Nobby Stiles was the beating heart of the 1966 England side, the one that made all things possible. He was the sheet anchor around whom the rest could play.
And then there were four…
Like all great teams, the abiding characteristic of England’s 1966 World Cup winners is that you can’t imagine that team with anybody else in it. The eleven names trip off the tongue so naturally, any other would be a wanton intrusion. Banks; Cohen, Moore, Jack Charlton, Wilson; Stiles; Ball, Bobby Charlton, Peters; Hunt, Hurst.
Some will tell you that Nobby Stiles was lucky to be in that World Cup winning team. They’re the same kind of cretins that will tell you Ringo Starr was lucky to be in The Beatles. Stiles was the beating heart of that side, the one that made all things possible, the one that completed the unit. He was the sheet anchor around whom the rest could play.
Bobby Moore, George Cohen, Ray Wilson, they could all dare to venture out of defence, knowing that if they did, Stiles would dutifully fill the gap that they’d left. Martin Peters, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton could all dare to play with the ball at their feet that bit longer knowing that if they were caught in possession, Stiles would be there to rip the ball away from whichever opponent had dared to steal.
Stiles was the glue, the key component, the man that let England play the way they needed to play if they were going to win the World Cup as Alf Ramsey had promised the nation they would three years earlier. That was underlined in the aftermath of the final group game at the tournament when England beat France 1-0.
It was a win that came at a price as Stiles found himself embroiled in controversy. Stiles had already picked up a caution for “rough play” but with England moving serenely on, Stiles was late with a tackle on Simon, Ray Wilson admitting “Nobby’s tackle looks horrendous when I see it now on film. He looks so unlike a footballer. When kids read about him or parents talk about him and saying he was a little animal, they mustn’t be able to believe it. He looks like Woody Allen!”
The game was wrapped up 2-0 but shortly after, F.I.F.A.’s Disciplinary Committee confirmed Stiles’ booking and “requested the Head of the English Team Delegation to warn Stiles that if he were reported again, serious action would be taken.” By the time this had been filtered through the F.A., the message to Alf was, “Is Stiles necessary? Can’t you leave him out?” His response was simple: “If Stiles doesn’t play, England won’t play”, George Cohen adding that “I’ve since heard that Alf told the F.A., “If you require me to drop Nobby Stiles, I’ll resign””. End of debate.
And Ramsey was right, not merely to stand loyally by a footballer who was doing the job he had asked him to do, but in recognising that without him, England’s chances of carrying off the World Cup would be reduced by about 50%.
Who else in the squad could take on that role? Norman Hunter would most likely have filled the vacancy, but he was 22, had only made his England debut in December 1965 and would therefore have been a real risk. With Stiles, there was no risk because like Ringo in The Beatles, he was the right man in the right place.
From there, Stiles was magnificent, not least in the semi-final against Portugal when he essentially blotted the great Eusebio, until then the competition’s unstoppable force, out of the game. No Eusebio, no Portugal. His performance was the platform for England to reach the final, just as his man marking job on Eusebio on the same pitch in 1968 was central to Manchester United winning the European Cup.
In the World Cup final itself, he was the embodiment of tidy, intelligent discipline, snuffing out West German move after move, then giving the ball five yards forward to Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball or Martin Peters. Nothing clever, no frills, but a selfless, rock steady performance in service of the team. Most people might not have noticed him in the game unless he was committing himself to a crunching tackle, but he was a player’s players and those around him knew just how invaluable he was to the cause.
So invaluable that as age caught up with him, it caused incalculable problems for his managers, for club and country. With England, he was replaced by Alan Mullery, technically a better player, whatever that means. “Better” he might have been, but he didn’t fit the Ramsey method as seamlessly as Stiles did, and didn’t Ramsey suffer for it in Leon in 1970. Do you really think that Stiles in his ’66 prime would have allowed Beckenbauer to run free and drive that shot under Peter Bonetti, the shot that started to prise England’s hands off the Jules Rimet trophy?
What Stiles had was the quality that so few players have, the humility to understand full well all of his strengths – which were far greater than most gave him credit for – and all of his limitations. He never tried to do what he couldn’t, he always managed to do what he could to perfection. If you can do that, Lennon & McCartney, Ramsey & Busby, they’re always going to need you.
Rest easy Nobby.
Dave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: https://www.curtis-sport.com/books –
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