I wouldn’t have achieved anything in football without Nobby Stiles. As a kid trying to make his way at Preston, I wouldn’t even have got another contract, let alone moves to Brighton and then Liverpool. Without Nobby I would have disappeared and probably ended up playing lower-league football. I certainly wouldn’t have played in the top flight or won a European Cup.
I first met him at Deepdale when I was still at school and used to go up there training on days off. Nobby was in the first team because Bobby Charlton was manager at the time and had signed him from Middlesbrough. My stepfather was a director of the club, so it was a social encounter at first.
Bobby had arrived before Nobby and brought in David Sadler, who won the European Cup final alongside him with Manchester United. When Nobby arrived, Bobby had two World Cup winners and three European Cup winners, including himself. It was extremely rarefied air over Deepdale at the time.
Nobby played about 50 times for the first team but coming towards the end of his career Bobby made him the reserve team player-coach. He was put in charge of this ragbag assortment of teenagers supplemented by a handful of players who hadn’t made the first team for the weekend. I was 16 or 17 years old, still growing, lanky and gangly – a left-winger with no left foot. We were playing in the Central League, up against various top-flight reserve teams, and the standard was high. It was very competitive because you’d have lots of internationals playing in these games.
At Preston we just had a bunch of kids, so Nobby’s remit was to coach and play in our team and try to get one or two of us to come through to the first team. We were playing against Aston Villa one day, were 4-0 down at half-time and I don’t think I’d even kicked the ball. When we got in the dressing room, Nobby suggested I drop back and play alongside him in defence and from that day on, I never really looked back. Nobby had seen something in me and very much transformed my life, because that was the day I began to kick on as a player.
He was such a character. Before games, he’d be walking around the dressing room with his boots on, his socks on, his shirt on and nothing else. No shorts or underwear. He’d be walking around the dressing room trying to gee us up and we’d just be averting our gaze and thinking: “Bloody hell.” It was more than a little off-putting – he had loads of these weird superstitions.
Before kick-off, once he’d got his shorts on, he’d go up to the referee and tell him that we were just kids and if the other team started kicking us, he expected us to be looked after. Because of his reputation and what he’d achieved in the game, the referee would be very deferential: “Yes, Nobby. Of course, Nobby. Whatever you say, Nobby.” If any of our opponents had a player who was taking liberties and getting away with it, Nobby would go and cut him in half; he’d soon sort them out.
He was only 5ft 6in and if you saw him in the street with his thick-rimmed glasses on you’d think he was an accountant who’d lost his way. On the pitch, as well as being a hard man and a great reader of the game, he was a really good passer. He had tiny feet, I think he was only a size five, but he had amazing upper-body strength. You’d see him with no shirt on and he was like a gorilla at the watering hole, albeit a gorilla with little spindly legs.
As a coach, he had Tony Morley, Michael Robinson and myself at Preston and we all went on to win the European Cup with other clubs. Later, he went on to coach all those kids at Man United and they weren’t bad either. He was just a lovely, lovely person, a small man with a massive personality. I can’t really remember him ever losing the plot on the training ground. He was very much into nurturing and helping us grow as players and as long as you worked hard he was prepared to accept a lack of ability.
Like many other people, I think football let Nobby down a bit. There is an argument those 11 guys who won the World Cup are among the most successful English sportsmen of all time and they should all have got knighthoods. I was very surprised the PFA and others in exalted positions didn’t look after them more. We should be embarrassed at how we failed to properly look after some of that team, because they were true sporting icons.