Slowly, as the years perform their terrible dance, we are losing them. Nobby Stiles passed away on Friday, 30 October, after a battle with both late-stage dementia and prostate cancer.
Illness is no 50-50. If it was, Nobby would still be with us, his afflictions left in a pathetic mangle of bruised limbs and pulverised egos on a soggy, stud-warped pitch. The bulldog Manc spent his career making the type of tackles that trod the line between admirably full-hearted and the wincingly punishing, the kind that would make Vinnie Jones and Roy Keane blush.
At times he went too far, the most prominent example being when he nearly snapped France’s Jacques Simon in two in England’s final group stage match at the World Cup in 1966. In light of that tackle, the FA demanded Alf Ramsey drop his midfield enforcer for the quarter-final against Argentina. He did not, threatening to resign if he was unable to pick Stiles. Incidentally, such was the belligerent nature of the Argentina match that the Observer called if “not so much a football match as an international incident.” Perhaps, then, it was only right that Stiles lined up alongside Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters in the midfield battle, from a narrative as much as a tactical perspective.
His finest hour, the match for which he is most remembered, however, came in the semi-final against Portugal as he contained the seemingly uncontainable presence of Eusebio as England recorded a 2-1 win. Stiles gloried in these personal battles. England, of course, went on to win in the final against West Germany, with Nobby’s gleeful full-time jig latterly considered one of the most iconic moments in a day groaning under the weight of iconography.
The juxtaposition between his playing style and his camp-as-Christmas post-match dancing, Jules Rimet gleaming in hand, was both gloriously spontaneous and neatly emblematic. It summed up the duality within Nobby. There was a grit but also an innocence to him. A hard man with a marshmallow soul, literally but not figuratively toothless.
In that sense, Stiles, perhaps more than any other footballer in the 1966 squad, represented his generation. He was of his time, and what a glorious time it was. Nobby: a bastion of a bygone era, when footballers played with receding hairlines, with tobacco-stained teeth rather than blindingly white veneers.
The champions themselves probably didn’t realise quite how singular that moment would be. 54 years later, we’re still waiting for the second star, and in that time, the landscape of football has changed beyond all recognition. England may win another World Cup, but it will not be the same World Cup.
Dementia robbed him of his memories of that great day, just as it has five members of Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders. But in English football’s collective conscious, those memories are immortal. He retired with a legacy far more celebrated than his 28 caps – three fewer than Chris Smalling – suggest. Nobby was one of only three English players to have won both the World Cup and the European Cup, along with Bobby Charlton and Ian Callaghan, after his Manchester United side beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, with Nobby once again coming up against Eusebio. Football has a curious habit of orchestrating these cosmic coincidences.
Later in his career, he would join Middlesbrough and latterly Preston North End before hanging up his war-torn size 10s. He would have a go at management but never found success in the dugout to match his illustrious career on the pitch. Stiles continued to exert influence over Manchester United and England, however, coaching in the former’s youth academy between 1989 and 1993 and helping to bring the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville into full flower.
Though they may have channelled it differently, he imbued those under his tutelage with his steel. An ode to tenacity, a dentured diamond in the rough, the world is a bleaker place without him. A star, without whom there would be none stitched above England’s crest.