Nobby Stiles who has died aged 78 was the most unlikely World Cup hero

Toothless tiger who stole the nation’s heart: Nobby Stiles who has died aged 78 was the most unlikely 1966 World Cup hero but why did he end up so poor he had to sell his England shirt?

With his receding hair, short height, poor eyesight and missing front teeth, the England footballer Nobby Stiles made an unlikely national hero.

But during the triumphant 1966 World Cup campaign, he became the country’s mascot, embodying the quintessentially British qualities of terrier-like determination and instinctive humour. 

As the victorious campaign unfolded, he managed to combine the patriotic heart of Winston Churchill with the comedic touch of Norman Wisdom.

The admiration he inspired was highlighted in the build-up to one of England’s crucial matches, when the crowd on its way into Wembley Stadium unfurled a huge banner which read, ‘Nobby for Prime Minister’.

During the triumphant 1966 World Cup campaign, he became the country’s mascot, embodying the quintessentially British qualities of terrier-like determination and instinctive humour

When the win over West Germany was achieved in the World Cup Final, he perfectly captured Britain’s mood of ecstasy in his celebratory jig with the Jules Rimet Trophy in one hand and his false teeth in the other — his performance made all the more memorable by the broad, semi-toothless smile on his exhausted face.

And so football fans around the world were united in grief yesterday at the news that Stiles has died aged 78 after a long battle with prostate cancer and advanced dementia.

Stiles is the seventh member of the England team that started the 1966 cup final to die, after captain Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Ray Wilson, Gordon Banks, Martin Peters and Jack Charlton.

And his name will live on with the best of them. For all the affection and laughter he provoked, there was nothing risible about his footballing talent.

Along with Sir Bobby Charlton, he is the only Englishman to have gained a winner’s medal in both the World Cup and the European club competition.

Far more creative than he was ever given credit for, he was a superbly gifted player, ferocious in his tackling and clinical in passing. He was also a magnificent, instinctive reader of the game, a quality he added to his passionate competitive spirit.

His Manchester United teammate Paddy Crerand once watched with amazement as Stiles put his fist into a dressing room wall because of his exasperated fury at only gaining a draw.


His brilliance was all the more remarkable because initially he suffered from extremely bad vision, so much so that his youthful appearances at United were often played as if he were in a fog.

Eventually, unable to conceal the problem any longer, he was sent to an eye specialist.

The result was that Stiles had to wear thick contact lenses when playing, while off the field he donned black-framed spectacles of the type that Eric Morecambe used, thereby adding to his comic image. The lenses dramatically improved his standards, so much so that by the age of just 24, he was the midfield lynchpin of Manchester United and England.

After the 1966 victory, the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey said that ‘there were five world-class players’ in his team, ‘and Nobby Stiles was one of them’.

Sir Alf’s faith in Nobby was illustrated during an explosive controversy in the 1966 campaign following an England group match against France. Stiles had caused a huge international outcry with a brutal, scything tackle on the French player Jacques Simon.

In response, there were moves within the English FA to have Stiles dropped for the next game as a disciplinary measure. Sir Alf quickly put an end to that. 

‘If he goes, so will I. You will be looking for a new manager,’ he told the FA committee.

Yet football never showed the same loyalty to Stiles that Sir Alf had. Despite his epic achievements in the sport, he never enjoyed many rewards as a star, nor security in retirement.

As a United player, he started on the weekly minimum wage of just £20. Even when England won the World Cup, the modest £22,000 bonus was shared between the whole squad, leaving just £1,000 to each member, most of which disappeared in tax.

At the depth of his financial troubles in 1989, he had the humiliating experience of inserting his bank card into a cash machine to get some money for petrol, only to be told that he had ‘insufficient funds’.

In 2010, after he had suffered a stroke which drastically reduced his sole source of income as an after-dinner speaker, he was forced to sell his European Cup winner’s medal and his England shirt.

Looking at the vast earnings of modern players compared to his own, he once said: ‘I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel the odd surge of resentment’.

When it came to sporting riches, he was born in the wrong era.

Like so much else in his life, his arrival in the world was unorthodox, for he was born in the cellar of his family’s terraced Manchester home during a heavy Luftwaffe air raid in May 1942, the neighbours providing the midwifery.

His was a modest, respectable upbringing. His father was an undertaker who ran his own company. ‘Our house was filled with candles and other paraphernalia of the funeral business,’ recalled Nobby. His mother was a machinist in a factory.

Family man: Nobby, wearing his ‘Eric Morecambe’ specs, plays with his lads

One of the dominant themes of his family was its devotion to the Catholic faith, something Nobby retained for the rest of his life.

‘I always loved the ritual of the church. It is something that goes to you very deeply,’ he said. Throughout the World Cup campaign, when England were based at the Hendon Hall Hotel in North-West London, he attended mass every single morning.

For all his religious fidelity, he was a boisterous, sometimes wayward, child. ‘He’s a tough, little bugger,’ said his father soon after he was born, words that proved prophetic. 

At the age of just one, he was hit on the head by a tram as he toddled out of a bakery and survived, though he was left with a permanent scar on his forehead.

He also lost his front teeth in a juvenile fight, requiring him to wear a set of false ones for the rest of his life. Nor was he above some minor criminal activity.

In his autobiography he confessed he occasionally stole lead from the roofs of old buildings, more for adventure than money.

He was good at all sports, including cricket and boxing, but his football skills were obvious from an early age. His first games were played with his mates in a local cemetery on flattened gravestones.

‘We never thought we were violating anyone’s memory. We were just enjoying being young,’ he recalled. He was utterly fearless, once executing an athletic overhead kick on a cobbled street without any thought to the consequences.

While he was still a schoolboy at St Patrick’s in the Manchester district of Collyhurst, his precocious ability brought him to the attention of Manchester United and he was signed as an apprentice. In October 1960, at the age of just 18, he made his league debut against Bolton, the first of more than 300 appearances for the club over the next decade.

One of his closest team-mates in those early years was the cerebral Irishman Johnny Giles. In a close-knit world, he soon fell in love with Johnny’s blonde sister Kay. ‘My legs turned to jelly,’ he said of his first sight of her.

He was just 19 at the time and had little experience of women, having enjoyed just two brief relationships, one with the splendidly named Doreen Bracegirdle.

Nevertheless, he embarked on a deep romance with Kay that soon led to their engagement and subsequent marriage in 1961.

All too predictably Stiles — who was more Inspector Clouseau than Casanova — was late for the wedding ceremony in Dublin, his car having suffered a flat tyre. But, bolstered by Kay’s tolerance and Nobby’s essential decency, it turned out to be a highly successful union, producing three children.

Even their money troubles did not threaten their relationship. ‘Don’t you know I would be happy to live in a tent if it was the only way I could be with you,’ she once told him. With Kay at his side, his professional career began to flourish. Under the legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby, he built a formidable partnership with Bobby Charlton that turned the side into league champions in 1965.

The same year Stiles made his England debut, keeping up his link with Charlton at international level. The two were ever-present in the World Cup campaign as England surged to glory.

Their joint finest performance was in the semi-final against Portugal, when Stiles nullified the threat of the dangerous striker Eusebio, while Charlton scored both of England’s goals.

In the final against West Germany Stiles almost ran himself into the turf with his heroic ball-chasing and his tenacity was crucial in England’s triumph.

Yet his extravagant delight in victory, though it touched the nation’s hearts, was not to the taste of every England team-mate. Defender George Cohen later said a Stiles kiss was ‘like being snogged by a piece of cold liver’.

The little man seemed to bring a note of comedy to most situations. On one occasion, during an official England banquet at a top London hotel, he mistook the edge of the tablecloth for his napkin and, with a crash of glasses and cutlery, tried to shove it into his collar.

At another luxury hotel, when he was meant to be attending a football function, he wandered into the wrong reception, took his seat at one of the tables, and was then surprised to be asked if he was a friend of the bride or groom.

Similarly he once exasperated Charlton, a keen photographer, at the end of an overseas trip when he managed accidentally to smash a bottle of duty free in some luggage which contained Charlton’s camera and undeveloped films. All the photos were ruined.

On the field Charlton and Stiles continued their magnificent alliance, powering Manchester United to victory in the European Cup in 1968. But by the end of the decade, the years of fierce competitiveness had taken their toll on Stiles.

As he entered the twilight of his career, he moved to Middlesbrough in 1971, a ‘desperate eking out of my last physical resources’ to use his description. He then dropped down the league to Preston North End, now managed by his old friend Bobby Charlton. But, after his retirement from playing in 1975, later moves into coaching and management did not bring him either success or riches.

By 1989 he had reached rock-bottom. He was working as a reserve team coach at West Brom, when travelling home on the M6 he was gripped by a suicidal impulse. 

‘I thought about putting my foot flat on the accelerator, closing my eyes and ending my life.

‘I couldn’t see any future. A pattern had become familiar, of hope then disappointment, hard, sharp disappointment.’

Stiles is the seventh member of the England team that started the 1966 cup final to die, after captain Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Ray Wilson, Gordon Banks, Martin Peters and Jack Charlton. And his name will live on with the best of them

Thankfully, he carried on driving. Days later, fortune smiled on him when Alex Ferguson rang to offer him a job as youth team coach at his beloved Old Trafford.

Stiles was back in his element. His charisma and experience enabled him to bring the best out of an exciting new generation of young United players, including David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

But then the old, familiar pattern set in once more. In 1993 he was sacked after his promotion to a desk job for which he was totally unsuited.

His achievements were finally recognised by the award of an MBE in 2000, but the last years were difficult as his health declined drastically. 

Having suffered a heart attack in 2002, he later contracted prostate cancer. He also had to endure Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, ultimately leaving him incapable of speech and unable to recognise his own family.

Once more, football never came to his aid, despite its fabulous new wealth. The game even gave a muted response to requests from his family for research to be conducted into the link between Alzheimer’s and football, following growing medical evidence that sustained heading of heavy leather balls may have inflicted long-term brain damage on past players.

Stiles deserved better. He helped to give our country the greatest moment in our sporting history. His heroism should have brought him a greater reward beyond just the glow of national affection.

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