Nobby Stiles: Get it, give it: how Mr Magoo met Jules Rimet

England World Cup winner Stiles recalls glory days of Ramsey and Busby, and draws parallels with successors

The Brian Viner Interview
Saturday 05 October 2013 03:59

When the multi-millionaire footballers of England take the field against Macedonia this afternoon, watching them on the telly, in the front room of his modest home in Stretford, Manchester, will be a man who has more in the bank than all of them put together: a World Cup winner's medal.

It would take David Beckham about 10 days to earn enough money from his Real Madrid salary alone to buy the other half of the small, red-brick semi occupied by Norbert Peter Patrick Paul Stiles and his wife Kay. Not that the Stileses would want the Beckhams, with all that razzmatazz, as next-door neighbours. And not that Nobby Stiles is resentful of the rewards now compared with the rewards then (for winning the World Cup, each member of the England squad received a bonus of £500, which was pitiful even in 1966; the West German players were each given around £10,000 just for reaching the final).

All the same, sitting with Stiles in perfectly comfortable but by no means lavish surroundings, comparisons are unavoidable. A modern footballer with League Championship, European Cup and World Cup winner's medals would be living in neo-Palladian splendour, not in an unremarkable cul-de-sac a penalty kick away from the Manchester-Altrincham tramline. And the other striking thing about the room is the absence of football memorabilia. Unless they recognised Stiles from his 1963 wedding photograph, contestants on Through The Keyhole would be thoroughly stumped.

I mention to Stiles the absence of any memorabilia. "I don't need it," says the man behind the most joyous victory jig in sporting history. "I've got the memories."

And what memories, superbly written up by my colleague James Lawton in After The Ball, Stiles' recently published autobiography. I'm not just sucking up, either, in the hope of being bought a drink at the Independent sports desk Christmas lunch. It is one of the best football autobiographies I have read, insightful, funny and moving, and has duly roared into the bestseller lists.

A line on the very last page sums up its appeal. After his heart attack last summer, Stiles reflected on "how I'd come to win a World Cup and a European Cup medal even though I was born a half-blind dwarf who was bombed by the Germans and run over by a trolley bus before he was one".

Irresistibly, the book explains how, and Stiles does not mind casting himself as a kind of accident-prone Mr Magoo, who, following his full international debut against Scotland at Wembley in 1965, turned up at the Cafe Royal for the post-match banquet and promptly got lost in its plush corridors. He ended up sitting down with strangers and "was looking in vain for the rest of the lads when one of my fellow diners asked me if I was a friend of the bride or the groom".

But as I say, there is plenty of insight too, and with an eye on today's Euro 2004 qualifier, I quiz Stiles about a passage which refers to Sven Goran Eriksson's England making "heavy weather" of the same formation employed by Alf Ramsey.

"Yeah, everyone called it 4-3-3, but if you looked at it, it was a diamond," he says. "Malcolm Allison used to moan that it was too rigid, but it wasn't.

"Alan Ball was all over the place, Martin Peters never used to stay on the left, and I used to play in front of the back four - win it, give it, win it, give it. If Bobby Moore went up from the back I just dropped in. We all knew what we were doing."

The implication seems to be that Eriksson's England are less sure of what they're doing, although Stiles declines to knock them. "To be fair, I thought they had a great World Cup. I was in hospital so I watched all the games.

"The thing that killed England was the conditions. The same happened in 1970 in Mexico. We were acclimatised for the altitude, but not the heat. During the quarter-final (against West Germany) I was sat in the shade, with a hat on, and when I was weighed afterwards, I'd lost 11lb. Everyone says the (Ronaldinho) goal changed the game, but our lads had no energy left." He would always deploy Beckham - with whom he worked when he coached the youngsters at Manchester United in the early Nineties - in the middle.

"That's where I had him as a kid. I'd have him alongside Gerrard, because Gerrard can dig and David's not a tackler. But David hits the long ball better." A pause, and a grin. "But then I was crap as a manager."

His managerial career, like that of his great friend Bobby Charlton, began and ended at Preston North End. The reason he didn't succeed, he thinks, was because he was too soft. Cue an ironic chuckle from anyone who was ever on the receiving end of a Stiles tackle, or for that matter a Stiles uppercut.

Among the many entertaining stories in After The Ball, which in this instance might be retitled Miles From The Ball, concerns the thump he gave the Real Madrid player Amancio, exacting revenge for a sly kick he had received earlier, in the second leg of Manchester United's 1968 European Cup semi-final.

"I'm not proud of that," he says. "It was a stupid thing to do." Another pause. "But he wasn't in the game after that, so maybe it was the right thing to do."

Like other celebrated hard men of his generation, among them Liverpool's Tommy Smith, and Norman Hunter of Leeds, Stiles is used to the suggestion that he was a one-dimensional footballer.

"But at that level you've got to be able to play," he says. "And I knew my strengths. I could read the game, which is why I played at the back for United. My job was to snuff out an attack, get it and give it, get it and give it. Having said that, I was very proud of hitting that 35-yard pass to Alan Ball (who pulled it back for Geoff Hurst to score England's third goal in the World Cup final). People forget that."

Still, he doesn't seem to mind being remembered as principally a hard man, and is happy to rate Smith as even harder, the one player with whom he could contest a 50-50 tackle and come out of it second-best. I tell him that Smith once told me he could remove an opponent from the fray even before kick-off, just by having a word with him in the tunnel. He even identified those most vulnerable to such reprehensible tactics, among them Leighton James of Burnley and Manchester United's Gordon Hill.

"Yeah, he would always have a word, Tommy. But I never did. I talked all the time to my own team, because you need communication. Gary Neville's very good at that. But I didn't talk to the opposition. I always reckoned that if you told them what you were going to do, you were warning them, and then they'd be looking out for you."

Stiles, despite living almost within earshot of Old Trafford, now goes to watch United only a couple of times a year. "They're great to me," he adds hastily. "If I ever want to take my grandson down, it's no problem. They fix me up. But I'd been in the game since leaving school, and I enjoy my weekends now."

All the same, he says, the flame burns as strongly as ever. Indeed, he may even owe his life to United, for having been sacked by Preston, and failing to make ends meet as a youth coach at West Brom, he struggled so badly with depression that he entertained thoughts of suicide. Unwittingly, or maybe wittingly, Alex Ferguson threw him a lifeline, calling him back to the colours to help coach a promising group of youngsters, who would grow into superstars. He spent four more years on the United payroll.

How much, I ask, does Ferguson's managerial style resemble that of Sir Matt Busby, for whom Stiles signed in 1957, a year before the Munich air disaster? "Actually, I think they're very similar," he says. "The difference is that after Munich Matt was on the treatment table every day of his life.

"But he was hard, make no mistake. They talk about Alex giving the hairdryer (treatment), which I've never seen, but Matt would give you the look, and it had the same effect.

"Alex, I think, is very good at sensing things. After he won the league the first time, we came in for pre-season training and I'll never forget that first morning. He said to me and (the youth team coach) Eric Harrison, 'I want you to forget about the youngsters today. I want you to walk among the senior players' - he mentioned a couple of them by name - 'and look in their eyes. See if the desire is still there'.

"I remember George Best saying that the European Cup in '68 should have been the first of many. He felt let down. At the time I disagreed. I mean, we got to the semi the following year, and got beat by AC Milan. But now I think George was right. When we won the European Cup, those of us who'd been at the club in '58, like Shay Brennan, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, we felt we'd done it, we'd done it for the lads. And I think Matt felt that too. The desire had gone.

"Fergie hasn't had that horrifying ordeal, and also he used to talk with Matt a lot. He used to say of Pally (Gary Pallister) and Bryan Robson, when they'd been there a long time, 'Have they still got that desire?' And I'm sure he's saying the same now, of some of the other lads."

Busby, adds Stiles, had a brilliant tactic of making out-of-form players feel complicit in the decision to drop them. "We always trained on the pitch on a Friday, and when we came in and walked up the tunnel, if you could get past the referee's room you were playing. If you weren't then Matt would always call you back.

"He always called me Norrie. 'Norrie, how do you think you're playing?' I'd say, 'Could be better, boss'. 'Yes son,' he'd say, 'I'm leaving you out this week.'

"Well, I'd made my debut in 1960, and by 1963 I was still in and out. My brother-in-law John Giles was still there then, and he said, 'Why don't you do what I do, tell him you're playing well?'

"So next time I tiptoe past his office, get to the ref's room, and I hear 'Norrie, can I have a word with you?' I go in. 'How do you think you're playing, son?' I say, 'Boss, I think I'm playing really well.' He says, 'Yes you are son, but do you not think you could play just a little bit better?' I go, 'Yes, boss'. He says, 'Aye, I'm leaving you out this week'.''

It's a lovely yarn, polished, I suspect, by a thousand tellings after dinners, which is Stiles' main source of income these days. But his opinions are worth as much as his anecdotes. As someone who has spent all but the first two or three of his 61 years with a passion for Manchester United, who, I ask, does he consider to be the club's greatest-ever player?

"I had a big disagreement with Paddy Crerand about this," he says. "For me it was Duncan Edwards, without hesitation. But Paddy says that Eric Cantona was more influential. The best I played with was Bobby Charlton.

"George (Best) was an absolute genius, of course. Apart from everything else he was one of the best tacklers I've ever seen, and I'm a tackler. But Bobby, I played with him for England, and I saw what he did, and how his goal against Mexico made us all believe that we could win the World Cup."

Does Beckham exert anything like the same influence over England as Charlton did, I wonder? But not aloud. Nobby Stiles is not the man to ask.

After The Ball is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99

Nobby Stiles the life and times

Born: 18 May 1942, Manchester

Nickname: "The Toothless Tiger"

Position: Full-back/defensive midfielder

Clubs: 1957-1971: Manchester United; 1971-1973: Middlesbrough; 1973-1981: Preston North End (player-coach)

England caps: 28 (1 goal)

Manchester United career: 311 appearances, 17 goals

Career highlights:

1957: Signs for Manchester United

1965: Wins First Division League Championship

1966: Dances jig of delight at Wembley after wining World Cup with England. He plays because Alf Ramsey insists on selecting him in the face of opposition from Football Association officials after he commits a bad foul against France.

1967: Manchester United win the League Championship

1968: Manchester United win the European Cup, 4-1 against Benfica at Wembley

1971: Signs for Middlesbrough for £20,000

1973: Joins Preston North End as a player-coach, and later becomes manager

1981: Joins Vancouver Whitecaps

1984: Appointed manager of West Bromwich Albion

2000: Receives OBE

He says: "It was absolutely spontaneous. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm a bloody awful dancer anyway." (On his famous jig.)

They say: "Nobby had all the attributes that a central defender should have. He was only five foot six but, a bit like Gary Neville today, as you get older you get very wise and you read the game. Nobby was a great reader of the game and a great little tackler. Height didn't matter, he was a great defender. I always thought when he played he was one of the most important players and you wanted him in your team. He was a great driving force." (Paddy Crerand, Manchester United team-mate.)

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