Stiles remembers the ecstasy and heartache

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The Independent Football

Bill Shankly was standing alone on the terracing of Wembley when he was encountered an hour or so after an FA Cup final in which his Liverpool, for some unaccountable reason, had not been involved. A breeze fluttered some of the accumulated rubbish of the day around his ankles. He was oblivious, though, to everything except some point of the middle distance on which his eyes were fixed.

Bill Shankly was standing alone on the terracing of Wembley when he was encountered an hour or so after an FA Cup final in which his Liverpool, for some unaccountable reason, had not been involved. A breeze fluttered some of the accumulated rubbish of the day around his ankles. He was oblivious, though, to everything except some point of the middle distance on which his eyes were fixed.

Tentatively, he was asked: "Are you all right, Bill?"

"Aye, laddie," he said. "I'm just spending a little time with the ghosts of Wembley. I can see 'em all. I can see wee Alex James making magic. I can see Tommy Finney going down the wing - God, what a sight. I can see that fellow Puskas with his pot-belly doing unbelievable things. I can see Jimmy Baxter and Bobby Moore. Aye, I can see all the ghosts..."

Eventually, a perspiring driver from the television company for whom Shankly had been a guest analyst broke Shankly's reverie. The great man went off, as solemnly as some old medicine man leaving an Apache burial ground.

Such is the aura of Wembley which finally runs its course tomorrow afternoon when England, fittingly enough, take on Germany, who were beaten there 34 years ago on maybe the most uplifting day of all of English sport.

When the World Cup was lifted that day Nobby Stiles, toothless and ecstatic, danced his unforgettable victory jig. Tomorrow, around about the time England and Germany take the field, Stiles will be on the dock at Southampton, from where he leaves for a cruise of the Mediterranean. It is a business assignment; Stiles will sing for his place on the captain's table as the holiday cruiser heads for Casablanca. "Of course I would love to be at Wembley but circumstances change and I have to earn a living. But you know, I have Wembley inside me - and I will have it always. Times change, and it is right that a new stadium is being built. You can't live permanently in the past, and that occurred to me the other day when I went to a game at Old Trafford and thought how much the place had changed, and for the better. I remember how it was when my uncle used to take me to the ground when I was kid and at half-time we could look over the wall and see Glover's Cables works team performing. It was all a different world."

There are so many witnesses to the mystique of Wembley but few can bring to the story quite so much unfulfilled yearning - and exquisite consolation - as Stiles.

Along with Bobby Charlton, he is the only Englishman to have both a World Cup and a European Cupwinners medal, and both of them gained at Wembley.

But then Stiles' first clearly formed ambition as a young footballer of promise was to represented his beloved Manchester United in an FA Cup final. It was born in him as a six-year-old listening to the radio report of United's 4-2 victory over Blackpool in 1948. "Even at that age I worshipped men like Johnny Carey and Jack Rowley and Jimmy Delaney and, when it was clear United were going to win, I got so excited I got my head stuck in the chair. They had to cut me free." This was the first registered evidence of Stiles' notorious clumsiness, which prompted the observation: "Compared to Nobby, Inspector Clouseau is blessedly adroit."

Six times Stiles, who played his first game at Wembley as an England schoolboy in 1957, fell at the last hurdle on the road to Wembley.

"It was very painful and for the longest time it bugged me," recalls Stiles.

"I felt it was my destiny to play in that game, but each time a defeat or an injury ruined my chances just when I felt finally I had made it. It was hard as a kid particularly because I got that early taste of the place. We beat Wales 1-0 in front of 96,000 fans. Derek Woodley scored the goal. He seemed like a very likely lad, but he went to Spurs and disappeared. Bobby Tambling was in the team - and Bob Wilson was in goal. That was before he used his Scottish ancestry to play for the Jocks."

The tide of disappointment began to wash around Stiles in 1962, when the reigning Double-winners, Spurs, beat United 3-1 at Hillsborough in the FA Cup semi-final. But then it gushed around him much more bitterly a year later, when United, who had been engaged in a season-long battle against relegation, fought through to the final against Leicester City. Ten days before the final United were engaged in a vital game with Manchester City.

"In those days we used to have the briefest warm-up, just 10 minutes before the kick-off," says Stiles. "Almost the first time I kicked the ball I felt my hamstring. I struggled through the game. It was pretty hopeless. Paddy Crerand had recently joined the club from Celtic, which put pressure on me because then I was operating as a right-half - Paddy's position - or inside-right. I missed the Saturday game against Orient, which United won 6-1, and then I had one chance to prove myself early in Cup final week - against a very good Nottingham Forest team. I lasted just 10 minutes."

That year the pain was soothed by marriage to Kay, John Giles' sister, and the celebrations in Dublin soon after the final - Giles had a sparkling performance, helping in two of the goals in a 3-1 win before his dynasty-building move to Leeds - were marred only when Stiles' tea cup parted company with its handle and spilled the contents over the best tablecloth.

The Cup final frustration grew with the years, and to a degree survived even the supreme moments of World Cup victory in 1966 and the European Cup triumph over Eusebio's Benfica two years later. In 1964 West Ham beat United in the semi, a year later it was, of all people, his brother-in-law's Leeds, and then in the spring of World Cup year Harry Catterick's fast-rising Everton did the damage. Four years later, it was Leeds again, in a second replay at Bolton after draws at Hillsborough and Villa Park.

"In the end," says Stiles, "it was funny in a grim sort of way. I got the feeling that someone was saying to me: 'Look, Stiles you won the World Cup with England and the European Cup with United at Wembley, so what more do you want? Enough is enough.' In a way I could go along with that, and certainly there isn't a day in my life when I don't thank God that I was able to enjoy those days; that I can call up in my memory people like Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton and Bally [Alan Ball] and Bobby [Charlton] and know that I shared with them two of the best days in the history of English football."

In the Stiles home in Stretford, Manchester, enjoying the prime place among the all the medals and England caps and other memorabilia of battle, is a picture of the schoolboy international player at Wembley. He is shaking hands with Field Marshall Montgomery. Between them, dissecting the picture, is a shaft of brilliant sunshine. "It is a beautiful picture." says Stiles.

"I look at it often." Whenever he thinks of Wembley, in fact. Which, as you will have gathered, is pretty much every day.

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