Of all the players who contributed to England’s World Cup victory in 1966, Nobby Stiles, who has died aged 78 after suffering from prostate cancer and dementia, was the most unlikely of heroes. But, with his socks round his ankles and his false front teeth left in the dressing room, he was a formidable opponent, a robust tackler and an implacable marker, as he showed in a memorable and crucial performance in the semi-final against Portugal, when he comprehensively – and fairly – squeezed the life out of the great Eusébio.
Eusébio had been a glittering star of the tournament, a gloriously talented and incisive attacker who had scored four of Portugal’s five goals in the quarter-finals against North Korea. But in the semi-final, Stiles man-marked him into ineffectiveness, enabling England to win 2-1. When Alf Ramsey had instructed him during the pre-match briefing to take Eusébio “out of the game”, Stiles had asked: “Do you mean for life, Alf?” However, his shepherding of the Portuguese star was not only beyond reproach but, in the estimation of his colleague George Cohen, “technically and morally brilliant”.
It was a superbly intelligent performance, indicative of the role that Stiles had played throughout that World Cup as a shrewd, unselfish coverer of defenders and an economical user of the ball. He appeared in every game of the 1966 tournament and was part of the backbone of the side.
Though he had no man-marking job to perform in the 4-2 win against West Germany in the final, he put in another strong performance, and on the final whistle was the most enthusiastic of celebrators, kissing anyone within close range and essaying a comical jig with the trophy that has passed into folk memory. Though quiet and even shy off the field, Stiles was voluble on it, constantly advising and exhorting his teammates.
That he was able to have such an influence for England in the latter stages of the World Cup owed much to the stubborn support of Ramsey, who had stood up for Stiles when, in the group game against France, he had so badly fouled Jacky Simon that there were calls for his exclusion from the team by the Football Association. Ramsey firmly responded that, if Stiles went, then so would he – and Stiles stayed.
Two years after England’s World Cup victory, Stiles was at Wembley again to help Manchester United become the first English team to win the European Cup final. Again Eusébio was one of his opponents, playing for Benfica, and again Stiles was detailed to keep him quiet. Although he was not as comprehensively successful in damping down his man the second time around, he still did a perfectly satisfactory job – and United won 4-1.
As a result, Stiles is one of only three Englishmen – the others being Bobby Charlton and Ian Callaghan – to have won both a European Cup and a World Cup.
At Old Trafford he also took possession of two league championship medals.
Born in Collyhurst, Manchester, the son of Charlie, manager of an undertaker’s, and his wife, Kitty, Stiles joined Manchester United straight from school.
He had grown up admiring his United predecessor Eddie Colman, a right-half of greater natural gifts, who died in the Munich air disaster of 1958. By that time Stiles had already represented England schoolboys as a right-half, displaying attacking talents that would be somewhat inhibited in his later career.
He made his debut for United, in fact, as an inside-forward in the 1960-61 season, playing 26 league matches and scoring twice.
When United reached the FA Cup final in 1963, and Stiles had missed just one cup tie besides playing 31 league games, he was, to his deep disappointment, dropped. The following season he was picked for just 17 league games, but fought his way back into the regular side in the 1964-65 season, missing only one league match in that First Division title-winning season.
At only 5ft 6in, prematurely balding, with few teeth and severe short-sightedness that required him to wear contact lenses during matches and thick glasses off the field, Stiles was an unusual-looking footballing specimen. But whatever he lacked in classical good looks and physique, he made up for with intelligence and a highly competitive, even intimidating, demeanour.
As he did for England, at United he stifled the activity of opposing sides’ key players, won the ball and then gave it to his team’s creative talents, such as Charlton and George Best. That formula once more proved irresistible in the 1966-67 season, when United again won the First Division title, and was decisive in the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica.
Injuries restricted Stiles to just nine league games in the 1969-70 season
, and in 1971, after he had appeared in 312 league matches in 11 years for Manchester United, the club transferred him to Second Division Middlesbrough for £20,000.
By this time his England career was over. Having made his debut against Scotland at Wembley in 1965, he had packed in 19 matches for his country by the time of the 1966 World Cup final, but injuries and the rise of Alan Mullery meant that he played only 10 games thereafter. Although he was in good form in the run-up to the 1970 World Cup finals and was selected for the squad in Mexico, he was sent there as cover rather than as a main string in Ramsey’s bow, and did not feature in any of the matches.
In his two seasons as a player at Middlesbrough, Stiles managed 57 league games before moving for a couple of seasons to Preston North End, where he appeared 46 times in Divisions Two and Three as a player-coach under Charlton as manager. He left Preston when Charlton resigned in 1975, but in 1977 returned for a four-year spell as manager, taking the club up from Division Three to Division Two in 1978.
When they slipped back again in 1981, he moved to Canada for a three-year period as manager at Vancouver Whitecaps, and in 1985 he succeeded his brother-in-law Johnny Giles as manager at West Bromwich Albion, lasting in the job just four months. Subsequently he returned to Old Trafford as a youth coach, nurturing players such as David Beckham and Paul Scholes, but in later years he moved away from the footballing frontline to become a successful after-dinner speaker. He was made MBE in 2000. In 2010 he decided to auction his memorabilia to raise money for his family; his World Cup winner’s medal was bought by Manchester United for the record sum of £188,200.
In 2016 his family revealed that Stiles had been affected by Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia since the age of 60, heightening awareness about the possible links between football and degenerative brain disease.
He is survived by his wife, Kay, his childhood sweetheart, and their three sons, one of whom, John, was a professional footballer for Leeds United.
• Norbert Peter Stiles, footballer, born 18 May 1942; died 30 October 2020