I’VE SAT next to two members of the 1966 World Cup winning team, and both are no longer with us. I’ve been in the same bar as two others and I saw one of the England legends snip a ribbon to open a social club. To be in the company of players who achieved something genuinely special was a privilege and an honour.
One of those players was Nobby Stiles, one of the unsung heroes of the 1966 team and one of the most notable characters in the England game at the time. Sadly, little Nobby (the same height as me), died on October 30 2020, aged 78 after a period of illness. He died the day before Sean Connery – two 1960s icons passing within hours of each other.
Nobby Stiles was a man for a specific task and that role was to win the ball, stop others from playing and link-up with the more creative players in the 1966 team. Sir Alf Ramsey knew exactly why he selected Nobby, who described himself as a blind dwarf with no front teeth – clearly he was a man who could laugh at himself. I remember him saying he was born during an air raid in a cellar.
Ramsey gave Nobby 28 England caps, a considerable haul. He scored one goal against West Germany in a friendly in 1966. He was the least capped of all the team that won the World Cup final and went on to play just eight more games for his country after that memorable afternoon, making his last appearance on April 25 1970 against Scotland. He was on the plane for Mexico as England sought to retain the Jules Rimet trophy, but never played, although Ramsey knew that if he had selected Stiles, the Manchester United midfielder would not have let him down. Nobby’s job for England, which had lasted five years, had been done and his place effectively went to Tottenham’s Alan Mullery.
At club level, Stiles followed the 1966 World Cup with a league title win in 1967 and a memorable European Cup medal in 1968 where he helped neutralise Benfica’s Eusébio, the player he had marked in the World Cup semi-final at Wembley.
But Nobby was an inspiration to a every young lad who had eyesight problems. Personally, I was heartbroken when I had to wear glasses in January 1970 at the age of 11. How would I play football? My school teacher, who had his own disability in the form of diabetes, consoled me when I told him I was short-sighted. “It’s not the end of the world, son. Look at Nobby Stiles, he wears glasses but he won the World Cup. I’m not saying you will win the World Cup, but it won’t stop you playing football,” said dear old Mr Heath.
Some years later, at a Sportsman’s Dinner in North Hertfordshire, I recounted that story to Nobby, who had just sold me an England cap in an auction (not one of his, I would add). “So you’re as blind as a bat like me?,” he said. “You’ve got more hair than me, though,” he joked.
Stiles was a warm character, self deprecating, appreciative and clearly enjoyed meeting the fans. His success reminded us that a team has many parts and different skill sets, not just in football, but also in life. He may not have been Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks or Bobby Charlton, but nobody has ever forgotten Nobby Stiles.