Unsung Man Utd Youngster Was England's True World Cup Star
England are only minutes away from victory when Jack Charlton is judged to have fouled. Stiles, the passionate soul of the home team, argues frenziedly, drags together the defensive wall. Emmerich shoots. Stiles winces. Cohen blocks. Held shoots again. The ball is deflected. Weber lunges ... Extra time. Can Ramsey raise his team’s morale?’
This passage from the video The World’s Greatest Goals, complete with Chariots of Fire-style synths in the background , sums up all the tension of England’s World Cup final against West Germany at Wembley on 30th July 1966. The Germans had equalised with the last kick of the regular 90 minutes and it was now up to England’s softly-spoken manager to raise morale going into extra time. Generally regarded as more of a tactician than an inspirational man-motivator, Ramsey could at least count on the unswerving loyalty of his players, and on one man in particular.
Nobby Stiles had endured a difficult start to England’s World Cup campaign. In their final group match on 20th July, a 2-0 win over France, Stiles had committed to a tackle on Jacques Simon, where he’d caught the man and caused a nasty injury. Apparently unaware of the incident, the referee had allowed play to continue, but Stiles was given a retrospective booking after the match for ‘rough play’ and Ramsey came under pressure from the media and the FA to drop the 24-year-old Mancunian.
It was not a decision that could be taken lightly. Ramsey had big plans for Manchester United's Stiles as the anchor in a 4-1-3-2 formation, which he’d been saving for the latter stages of the tournament. This involved playing him just in front of the defence, forming a triangle with centre-backs Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton, in what would later become famously known as ‘the Makelele role’. But because of the crunching tackle on Simon and the backlash he’d received as a result, Stiles was more than ever reliant on his manager’s support.
Ramsey, it should be said, wasn’t someone who was easily swayed by popular opinion. He’d been a huge success at Ipswich Town, guiding the club through two successive promotions before winning the league title at the first attempt, all on a low budget. On his appointment as England manager in October 1962, he predicted that they would go on to win the next World Cup. When he began the job in May 1963, he became the first England manager to demand complete control over squad selections and in 22-year-old Bobby Moore, named the youngest ever England captain.
Stiles, a year younger than Moore, had been a 15-year-old youth player at Manchester United when, in February 1958, news began to filter through that several members of the first team had been killed in a plane crash on the way back from a European fixture in Belgrade. The Munich Air Disaster affected everyone in Manchester, not least Stiles, an altar server at St. Patrick’s in Collyhurst and a boyhood United fan, now responsible for cleaning the boots of the players he looked up to. He made his United debut in October 1960 as the team was being rebuilt and began to feature regularly especially in the 1964-65 season, when they won the league for the first time since 1957. In April 1965, he made his England debut against Scotland aged 22.
The match against France was Stiles’ 17th for England. Afterwards he was approached by Ramsey, who asked, regarding the foul on Simon, ‘Did you mean it?’ Stiles said no, he didn’t, and that was enough for the manager, who included him in the team to face Argentina in the quarter-finals on 23rd July. A relieved Stiles found out much later that Ramsey had threatened to quit on his behalf, surely a sign of how important he was to his manager’s plans going forwards.
Argentina beaten, England played pre-tournament favourites Portugal in the semi-finals on 26th July and Stiles in particular was given the great challenge of man-marking Eusebio, the tournament’s leading scorer so far with 8 goals in four games and widely regarded as the best in the world. It was a task he more than lived up to in one of the great World Cup performances, as England won 2-1 with two goals from his United team-mate Bobby Charlton. [It was also a task he would have to repeat in the 1968 European Cup final when United played Benfica.]
The following two quotes give a good idea of exactly what it was that Stiles offered Ramsey and England in 1966;
‘He just rubbed off on everybody else. Everybody sometime in life, whether it be a cup final, whether it be a tournament, or whether it be in life generally over a period of time, want to have around them a Nobby Stiles, ‘cause they’re good for you.’ Brian Clough
‘I remember asking Sir Alf Ramsey once about his 1966 World Cup team. He says he had five world class players and Nobby was one of them. A great reader of the game – Bobby Charlton always mentions that, a marvellous reader of the game – influenced the team, could tackle, could pass.’ Alex Ferguson
For a modern-day comparison we might look to Sergio Busquets. The Barcelona midfielder's job of marking Wesley Sneijder in the 2010 World Cup final was reminiscent of Stiles’ marking of Eusabio, both performances typically selfless of the individuals. Perhaps the biggest similarity between Stiles and Busquets is that both have won the biggest honours with club and country, and both play(ed) for their hometown club.
Ramsey was a tactician and his tactics revolved around Stiles, who in turn knew that he owed his place in the team to the faith his manager had shown in him. And despite all his great qualities as a player, the enduring image of Stiles isn’t the tough tackles or the short, simple passes but, off the ball, of him pointing and talking, reading the game and telling others what to do and where to be, arguing with the referee and dragging together that defensive wall, the passionate soul of the home team. The softly-spoken manager knew that he needn’t have worried too much about having to raise his team’s morale, because he knew that amongst his five world-class players he had a talker on the pitch, someone who could rouse the others. Everybody sometime in life wants to have around them a Nobby Stiles, ‘cause they’re good for you.
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