Sport Soccer

Monday 23 October 2017

Hero Stiles cast adrift by the game he graced

Ian Herbert on why Manchester United and PFA are shamed by Nobby's final battle

Nobby Stiles
Nobby Stiles

Ian Herbert

Nobby Stiles was the man Bobby Charlton described as the forerunner of Roy Keane - a "dog of war" who could be depended upon to shut down danger wherever it materialised on a football pitch. So it is perhaps not surprising that he has faced his toughest fight with resolve and no little humour.

Stiles' has been doing battle with Alzheimer's and vascular dementia for 15 years - to the extent that his mind has now become terribly frayed. Yet, at one point amid the struggle to recall who he'd spoken to just five minutes earlier, he grinned at his son, Rob. "I make new friends every day," he told him.

The 74-year-old's powers of speech have gone and his decline has been so steep in recent weeks that visiting him is out of the question for all but the close family.

For them, the sorrow is multiplied by a sense that the mainstay of England's World Cup triumph and Manchester United's 1968 European Cup has not been afforded the thought and care he might have done by his beloved game amid the struggle of his fading years.

Endeavours

Most of all, the family thought that football - and particularly the PFA - would have shown a commitment within Stiles' lifetime to complete research on the link between heading a football and degenerative brain disease. Definitive research has not even started.

Stiles (pictured below at his prime) was not one to demand such endeavours on his behalf. The wing half-back might have been a giant at the heart of the United and England engine but he was a shy man, too.

Hundreds flocked to hear his after-dinner speeches when his playing days were done, but he was not a comic turn. "He didn't try to be what he wasn't," explained his son Rob.

Stiles needed that extra income when the idea was put to him, because football alone did not furnish him with a comfortable retirement.

The game gave him a decent living when he played as he was part of the generation which campaigned for an end to the maximum wage. But he was not one of United's top earners and certainly not set up for life.

His initial £3.25-a-week United wage had risen to £20,000-a-year at Middlesbrough when he left Old Trafford in 1971. He earned less than that when, at Brian Kidd's suggestion, Alex Ferguson brought him back to United in 1989 to coach the young players.

The Stiles' still needed the income his wife, Kay, brought in from her job selling Waterford crystal in a Manchester department store. He'd been a national hero in England but still had to scuttle around to make a living when his playing days were done.

As United soared, Stiles began to decline. He left the coaching role in 1993, suffered a heart attack in 2002 and it was a year later, at the age of 61, that he first seemed to be altered and confused. In retrospect, the family now know that this was the first sign of dementia but neither they, nor he, wanted to admit it.

"He was always so fit, never carried weight, always had low blood pressure and perhaps that was why we assumed it was nothing. We wanted it to be nothing," said Rob.

The odds of a diagnosis between the ages of 40 and 65 are one in 1,400.

In 2010, aged 68, he suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or 'mini stroke' which left his family in no doubt that there was a serious problem. Stiles had to stop driving and, though he tried to maintain the after-dinner speaking - his sole source of income - his eldest son, John, had to work alongside with him, guiding him through the questions and stories.

It was at that time that Stiles decided to sell his medals. "I have had a bit of bad time and I want to leave something for my family," he said in September 2010. "These things are very, very special to me - the memories of me growing up as a kid and of my football career."

Stiles was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013 and, while at Manchester's Christie Hospital suffered another stroke which left him confused. He spent periods of time in two other hospitals, suffered two bad falls, one of which left him with a broken pelvis.

The once bright and optimistic Stiles retreated within himself and was at times overwhelmed by anxiety.

The sons made his condition public in 2015, asking for privacy as they tried to help their mother.

Football's mixed response to all of this has been revealing. Stiles' old England team-mates, who already knew, were the most concerned.

As always, Bobby Charlton remained a regular visitor to the Stiles' modest semi-detached house in Stretford. He has been close to him ever since the two of them, Shay Brennan and David Herd ironically called themselves the Big Four in their United days.

Stiles had his good and bad days and Charlton happened to pay a visit on one of the bad days. It was distressing.

"People don't know how to react," recalled Rob. "Dad knew that and in time he couldn't bring himself to see people."

If they're honest, the family would say they were disappointed that they have felt virtually no communication has been forthcoming from United since Stiles left the club, 14 years ago.

Stiles has always considered it an honour to have run out in the club's colours, so didn't flinch when he asked about getting tickets for the team's home match with Liverpool in 2009. He was told he must pay full price. He'd wanted to accompany his grand-daughter, Caitlin, to her first Old Trafford match, on her birthday.

In such circumstances, a rare piece correspondence from those of the modern United generation of players meant a lot. It was a card from Wayne Rooney, written by the player after the family had disclosed his plight to say how he had enjoyed watching footage of Stiles and, how sorry he was to hear he was struggling.

Manchester United say that Stiles had been invited to the renaming of a stand after Bobby Charlton last April, that many ex-players attended on match days - some in the directors' lounge - and that Stiles would always be welcome at Old Trafford.

They cite their £200,000 purchase of his World Cup and European Cup winners' medals in 2010 - which are in the club museum - as well as support for his dinner speeches.

The club say they wanted to respect his family's wishes for space and privacy when his health deteriorated.

Incalculable

His illness had progressed too far for him to attend any stand re-naming, or even a similar ceremony in his own honour shortly afterwards, from which he would have derived incalculable pleasure.

It was the re-naming of the street next to the school he attended - St Patrick's Primary in his Collyhurst - as Nobby Stiles Drive.

Stiles' lifelong primary school friends Danny Cooney and Tony Kennedy - rather than anyone in football - had decided they would see to it that the individual they have always called by the full 'Norbert' should have a street in his name.

United asked if they could attend the ceremony to film and do interviews, but Stiles' wife was disinclined to grant the request.

"One of the very few times we remember them getting in touch was when they wanted dad to do a dinner for them for free," said Rob.

But it is the lack of progress on the link between football and degenerative brain disease which really frustrates the family.

The FA and PFA first promised a joint study in 2002 when the former West Bromwich Albion player Jeff Astle's inquest confirmed that his death was caused by heading the old leather footballs. Nothing has been forthcoming. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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