Ken Jones: Stiles deserves his place alongside the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer

Click to follow
The Independent Football

No member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team fascinated foreign observers more than Nobby Stiles. Bobby Charlton, all grace and violent shooting, they understood; Bobby Moore was a stand out; Geoff Hurst and Alan Ball made no demands on perception. Stiles bewildered them. Small, skinny, short-sighted, minus his front teeth, they imagined him in a Disney parade trailing behind Snow White. "How heavy is Stiles?" Alf Ramsey was asked before a match between England and Sweden in Stockholm. "I would say about 10 stones," Ramsey replied, adding: "But more like 10 tons when he tackles."

The cavorting symbol of England's greatest victory, Stiles, with cooperation from my colleague James Lawton, has a book out. Doubtless, it will be heavily out-sold by David Beckham's forthcoming celebrity memoirs, but it is unlikely that the present England captain has conveyed anything to his ghost writer that compares with this captivating tale of a real football man, who had a hard fight to establish himself with Manchester United and in the national team, before dealing with later disappointments, and a heart attack.

Shortly to be reviewed on these pages, Nobby Stiles - After The Ball, takes us back to a time before grotesquely inflated salaries, television overkill and the wounds of widespread mismanagement. Hardly for the reason of advancing years, it is a time in which I retain a great deal of interest.

But Stiles still has a place alongside such notables as Pele, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer, and Denis Law speaks of courage, persistence and more natural skill than many gave him credit for. However, if Stiles' close-quarter passing was always sharp and consistently accurate, it was his acute awareness and hard tackling that brought the fame he dreamed of when raised in a tough working-class district of Manchester. Stiles the altar boy, growing up under the influence of nuns, was definitely not the picture opponents had of him.

Considering the importance of Stiles' role in the 1966 triumph, both as a skirmisher in front of England's defence and as a provider for Bobby Charlton, it may surprise the modern generation to discover that his first full cap was not awarded till 14 months before the finals. Stiles' selection against Scotland at Wembley in April 1965 caused many eyebrows to be raised, not least those of Moore. If the England captain was at first dubious, his mind was quickly changed by the commitment and confidence Stiles displayed upon his debut against a strong Scotland team. When England came under the cosh in a 2-2 draw Stiles was everywhere, breaking up attacks and rapping out admonishments to more experienced players. "I kept looking at the little fellow and thinking if he could do it, so could the rest of us," Moore said. "After that there was no doubt in my mind that Nobby would be included in the World Cup squad and probably the team."

Some years after Stiles discovered that he wasn't fitted for football management, and before he returned to Old Trafford as a member of the coaching staff, I was given proof of his ongoing popularity. Asked to assemble a squad of veteran players for a series of televised indoor five-a-side matches in Rotterdam, I recruited some big names from the past including first, Martin Peters, Frank McLintock, George Graham and Cliff Jones. At the suggestion of the organisers Stiles was invited to take part. "I think the audience would like to see Stiles as much as any other British player," they said.

It was soon pretty clear that the organisers had got it right. An old knee injury prevented Stiles from making more than fleeting appearances in a swirl of substitutions, but every time he was introduced the arena shook with applause.

One of the things that set Stiles apart from the majority of his contemporaries was a sunny disposition. During Dave Sexton's tenure as manager of Manchester United he was frequently visited by some of the club's former players. "It was a regular thing," Sexton said, "and I was always glad to see them. Some would moan about how things were in their day. Not Nobby. He didn't have a bad word for anybody. He filled the room with cheer."

The most famous incident concerning Stiles was a mistimed tackle on Jacques Simon, of France, during the 1966 finals that brought Ramsey under pressure to leave him out of the following match against Argentina. Some time later, when both had long since retired as players, Stiles had spotted Simon on a Thames River pleasure boat during the week of a football carnival. It was his first opportunity to apologise. "I didn't mean it," he said. Before Simon could respond Jimmy Greaves put his oar in. "Don't believe the dirty little bastard," he said.