Short, bald, glasses, false teeth, skinny. A less likely looking footballer than Nobby Stiles the game has never seen.
Not only that but he never changed.
So there he was on that golden summer’s day of 1966, an England World cup winner dancing his little jig on the hallowed turf of Wembley.
The Jules Rimet Trophy in one hand. His dentures in the other and the gap they usually filled in his front teeth gawping through his crooked smile. There are many wonderful images of the greatest day in English football but none more warming to the cockles of the heart.
Nobby Stiles warmed the cockles of a nation with his crooked smile (left) and his cheeky chappy personality as tributes flooded in on Friday following news he had passed away
Stiles was loved and his biggest asset was shackling the best player on an opponent’s side
Everyone loved Norbert Peter Stiles. Even the most illustrious of all the superstars of that gloriously uncomplicated football age whom he chased, harried and hustled out of the two noblest honours in football.
Eusebio, Portugal’s Black Pearl, first ran into Nobby at Wembley – or rather Nobby ran into him – in the 1966 World Cup semi final.
Their paths crossed again on the same field two years later in the final in which Manchester United defeated Benfica to become the first English club to win the European Cup.
Against United, the great Eusebio broke out of prison and away from Stiles his jailer just once. Only to shoot into the body of goalkeeper Alex Stepney instead of the back of the net as United won 4-1.
Against England, he had escaped for a moment but only for the tearful consolation of scoring the penalty which was too late and too little to match a pair of earlier goals from Bobby Charlton.
He was no-nonsense on the pitch and it proved brutally effective en route to 1966 success
His battles with Eusebio (left) proved iconic of the era and the two shared a laugh and a joke when they were reunited at a drinks reception in Manchester back in 2005
One such hammer blow was frustratedly painful to bear. Two were agony. Yet Eusebio held no grudge.
When they met again over drinks in Manchester many years later Eusebio enveloped Stiles in a bear-hug, called him ‘my great friend’ and toasted his health in brandies large enough to sink a barge on the Ship Canal.
A class act. So was Nobby, who gave no quarter but also asked none on the pitch and whose heart was even bigger off it.
Sadly health was failing the last time I saw Stiles, at a SoccerEx convention, again back in Manchester, in company with Denis Law. Although he did not feel well enough to fulfil a promise to speak on a panel he had wrapped up warm and turned up anyway. So as not to let anyone down.
So we sat it out through a long lunch together.
So rewarding was that decision that it brought the sparkle back to Nobby’s eyes. Had they recorded the conversation they could have screened the film in the conference hall to the delight of the delegates, so rich was it in tales of yore and alive with humour galore.
But never to be repeated.
Stiles (left) was a class act on and off the pitch and he will be remembered as one of the greats
He was the least capped player in the side but Sir Alf Ramsey described him as ‘world class’
Statistics don’t tell the full story when it comes to those who witnessed Stiles in his prime
We are left with our memories of one of the cheekiest chappies you could wish to meet. One who never courted controversy but found it just the same.
After he hacked down and injured France playmaker Jacques Simon in the ’66 group stage he was on the other end of a hue and cry as the call went out across world football for England to drop him against Argentina in the quarter final.
Manager Alf Ramsey defied a lobby of some FA blazers by deflecting the heat, trading on the Argentine reputation for toughness by calling them ‘animals.’ Stiles was bemused, having no idea of what the fuss was all about.
He had been born during the war to a funeral director and seamstress in the north Manchester suburb of Collyhurst and grew up never ducking a fight despite his size. Those two front teeth he would have like to keep for many a Christmas to follow were knocked out in one such skirmish. Still, the void they left became his most endearing trademark.
The statistics of his career were not much prettier. Just 14 goals from midfield in 395 appearances for United.
The least-capped of all England’s World Cup-winners, a mere 28 and only one goal.
His stock in trade became that ferocious holding role in midfield which made it easier for Law, Charlton and Best to weave their magic and score the goals.
His unorthodox look was striking but he was funny and well-liked by his team-mates
Sir Bobby Charlton (middle) knew Stiles better than most and he called him a ‘dog of war’
Sir Bobby described him as the ‘dog of war’ forerunner to Roy Keane. If so then where the Irishman was the rottweiler, the Mancunian was a terrier snapping at the feet.
Labels, though, can be as misleading as the stats. More recently a reflective Sir Bobby mused: ‘You know, Norbert was a much better footballer than lot of people and his image gave him credit for. Yes, he could win the ball for others to use but he had a keen eye for the game and could pass it really well if needs be.’ Yes, Nobby knew his job but he sacrificed something of his place in the game for others.
Charlton and all the surviving heroes of a half-a-century or more gone by have been missing Stiles through his time of illness. Not least the quick wit and chipper remarks.
He is the seventh of the boys of summer ’66 to die. Moore, Ball, Wilson, Peters, Banks, Jack Charlton and now Stiles have made their final pass. Bobby Charlton, Cohen, Hurst and Hunt have seen them go.
Too many sad goodbyes.
That last lunch with Stiles was a bitter-sweet delight. One to be remembered with a tinge of sorrow. Not least by Denis Law, who is fighting a battle of his own.
Stiles (bottom left) is the seventh starter from that 1966 side to have died with Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Martin Peters, Gordon Banks, Ray Wilson and Jack Charlton having already passed
Stiles’ (right) celebrations with the Jules Rimet trophy remain among the most iconic of all