It was when the story of Nobby Stiles’ appearance against Juventus, in a tournament high up the in Swiss Alps, was recalled to mind at his funeral on Thursday that the sadness dissipated and spirits soared.
One of his Manchester United team-mates had suffered the indignity of an Italian player spitting on him, the presiding Catholic priest related. And Stiles had clocked this. ‘Did I see that?’ he’d asked. ‘Push out to the right, then’, he told the team-mate – ensuring that the perpetrator would be in a position where Stiles would ‘meet him.’ The sound when he exacted retribution ‘could be heard across the Alps,’ declared Revd Father Patrick McMahon.
The desperate restrictions of these times meant that only 50 or so gathered under an azure sky to hear Stiles’ funeral relayed on a Tannoy at Manchester Crematorium yet that unquenchable spirit and energy of his was there, to the very end.
Nobby Stiles was laid to rest at a private funeral at Manchester crematorium on Thursday
They heard of his love of Dublin (where he met his wife, Kay), New York’s Coney Island and Zorba’s Greek restaurant in central Manchester. But it was Old Trafford, which the hearse bearing his coffin passed, that he lived and breathed.
‘He was fanatically United before he even signed for them,’ said the priest, momentarily betraying his own allegiances. ‘That’s the kind of spirit we need.’
Football did not make him a wealthy man and life after his playing days was certainly not easy. He was broke for a time and never forgot the day he put his bank card into a cash machine, needing petrol money for the journey to West Bromwich, where he was coaching, and got the message back: ‘insufficient funds.’ It was, he said years later, ‘as though someone had stuck a knife in me.’
But Stiles would never have had his life any other way. His son John had often accompanied Stiles on the after-dinner circuit which was another way of keeping some money coming in and frequently heard his father being asked did he wish he were playing now, when football made players into millionaires.
Reds legends Brian Kidd, left, and Bryan Robson, right, were among the congregation
A group of fans applauded his funeral cortege as it went past Old Trafford on Thursday
Former teammate and friend Pat Crerand dabbed his eye as the hearse came by the stadium
‘He’d tell them ‘No,’ his son, John told the congregation. ‘He’d say: ‘I was playing in the ’60s, for the club I supported as a child. ‘There was The Beatles, Elvis and I met the girl I adored. I wouldn’t change a thing.’
Those gathered in the autumnal chill outside include 82-year-old Kitty Walsh, who was working at the Four Seasons Hotel near Manchester Airport, in the days when Stiles and his teammates would descend after European trips. ‘It was such a joy. Those were such incredible days.’
Inside, the congregation, limited to 30, included former team-mate Brian Kidd. And Bryan Robson, visibly moved as he spoke afterwards of the Stiles he’d known when Sir Alex Ferguson brought him into United’s coaching staff but whom he also watched for England in the golden summer of ’66.
Stiles (pictured celebrating the 1966 World Cup win) died aged 78 last month after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease
Tributes flooded in to the man who was the ‘heart and soul’ of the England team after his death was announced last month. Pictured left to right: Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Moore, Ray Wilson and George Cohen
‘I was 11, just getting into football,’ Robson said. ‘I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a footballer. I watched him run round around the pitch with the World Cup and that dance.’
The dementia Stiles lived with for 17 years had rendered him unrecognisable in recent years. The Stiles’ asked that donations go to the Jeff Astle Foundation, formed by the family which has done so much to support them in recent years and who have led the campaign for research into possible links between the illness and heading footballs.
The congregation heard songs Stiles loved. The 12th of Never by Johnny Mathis and Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual. And they remembered how having the name of a street in his beloved Manchester Collyhurst district renamed Nobby Stiles Drive had been such a joy to this most unassuming man.
‘He treated everyone with same respect and generosity,’ said Revd Father Patrick McMahon. ‘He was a star, though you’d never have known it.’
Hundreds of floral tributes were left outside Old Trafford before the service on Thursday
Stiles’ hearse drives near Old Trafford before the service and committal of the football legend
Stiles’ family, which included wife Kay (right of Nobby), asked for privacy after announcing his death last month. Pictured left to right: Nobby’s granddaughter Megan, son Peter, himself, his daughter-in-law Mary, son John, wife Kay, son Robert and Granddaughter Catlin