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Nobby and Bobby: their names are forever etched in glory in the history of Manchester United. Until Liverpool’s Ian Callaghan joined them as a belatedly decorated member of the 1966 squad, Stiles and Charlton were the only Englishmen who won both the World Cup and the European Cup.
For Manchester United fans, the two also reflected the vision and the myth associated with the club. There was something more than just past club legends: homegrown and home-nurtured, the two of them personified the obsession of the supporters. Grit and glory, sweat and blood – there were representatives of the Manchester United fans on the pitch.
Along with Duncan Edwards, George Best, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, they were the finest exponents of one of world football’s greatest schools – the Manchester United academy.
And now one of them is gone and the other is horribly afflicted with a disease that takes away from all the memories of their glorious past.
Nobby Stiles – Hard as milled steel
Nobby Stiles debuted for Manchester United in 1960 as a diminutive right back but went onto become the heartbeat and enforcer of Sir Matt Busby’s team that won the European Cup in 1968.
Born during an air raid in the Second World War brought up on the streets of Collyhurst – an inner-city area of Manchester, Nobby was tough, uncompromising and hard as nails as a defensive midfielder.
While Bobby glided, Nobby destroyed. While Bobby shone, Nobby grafted and refused to give an inch to the opposition. The current Manchester United side would do well to have a midfielder of his attitude and work-rate.
Tooth-free, bandaged legs and once-paced he may have been, Nobby terrorized opposition teams in the middle of the park. He was Busby’s enforcer like Roy Keane was to Sir Alex Ferguson.
His job was to give the creators in his side the ball and protect the defence. If any opposition player tried to take liberties with Manchester United’s front three – Best, Law and Charlton – he had to face the wrath of Stiles or, better to say, his ankles did.
However, off the pitch, his personality could not have been more different. He was forever embarrassed by the adulation he received and was as flash as vanilla ice crème.
And most importantly he was extremely kind. On the aftermath of his death, Liverpool legend Mark Lawrenson revealed the influence Nobby had on his career when he was starting out as a 17-year-old in the Preston North End reserve side with Bobby in charge of the first team. The former midfielder was always full of knowledge and information and was forever ready to pass it on to the next generation.
Lawrenson also revealed Stiles’ eccentric superstition of putting his pants and shorts on just before the team walked out. So he essentially gave the team talk kit-free downstairs. A young Lawrenson didn’t know where to look!
And Gary Neville revealed the crucial education he received from Nobby when the Manchester United legend was part of the youth coaching staff at the club. He provided no non-sense advice like: “Remember son, your best friends out on the pitch are your six studs.”
It’s a shame that his work with the Manchester United youngsters was curtailed by illness. He physically paid for all those glory years with the club was afflicted by Alzheimer’s at cruelly premature age and lived the last 17 years of his life under the vice-like control of his conditions.
Bobby Charlton – A Greek God who suffered from survivor’s guilt
Shortly after Nobby’s death, Norma Charlton revealed the tragic news of Bobby suffering with dementia.
There were signals that something was wrong after he failed to turn up for his brother Jack Charlton’s funeral but the news of Bobby struggling with dementia came as a shock for football fans across the world.
He is the fifth member of England’s World Cup-winning squad who has been struck down by the nerve disease and it was another cruel blow. Bobby, almost like a Greek God when he played, a man who has achieved so much in football, has been brought down so low.
Bobby has legitimate claims of being the greatest of English footballer but throughout his life, he was afflicted by survivor’s guilt. Watching his friends and team-mates die in the Munich air disaster left a profound effect on a man who struggled throughout his life to make sense of why he of all people managed to survive.
Whatever he achieved thereafter, he dedicated to the friends who lost in Munich, particularly to Duncan Edwards. And what heights he scaled in memory of the friends he lost and he did everything with a sense of grace, dignity and poise.
And he absolutely adored Nobby. Theirs was a bond so strong and it was because of the shared experience. They were the lynchpins of the rebuild that took place at Old Trafford post-Munich and they together won the World Cup with England and two years later, the European Cup with Manchester United.
It was no surprise when Bobby became manager at Preston North End he turned to his friend Nobby to become his lieutenant.
For the last few years, as Nobby’s power of speech waned the only visitor who remained constant in his life was Bobby. He was a regular at his home in Stretford, almost until the last.
I would have given everything to be a fly on the wall as the two reminisced about their past and the things they did together on the pitch for England and Manchester United. Two great men united to the last.
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