Sport On TV: Happy days for Stiles the stylish assassin

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A FRENCH JOURNALIST once wrote that Nobby Stiles was the best advertisement for his father's business. His father was an undertaker.

Garth Crooks reminded England's greatest five-foot five-and-a-half-inch hero of this in Tuesday's Match Of Their Day, BBC2's afternoon series that is sadly approaching the end of its run. "They used say I kicked him and he buried them," he responded, teeth in and glasses on looking like a Tommy in a black and white war film.

The programme's subjects have generally been interviewed in the ground they were most associated with, and although in Stiles' case there is an argument for Wembley, he was on the Stretford End with Crooks. "I used to come here with my uncle Peter and my brother," he said. "At half-time I could look out and see Glover Cables, the works team, playing over there."

Though he was the bedrock of Alf Ramsey's midfield, playing in front of Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore, Matt Busby generally employed him in United's back four alongside Bill Foulkes. His eyes were opened when he played in the 1962 semi-final against Spurs (one of the host of semis United lost during the 1960s).

"I was 20 at the time and I marked a fellow called John White. He gave me the biggest chasing I ever got in my life. They called him the Ghost. I learned a great lesson from him - that if you're going to play against a great player and you've going to man-mark him, you've got to sacrifice yourself for the team."

And so he did for his entire career, much to the irritation of opposing fans. He enjoyed a long-lasting love-hate relationship with the Kop, dating from one of his first appearances there when he accidentally caught Tommy Lawrence, the Flying Pig, with a flying boot. His response to the outrage of the Koppites was two-fingered, as was theirs back. And on subsequent visits he would trot over before the kick-off, grinning through his two-fingered accolade.

He paints some vivid pictures. "In the United dressing-room we had Paddy Crerand - he never stopped talking. Besty [George Best] would come in 10 minutes before kick-off, put his gear on and play. I never spoke to anybody." His pre-match ritual was a classic example of the obsessive- compulsive disorder that grips footballers getting ready for a game.

"Put my shorts on, put my contacts in, go to the small bath, warm my feet up, dry them, put my socks on, clean the inside of my boots, put some soft soap inside them. It used to take me nearly an hour to get ready. Paddy would be saying to me, `Come on, come on,' because he always had to be last out. `Come on, hurry up Happy.' They called me Happy because I was such a moaner."

There is some sensational footage of challenges on both sides of the laws of the game. When he did mistime a tackle, the results were usually spectacular, the pick of the programme being a tackle that turned the Spaniard, Sanchis, into a helicopter rotor. But he was sent off only twice in his career - "Though I did get a three-week holiday every Christmas" - and one of those was for remonstrating with a linesman in the first leg of the World Club Championship against Estudiantes after nearly 90 minutes of being punched, kicked, butted, gouged and spat at, mostly by Carlos Bilardo, who later took Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.

I've written it before and I'll write it again (and again): Sir Alf once said that his World Cup-winning side contained four world-class players, and Stiles was one of them. So when Crooks inquired, "So how would Nobby Stiles cope with the game today?" it was impossible not to feel embarrassed for Stiles, being asked such a daft question. Far from stalking out, as he was entitled to do, he made the point that players like himself and Norman Hunter, hard but skilled, would have flourished in an era when "the percentage game only gets you so far" and "the best teams come from the back and play... I believe I would have played today." You're not joking, mate.

One of the occasional benefits of being undished and uncabled is that you get to witness historic sporting moments with a random cross-section of the population. So it was that I found myself on Tuesday in a pub round the corner from Wormwood Scrubs, explaining to an engrossed knot of drinkers the basics of cricket as West Indies approached their famous victory over Australia. "The last time I watched cricket was Headingley," said one, the spitting image of the Fast Show know-all who's done it all, 30 years man and boy.

"I've never seen so many people so engrossed in a cricket match," the barman said. "Well, it is one of the greatest matches in history," I told him, anxious that he should be aware of precisely what he was witnessing. "I wish they were all like that, then," he said. "Ah," I replied. "No chance."