Rest in Peace Nobby Stiles, The ‘Nuts And Bolts’ of Matt Busby’s Manchester United

Nobby Stiles, the legendary Manchester United midfielder, died today at the age of 78.

Stiles is one of football’s most beloved figures – his dancing on the Wembley turf after winning the 1966 World Cup is etched into the nation’s sporting consciousness.

He was one of Manchester United’s best ever, and most important, players.

Born in Collyhurst in May 1942, he was a young player making his way through the Old Trafford ranks when the Munich disaster devastated the club. Stiles was particularly devastated by the passing of Eddie Colman, a player he modelled himself on, a player whose boots he cleaned. He also idolised Tommy Taylor, although he could not wish to imitate the dominating centre-forward!

Stiles’ father served as a chauffeur for Jimmy Murphy in the weeks after Munich, taking him one from funeral to the next. 

He broke through to the first team in October 1960, with Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy looking to rebuild the club using the same ideals as before. In just his fourth game for the club, Stiles scored his first goal – first of nineteen in total – against Newcastle. “I was proud for lots of reasons but the biggest one was that I thought it showed a touch of Coly [Colman],” Stiles recalled. “I broke quickly and sent the ball into the top corner of the net. It was a nice goal for a kid to dedicate to his hero.”

Stiles became that hero for the following generation although his individual style and unique personality meant he would be difficult to imitate.

“Nobby Stiles is the ideal ‘sweeper up’ both in temperament and practical ability,” Jimmy Murphy said when describing the midfielder. “He is so neat and tidy in his work, spots when danger is coming and immediately nips in to stop it. He is of course a powerful tackler, as England’s World Cup opponents discovered, but on the rare occasion he misses his tackle he is so quick to recover that he is back in position to challenge again before an opponent can profit by his first lapse. Thus when I see a boy who is a sharp tackler, positions himself cleverly by watching the run of play and spotting where the danger is likely to come, and allies to this snappy interceptions and neat work tidying up and plugging gaps at the back, then I know I am looking at a future Nobby Stiles. So much for the back four, which is the modern defensive set-up; now we must have two men working in midfield to link defence with attack.”

Murphy also fondly recalled Stiles’ love affair with United.

The request was a strange one, but understandable. “Can I have Tommy Taylor’s boots?” asked the earnest faced youngster. As he had cleaned them many times, the boy got his wish. That boy was Norbert Stiles, 15 at the time of the Munich accident. One of his chores was to clean about 60 pairs of boots, wash shin guards and do the other jobs of a ground staff boy. The boots he always paid particular attention to were those belonging to Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and Tommy Taylor.

Edwards and Colman were wing halves like himself and the little fellow with the cheeky grin will tell you now: “I always wanted to play like Eddie Colman, he was so fantastic on the ball.” Sportsman that he is, Nobby still insists that if Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards had survived the air crash, there would have been no place in the United team for him. Although he is now world famous, Nobby Stiles still cherishes those size 71⁄2 boots worn by Tommy Taylor, as a memento of the great side he knew as a 15 year old. 

Norbert Stiles. The name is now known from Manchester to Montevideo and from London to Los Angeles, as the little man with the melon-sized smile off the field and a look of sheer determination as soon as he walks on to the pitch. The player who began the World Cup series in 1966 as though he was to be the heavyweight villain, and ended it the hero who won millions of friends by his bulldog tenacity. Nobby Stiles epitomised the spirit of Sir Alf Ramsey’s men, and yet he won Soccer fame the hard way.

His is a story to inspire every schoolboy who thinks he is too small or has handicaps he thinks may prevent him from being an international. As I watched Stiles, the “Toy Bulldog”, play for England at Wembley in 1966, my mind skipped back 10 years to a football match at Mansfield. Everywhere the ball went there was a tiny boy drawn to it, as though by a magnet, and when he tackled he did so as if his very life depended on winning possession of the ball. I looked at the programme: “N.Stiles,” it said, and he was from Collyhurst, Manchester. That was a good omen. I reported back to Matt Busby: “I have seen a golden nugget. A Manchester lad called Stiles. I don’t know why I feel so certain, but he’ll get there. He isn’t the size of two pennyworth of copper.” “What do you mean?” asked Matt. “Well.” I replied. “You know how they used to describe Jimmy Wilde as the ‘ghost with a hammer in his hands’? I would describe this boy as ‘the ghost with a hammer in his feet’.” Matt smiled: “I get the point.” he said.

After that match at Mansfield we naturally kept a close watch on Nobby. In April 1957 he played for England Schoolboys against Wales, it is interesting to note that some of the sports writers at the game described him as a “Duncan Edwards in miniature”.

There is a funny side to the story of how Nobby signed for United. I have already mentioned Paddy McGrath, who has close links with the club through Matt and myself. He spoke to Matt about Nobby while chatting about soccer: “Charlie Stiles boy Matt, he’s a good prospect. I know Charlie very well. He’s a good chum of mine. I knocked him out in the first round when we were in the same boxing club. He’d do anything for me, would Charlie.” Matt treated this as a joke: “If you knocked him out Paddy, you better not let Charlie Stiles know you know me then.” When Charlie Stiles heard about this he said: “Listen Paddy. There’ll be another fight in our house if our Nobby signs for anyone but the Reds.”

Fortunately for us, Nobby was as rabid a United fan as his father, but when he came down to Old Trafford after joining the ground staff there were looks of sheer incredulity from some of the other boys. 

Nobby was then not much more than 5ft tall and would be lucky to turn the scales at 6 stone. He arrived blinking owlishly, looking anything but a potential professional footballer. Denis Law had made a similar undistinguished entry into football when he arrived at Huddersfield with a squint which even his spectacles couldn’t conceal. Both players have made a tremendous impact on the game despite these youthful disabilities. With courage and perseverance, they have overcome handicaps which would have deterred others who hadn’t their fierce determination to succeed. 

In Stiles case the future must have looked particularly bleak because our half back strength at the time included these players: Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Wilf McGuinness, Freddie Goodwin, Jeff Whitefoot and Don Gibson. Few people would have predicted Nobby Stiles to have forced his way to the top of the game in the way he has.

Yet, even in those days, small as he was, Nobby played and tackled like a giant. A non-stop bundle of nervous energy who didn’t know when he was beaten. The spirit was there, the talent was there. The question was whether he would be big enough and whether his eye-sight would be equal to the demands of playing in first class football. We knew, of course, his eye-sight was not 100%, but at one floodlight game Nobby appeared to be misjudging the ball rather badly, so Matt decided some action needed to be taken. 

Only then did we get the full story, of how, when he was a child Nobby had been knocked down by a trolley bus. His life was in danger but he recovered and was told his eyesight was permanently impaired. Indeed for a time there were grave fears he might lose his sight altogether. Nobby’s answer was to throw himself wholeheartedly into sport to prove himself better than the boys who were not forced to wear glasses. This explained his fanatical zeal in chasing the ball; it was only when he was in close proximity to the ball he could see it clearly. He had been able to get by in junior football, but now he hoped to play professionally something had to be done. He was sent to an eye specialist who advised contact lenses. At first Nobby’s timing was a little awry – “I had never seen the ball or the players so clearly” – but after years of playing under the severe handicap of short sight, Nobby gradually adjusted to the game. 

Only Nobby himself knows the full extent of the heartache and disappointment he suffered before he clinched his place with United, and then England. He achieved this in the space of two years. We tried him at inside forward, and although a prodigious worker he was not quite sharp enough in that position for First Division football. In 1963 when we won the Cup, Nobby was still a reserve team player. The following year he was almost ready for the breakthrough. At Upton Park in March, he played in the United team that beat West ham on their own ground 3-0. The following Saturday Nobby stepped down to make way for a regular first teamer, and United lost to the same West Ham on a muddy pitch in the semi-final of the Cup at Hillsborough. His performance in the first match did not go unnoticed, the following season 1964/5 Nobby Stiles was a United first team player where he developed into a perfect example of a ‘sweeper’. It was a fantastic success story. Within a year he was in the England squad. 

Sir Alf Ramsey quickly realised his value to England, because no-one reads the game better. He has the small mans ‘terrier’ instincts, and it is this that makes him so masterly in the role of tidying things up at the back of the defence. Watch Nobby when he decides to move forward into the opposition penalty area. He doesn’t do it very often, but when he does, you can bet any money any money he will be ‘reading’ the move and should it break down, he will scuttle back into his own penalty area ready to repel any danger. Despite his short sight, he has developed a sort of sixth sense which enables him to anticipate where he ought to be plugging the holes in defence. 

Off the field, he is a gregarious character always joking that while George Best gets fan mail from the young girls, he gets a bumper postbag from the mothers because of his homely grin. When Nobby comes to the ground these days he wears large horn-rimmed spectacles that give the appearance of a learned barrister. He switches to contact lenses when he plays, this caused quite a panic at Stoke two years ago. On arrival at the Victoria Ground Nobby discovered he had left the precious lenses at home. Frantic calls were put in to Manchester and a few minutes to kick-off Nobby’s brother Charlie came puffing up bearing the precious burden: “Here you are Nobby.” Nobby grinned: “Thanks… it’s a big help to see who I am playing against.”

On another occasion, while the rest of the team waited on the coach for the return journey, it was noticed Nobby was missing. He was found on his hands and knees peering at the muddy ground. “I have lost my teeth,” he said tersely. “They’re new ones and I thought they would stay in but they must have popped out of my mouth.”

Everyone knows that Nobby is an all action player and after a match at Burnley, I thought I would pull his leg, so I breezed into the dressing room: “Well done lads… good game. But half way through the second half I saw you stop playing Nobby… what was wrong son?” Nobby handed me his horn rimmed glasses: “I think you must need these more than I do,” he said. 

Nobby’s ferocious approach to the game and his powerful tackles caused some people to label him a dirty player and it took all Alf Ramsey’s tact and diplomacy to smooth things over and help Nobby during the World Cup, at a time when the critics were at their busiest. Sir Alf knew only too well how much England needed Nobby Stiles. The truth is, that Nobby doesn’t want to play wrapped in cotton wool, so he challenges strongly for the ball. Show me one player who suffered a real injury when playing against Nobby Stiles, where he has gone over the top of the ball to hack an opponent.

To me, England’s World Cup winning team are never so effective when Nobby is not there at the back, shouting, encouraging, tackling and mopping up the mistakes of others. This is the Nobby Stiles I know. There could be no safer guardian of Tommy Taylor’s boots. And big Tommy would have been proud to play in the same as a lad who signed on as a £35/- a week ground staff boy, and is now worth a king’s ransom.”

Stiles played 395 times for United, winning two league titles and of course the European Cup in 1968, fulfilling Eddie Colman’s destiny and becoming Jimmy Murphy’s personality on the pitch. Murphy was described as ‘the nuts and bolts man’ behind the scenes at United and that is a perfect summary to what Stiles brought to the United team. In an uncomplicated way, Stiles made everything seem so simple yet so good.

He channeled Murphy in his later years, when he returned to the club in the 1980s to become a youth coach. He was crucial in the development of the class of ’92, a suitable right-hand man for Eric Harrison to remind the youngsters of the standards they needed to match. 

If only every player showed the commitment and desire to play for Manchester United that Nobby Stiles did, no supporter could ever be disappointed.

Rest in peace one of Manchester United’s greatest ever sons.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport film 'Too Good To Go Down'. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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