Remembering Nobby Stiles, England's 'Toothless Tiger' who deserved better

Booted and suited for the post-match banquet, Nobby Stiles was lost backstage in the maze of corridors at the Cafe Royal.

His England debut against Scotland had been a qualified success, despite Denis Law and Ian St John’s goals wiping out the Three Lions’ 2-0 lead at Wembley, and he had made a presentable case for inclusion in Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup squad.

Finally, he stumbled across the tinkling cut-glass, chiming cutlery and chandeliers of a plush suite and found a spare seat at the dinner table.

Short-sighted and squinting around the room for familiar faces, Stiles found himself making polite small-talk with strangers.

“I was looking in vain for the rest of the lads when one of my fellow diners asked me if I was a friend of the bride or groom,” he said – and it dawned that he had inadvertently gatecrashed a wedding breakfast.

For once, Stiles had lost track of not only of the man he was detailed to mark but a whole team and an entire function.

Stiles ahead of the 1966 World Cup, in which he starred for the Three Lions

The following year, in the World Cup semi-final, Portugese kingpin Eusebio – probably the second-best player on the planet after Pele – wasn’t so fortunate.

Stiles shadowed him expertly on England’s magic carpet ride towards the holy grail.

And to prove that sequels can be just as rewarding as the original, two years later he went back to Wembley’s sacred turf and did the same job, to the same high standard, as Manchester United broke another duck for English football by winning the European Cup final against Benfica.

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Stiles puts himself on the line to block a Eusebio header in the World Cup

Two legends, reunited in 2005

Nobby Stiles, the indispensable troubleshooter of England’s midfield in the summer of 1966, has died at the age of 78 after a long battle with advanced dementia and prostate cancer.

Born during an air raid, as the Luftwaffe swarmed in the skies above Collyhurst in Manchester, Stiles was the original dancing destroyer.

False teeth in one hand, trophy in the other and socks rolled around his ankles, none of the images from England’s triumph 54 years ago captured a nation’s joy more than the spring in Stiles’ step as he danced with the World Cup above his head.

Think of Bobby Moore wiping his hands before collecting Jules Rimet from the Queen.

Think of some people on the pitch who thought it was all over before Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick in the dying seconds.

And think of Bobby Charlton’s tears as he embraced brother Jack when the extra-time battle with West Germany was won.

Stiles, Sir Alf Ramsey and Bobby Moore celebrate the Wembley triumph

For pure jubilation, and as a portrait of happiness, none of those shapshots surpassed the sight of Stiles tripping the light fantastic across Wembley.

Even when those false teeth were safely stowed in a jar beside the bed, few could bite in the tackle like Our Nobby.

And few footballers, if any, have matched our fondness for the ‘Toothless Tiger’ who never gave opponents a moment’s peace, like a Jack Russell refusing to let go of a burglar’s leg.

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Not bad for a lad who, in his own words, had been born “a half-blind dwarf who was bombed by the Germans and run over by a trolley bus when he was one.”

England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles holds his 1966 World Cup tournament cap

Stiles was more skilful, and a better passer of the ball, than his reputation would suggest, but he could go toe-to-toe with Tommy Smith and Dave Mackay among the most fearless warriors o the sixties.

His methods of escorting dangerous rivals did not always win universal approval, not least among the Football Association’s committee of old codgers.

In the World Cup group matches, the robust tackle which put France playmaker Jacques Simon out of the game was branded “rough play” by the FA, who instructed Ramsey to make an example of Stiles by dropping him.

Sir Alf told the FA he would resign, in the middle of a World Cup, if he was not allowed to pick who he wanted.

“What a man,” said Stiles. “Because he was loyal to you, you’d run through brick walls for him.”

Stiles was well liked and well respected throughout the game

Stiles’ starting wage at United in 1958 was £3.25 a week, and despite winning 28 international caps, football never made him rich.

England’s bonus for winning the World Cup, after tax, was £647 plus a free raincoat from a deal hatched privately by Ramsey on Savile Row.

To win his family financial security, Stiles sold his World Cup and European Cup winner’s medals for £209,000.

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They were purchased for safe keeping by United and remain on display in the Old Trafford museum.

He deserved better, in his twilight years, than a woefully sluggish response from within the game to the possible links between heading footballs and the ravages of dementia.

As another light goes out on the Boys of ’66 dashboard, and another star is added to football’s celestial gallery, the least we owe Nobby Stiles is answers to a medical conundrum which feels more like a scandal the longer it remains unsolved.

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