James Lawton: Stiles feels United have bite to beat the beautiful ones – just as they did back in '68
Veteran of club's first European Cup win, who sees similarities in Saturday's final, recalls how it could all have been so different
Thursday 26 May 2011
Nobby Stiles expects Ryan Giggs to start against Barcelona. It is an article of faith he embraces perhaps more willingly than any of those that brought him on to the early morning streets of Manchester as a sometimes reluctant altar boy nearly 60 years ago.
There are, after all, certain demands on a player at Old Trafford. The most basic one is that you get the job done as best you can, even in the most unpromising circumstances.
The belief in Giggs's ability to deliver under fierce personal pressure, Stiles explains, is just another tenet in a doctrine that links the eras of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby, the man for whom Stiles made maybe the greatest gamble of a career that left him with his friend Sir Bobby Charlton as one of only two Englishmen to win both the World Cup and European Cup.
Stiles risked something other than legendary status when he took out Real Madrid's Amaro Amancio in the 1968 semi-final second leg at the Bernabeu. It was an act of desperate calculation which, if it had gone wrong (or, put another way, been detected), would have brought back to him the charge that he was a pariah of international football – the label that came with his notorious tackle on French player Jacky Simon in a World Cup group game two years earlier.
Yet 43 years on in the countdown to another United appearance in the final, Stiles is not only unrepentant but willing to reassert his belief in the enduring theme of his old club's success.
It is, he claims, a tradition built on a belief that players must be given the self-belief and competitive character that can flourish in any situation.
"I'm sure Fergie can pick Giggs with the greatest confidence," says Stiles. "He's known him for 20 years, he knows what's inside him – and he knows what he can ask of him. Yes, it has been a difficult time these last few days, but Ryan will be asked to do only something that he has been trained to do over all these years. Would you want his talent and experience in a game like Saturday's? Yes. Can you believe he can handle the pressure of his situation? Yes."
As much as Stiles admires the quality of Barcelona and the superb rhythm of their game, he also remembers the aura Benfica brought to Wembley in 1968, and believes that on Saturday the outcome can be the same. "Barcelona are a great team, no doubt, but when they look at United they won't be under any illusion that they face an easy night. Of course United can win – saying this is a no-brainer.
"You only have to look at Ferguson's record. So many times he comes through – and there are two huge reasons for this. One is that his methods don't change and the other is that he puts trust in his players."
It is maybe true that no one ever held such a level of responsibility more precariously than Stiles on that tumultuous night in Madrid.
He recalls the taut episode in some detail in his autobiography: "It was a special challenge for me because it was one of the few times, under Busby or with Alf Ramsey for England, when I was given specific marking instructions. My man was Amancio, a player who had a lot of speed and subtlety. He did the thing defenders least like – he ran at them, offered them the ball and then struck very quickly.
"Real scored the goal that put them level early and the crowd went mad. By half-time it looked as if another of our European missions was going to end in disappointment. They were winning 3-0 in the game, 3-1 on aggregate. I was particularly upset because Amancio had scored one goal, a toe-poke from close in, and left me with a tightening thigh which required heat treatment at the interval.
"I had chased him down the line on the right, forcing him on to his weaker left peg and the ball had run out for a goal kick. As Alex Stepney prepared to take the kick and we trotted into position, Amancio suddenly whacked me. He gave me a tremendous kick on the thigh and right away I feared I wouldn't last the game.
"Even after the heat treatment, my thigh was still tightening and I realised Amancio was going to get away from me, and if that happened we could forget about getting to the final." United got there, remarkably though goals from midfielder David Sadler and central defender Bill Foulkes but not before Stiles did what he believed he had to do. "I ran beside Amancio, shouted 'oi' and when he turned I gave him a good smack. He went down and the Spanish fans went crazy. Despite the din, I heard one of my team-mates shout, 'Fucking hell, Nob.'
"In the case of Simon, I could have told Ramsey on oath that it was a mistake, a mistiming. But I couldn't do that after the Amancio incident." He did not have to. Before the game, Busby said to Stiles, "show them that you're there". If he saw the Amancio incident, he didn't mention it.
Such, maybe, are the imperatives of victory, and certainly the paragons of all today's virtues, Barça, cannot be said to be above them – not if the recent theatrics of Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets are anything of a guide. No doubt, Giggs will not be required to muster his own version of football morality at Wembley, but he will, like Stiles, all those years ago, be expected to find his steeliest edge.
"Sometimes," Stiles reflects, "you have to do what you think is best for the team. You have to try to impose your idea of justice. But then that doesn't mean my blood doesn't run cold when I think how badly things could have turned out."
Instead, Stiles was a hero, once again the figure of romance and glory he was when England won the World Cup. When he says that he can see similar deliverance for Ryan Giggs at the end of maybe the worst week of his life, at least he cannot be said to lack perspective – or any rough understanding of the odds.
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