. When he started on the after-dinner circuit, the man who once entranced the nation with his victory jig at Wembley and shared with Sir Bobby Charlton the distinction of being the only English footballers to play in winning finals in both the World Cup and the European Cup, found that his shirt was soaked with sweat when he got up to speak.

Yesterday Stiles (left) could celebrate not just a financial windfall but the powerful sense that, at the end of some "sticky" years, in which he suffered both a heart attack and a stroke, he had reason to congratulate himself on pushing through the darkest time of his life.

No doubt it helped that he had learnt a degree of patience. He waited 34 years for the MBE acknowledging his part in the nation's greatest football triumph, and grinned when his team-mate George Cohen, who was honoured along with Stiles, Roger Hunt, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson on that belated day, told him that someone from the secret service had called and said, "I say old chap, could you help me? We're trying to track down Nobby Stiles because they want to give him one as well."

At a time when football is thought by many to have lost all sense of value, the old game pulled off the feat this week. Stiles was found and given some kind of practical reward. It is not the least of his pleasure that his medals will go to the museum at Old Trafford – and at least partly because of great pressure from United fans these last few weeks.

The club managed to do the right thing. The worry, after all, was that in the wake of the new Wayne Rooney deal they might just have claimed insufficient funds.

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