THE NOBBY STILES STORY
BY Vince Cooper
TO win a World Cup – so they say – you need a minimum of four world-class players. In 1966 England had Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton who definitely qualified. Many would say that either Alan Ball or Ray Wilson might have been considered the fourth although Roger Hunt and Martin Peters would surely be mentioned in some quarters. Few if any would vote for Nobby Stiles for one of those four positions but also few would argue that his work-rate and willingness to do the less glamorous jobs made him critical to the team’s success.
Norbert Peter Stiles was born in Collyhurst close to Manchester city centre on 18 May 1942 during an air raid in the basement of the family home. His father, Charlie, was a manager at an undertaker’s parlour.
Whilst attending St Patrick’s Catholic School he performed in the local church choir, was an altar boy and took piano lessons. But although he remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, football was his first love and he progressed quickly earning a place in the England Schoolboys team in 1957 at 15.
In the same year Nobby had joined Manchester United, the team he first went to see as a six-year-old despite attempts by other clubs to sign him.
Initially working on the office staff before being moved on to the groundstaff he was paid £3.25 per week and had the task of cleaning boots, paying special attention to those of Eddie Colman, his hero.
Stiles the player soon realised that he needed to make up for a lack of physical strength and height (he would stop growing at 5ft 6in) with a determination and effort in the tackle few could match. ‘Perhaps if I’d pulled out of tackles more often then I would never have got the ‘bad boy’ image in the early part of my career’ he would later say before adding, ‘perhaps also I would never have made Manchester United’s first team let alone the England squad, if I had tried to make a career with less than 100% effort’.
Colman, known as ‘snake hips’ because of the way he could shimmy past opponents, inspired Stiles although the youngster never had the natural skills his hero was blessed with so the effort was his way of compensating for that failing. Young Nobby, like all United supporters and football fans everywhere, was devastated when Colman, along with 22 others, lost his life on a Munich airport runway in 1958.
In October 1960 Matt Busby gave Stiles his debut, at full back, in a game against Bolton Wanderers. He played a handful of games before being dropped and then restored to the team in his favoured position at half-back.
He quickly earned a regular place making 26 appearances in that season and scoring twice as United finished 7th. In many of those matches he lined up alongside Johnny Giles who had lodged with the Stiles family since coming over from Ireland. Stiles, who came up through the ranks with Johnny later married his sister Kay with the couple going on to have three sons, John, Peter and Rob.
One of the problems he came across early in his career was with his sight. Used to wearing glasses day to day he found his timing was off and tried contact lenses. They didn’t seem to help and he was dropped after a 5-3 defeat to Burnley the first time he wore them. He soon realised that he was struggling even more without them, mistiming the ball often so they went back in, he got used to them and they stayed.
The following 1961-62 season brought 34 appearances and seven goals. His team started the campaign well but a disastrous 10-match winless run through October and November condemned them to a lower-half finish and FA Cup hopes were ended at the semi-final stage by eventual winners Spurs.
United flirted with the dreaded drop in 1962-63 finishing 19th, just three points above relegated neighbours Manchester City. They showed their mettle in the FA Cup though with Denis Law’s goals firing them to Wembley and a win over Leicester City. But Stiles, having played in every cup game aside from the 5th round win over Coventry, was heartbroken at missing the final after some cruel injury luck.
In action at Old Trafford
With Pat Crerand and Maurice Setters claiming the half-back roles, Stiles had been playing inside-forward. Switched back to half-back for the local derby draw with City that confirmed their top flight status he sustained a muscle injury which forced him out of the line up for the next match. The last match before Wembley was a Monday night encounter with Nottingham Forest (the whole league was playing catch-up due to that year’s ‘big freeze’). The muscle ‘went’ again during the warm-up and a dejected Nobby was consigned to the touchline on the big day.
The Stiles family
That summer Nobby married Kay and as the 1963-64 season started he found himself condemned to reserve team football. He decided to take the huge step of writing to Matt Busby to request a transfer despite the fact that; ‘It had been my only ambition to play for this great team ever since I used to go to Old Trafford on my father’s shoulders’.
However, having spent a weekend considering the request, writing and rewriting it before sending, he decided there was no way he could leave Old Trafford and went to see Busby asking him to scrap the letter.
He would later say that writing the letter proved a ‘turning point’ in his career. He regained his first-team place although he was left out again towards the end of the season and missed the FA Cup semi-final loss to West Ham in what was a campaign of near misses for the club.
Manchester United 1964-65
It was the 1964-65 season when both Stiles and the new United, really came of age. The midfield man played in 41 of 42 league matches – and 59 in all competitions as his team, inspired by the trio of Best, Charlton and Law, took the 1st Division title from Leeds and Nobby’s brother-in-law Giles. The Yorkshire team got some revenge when ousting their rivals at the FA Cup semi-final stage. The last four was also reached in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, with United seeing off Djurgarden, Borussia Dortmund, Everton and Strasbourg before Hungarian team and eventual winners Ferencvaros knocked them out after a playoff, played in Budapest.
Guarding the post
Around this time Nobby started playing without his false teeth. Having lost the originals in one FA cup tie, a collision during another, this one with Chester saw the replacements come flying out of his mouth. ‘After getting changed I went out to try and find them’, he recalled later. ‘Although I spent around 40 minutes in the dark I never found them’. From then on it was a gap-toothed Stiles who ran on to the pitch.
An early England start
The 64-65 campaign was also one of international breakthrough for Stiles. In February 1965 he made his under-23 debut in a goalless draw with Scotland at Pittodrie and he would win two more junior caps at the end of the campaign against West Germany and Czechoslovakia. But before those two he had already played for the senior team.
Stiles wasn’t happy with his Under-23 debut and was surprised when, two weeks later he was chosen by Alf Ramsey to play for the Football League against the Scottish League at Hampden Park. The match again finished all-square this time at 2-2. It was a much better performance from Nobby and within a month he won his first full cap.
The opposition was the Scots again and this time the venue was Wembley. Stiles played a big part in helping his side get a share of the spoils – again at 2-2 – after they had been reduced to nine men following injuries to Ray Wilson and John Byrne.
Between that game in April 1965 and the World Cup starting in July 1966 England played 17 matches as Alf Ramsey worked on building a club mentality among his players. Stiles played in 14 of them so that by the time the tournament began he was a seasoned international. He also scored his first – and only – international goal, the winner in a friendly against West Germany at Wembley when, ironically, wearing the unfamiliar number nine shirt.
Stiles often played on the edge of legality. He was the midfield destroyer every top team needs and was quite prepared to do the dirty work for his perhaps more talented teammates. During the 4-3 win over Scotland at Hampden Park in February 1966 he was cautioned twice by referee Istvan Zsolt but not sent off (fortunately for Nobby, two bookings didn’t automatically lead to a dismissal at the time).
In the final group game at the World Cup Stiles was cautioned by an official in the stands for a crunching challenge on French midfield man Jacques Simon who later had to leave the pitch. It was a challenge that almost saw him banned for the remainder of the tournament with FIFA pushing for his removal from the squad. He also stood up strongly to an Argentine side Alf Ramsey described as ‘animals’ tried to strongarm their way past the hosts in the quarter-final.
When the powers-that-be attempted to get him removed from the tournament the manager stood by his man. Ramsey said; ‘if he goes I go’ and the authorities relented.
Ramsey’s support no doubt encouraged the player to reach for even bigger performances as proved in the semi-final when he was given the massive task of marshalling the brilliant Eusebio.
Nobby rises to stop a Eusebio effort
‘Nobby I want you to take Eusebio out of the game’ the manager said to his ‘policeman’ in the dressing room before kick-off. ‘Do you mean for life Alf?’ Nobby is alleged to have replied.
Of course he did the job asked of him, limiting Portugal’s star man to just a handful of chances (and doing so legally) to influence the match as England got the better of their opponents. ‘Nobby was brilliant that day’, Jack Charlton would later say. It was a performance that did as much as Bobby Charlton’s two goals to ensure his country reached the final.
What is perhaps less well-known of him was that every day throughout the tournament started with a 30-minute walk to the St Edward the Confessor Church in Golders Green, proving that the faith instilled in him at a young age remained strong.
In the big match itself Stiles was tireless in the ground covered in support of the England defence and an abiding memory is of the gap-toothed grin as he celebrated with his teammates and performed his own victory jig with the Jules Rimet trophy after Bobby Moore had collected it from the Queen.
Stiles was still only 24 at the time of the World Cup win yet, somewhat surprisingly, he played just eight more times for his country (only being on the losing side once). Hampered at times by injury he often found Alan Mullery preferred in the midfield engine room. He was a member of the squad in Mexico for his country’s defence of the World Cup but didn’t play at all.
Dancing at Wembley
On the club front however things just got better; the 1966-67 season brought another title to Old Trafford with Stiles playing 37 matches. Then at the end of the following campaign it was back to Wembley this time for the European Cup final.
The start of the 1967-68 season saw Stiles missing after having a knee operation and then breaking down in a Central League comeback match. United saw off Hibernians of Malta then Sarajevo without him but he returned for the win over Górnik Zabrze. In the semi against the mighty Real Madrid they came back from 3-2 down on aggregate to go through 4-3. Nobby was knocked unconscious when a fan hit him with a bottle on the way back to the coach and was later given the name ‘The Assasin of Madrid’ by the Spanish press.
The European Cup win – with Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes
So it was back to the Twin Towers this time to face Benfica and Eusebio. Stiles was unable to train in the build-up to the big match due to injury but helped shackle the Portuguese team’s star man for much of the game. Bobby Charlton headed home to put United ahead but Graça grabbed an equaliser and the match went into familiar territory – extra-time. Goals from George Best, Charlton again and Nobby’s fellow St Patrick’s school old boy Brian Kidd finally brought the European Cup to Old Trafford.
Mexico 1970. Stiles holds up Peter Osgood
After a semi-final defeat to Milan in the 1968-69 European Cup United started to struggle and Stiles gradually lost his place in the line-up. His England career also came to a close. Although chosen for the World Cup squad in 1970 he never made it on the pitch with Alan Mullery taking over his roles in the side.
A return to Old Trafford with Middlesbrough
In 1971 he left for Middlesbrough before returning to Lancashire and signing for Preston where he joined up again with Bobby Charlton. Both men resigned in 1972 but Stiles returned as manager in 1977 and stayed for four years before playing for Vancouver Whitecaps in the NASL for a short time. A spell managing West Bromwich Albion was unsuccessful and he left the game in 1985.
In 1989 former teammate Kidd recommended that Alex Ferguson bring him back to Old Trafford to work with the youngsters and he spent some time coaching the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and David Beckham among others.
Nobby left the role in 1993 and suffered a heart attack in 2002. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia and had also been treated for prostate cancer. He passed away in 2020 at the age of 78.
On his passing, World Cup-winning teammate Geoff Hurst called Nobby “The heart and soul” of the 1966 side and few would argue that he brought an energy and vitality that was crucial to Sir Alf Ramsey’s line-up.
Nobby with some of his memories
Stiles decided to sell his medals – including the ‘big one’ from 1966 – a few years ago to ensure that his sons got some financial reward from his legacy. Many, including the World Cup medal for which they paid £160,000, were bought by Manchester United and now sit proudly in the club’s museum. The total raised was £424,438 with the club buying ten pieces.
Former teammates celebrate at the inauguration of Nobby Stiles Drive
In 2016 a number of Nobby’s United teammates – including Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton – as well as former classmates from St Patrick’s School (which fellow European Cup winner Brian Kidd also attended), were present at an official ceremony to change the name of Sudell Street in Collyhurst to Nobby Stiles Drive.
’Drive’ is an apt choice for the name as Nobby displayed it, and encouraged it from his teammates during a career that brought Norbert Peter Stiles MBE to the pinnacle of football success for club and country, and allowed us all to enjoy that joyful toothless jig at Wembley Stadium in 1966.