The Big Interview - Nobby Stiles

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One night, after a difficult Deepdale board meeting, Nobby Stiles sat on the stairs at his Sale home with a terrible pain in his gut.

He recalled: "I was 39, manager of the famous Preston North End, but I felt totally drained, exhausted even.

"My blood pressure was going through the roof and the doctor told me I was heading for a massive heart attack.

"I was a young man, wondering what was going on. It was just a mighty struggle. I was slipping into trouble, and dangerously so.

"I remember it was a Friday and Preston had a game the next day.

"The doctor thought I should take the day off. So I went to bed and woke up at 11.30am the following day. I'd slept for 27 hours.

"I did take a step back and maybe I didn't have the passion anymore.

"When the sack came, right after relegation a few months later, I realised it was probably not the worst thing that could have happened."

Stiles never sat in the manager's chair again, apart from a few days as caretaker boss at West Bromwich Albion, but there's still a school of thought among avid Deepdale watchers that his sacking in the summer of 1981, to be replaced by Tommy Docherty, proved a colossal mistake.

Slowly, but surely, the England World Cup legend had rebuilt North End's tattered and torn image, guiding them to promotion in his first full season in charge.

When Stiles cemented Preston's position with top-10 finishes for the next two seasons in the old Second Division, shoulder to shoulder with West Ham and Chelsea, the Deepdale flame was burning bright again.

"Looking back, if I blamed myself for anything it was my failure to understand, before it was too late, the difference between First and Second Division players.

"Until that season, I had hammered home all my demands of the players throughout the season. I'd simply told them what to do at corners and throw-ins and free-kicks.

"I'd never ceased to state the obvious and then, maybe, because of echoes from the past at Manchester United, I simply stopped doing it.

"One of them, Gordon Coleman, came to me at the end and said: 'Boss, why did you stop talking to us? Why did you stop telling us what we needed to do?'

"I told Gordon that I thought I had done all the talking that was necessary, but he shook his head and said: 'No, boss, you didn't'."

When the end came for Stiles, following relegation on a bitter night of disappointment at the Baseball Ground, it was to spark a headlong decline towards the nightmare of re-election and Deepdale's wilderness years.

"I had eight great years playing and managing at Preston but that last 12 months was awful. We needed to win at Derby in our last game to stop up.

"Alex Bruce scored twice to give us a 2-1 victory, but the champions, West Ham, could only draw at our nearest relegation rivals Cardiff and that point kept Cardiff up.

"I knew we'd beat Derby, but deep down I also knew that the Cardiff result wouldn't go our way.

"We had some smashing lads in the dressing room, Brucey, the late Mick Baxter, Steve Elliott, Sean Haslegrave and Roy Tunks, but I cried along with them and our supporters that night.

"A few days later the North End board gave me the sack , but that's football."

But Stiles says those Deepdale memories have never dimmed nearly 25 years on.

He was said to be a nervous wreck in the lounge at the Racecourse, his tea cup 'rattling like a dying man's gargle' according to chief scout Jimmie Scott the day North End clinched promotion, Wrexham holding Peterborough to a goalless draw, to send North End up in May 1978.

"That was probably one of the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of my life.

"Half of Preston must have been there and Dai Davies, Wrexham's international goalkeeper, gave an astonishing display to keep Peterborough out.

"After a few lean years at Deepdale, that day was one to savour for those fantastic fans.

"The club was developing again. We had Micky Robinson, a big strong lad from Blackpool who had been playing somewhere in Sweden before we signed him, and he was knocking in goals all over the place.

"We eventually sold Micky to Manchester City for 756,000 which was an astonishing fee at the time.

"Off the field, we had a wonderful physio called Harry Hubbick who all the lads loved.

"He was a classic old football man, the type you don't really see today.

"In his day he had played against some of the great ones, including Stanley Matthews.

"And sometimes I would ask him to tell the lads how he found it marking him.

"He would just grunt and say: 'Matthews, ******* Matthews – I had him just like that,' and flick his fingers. It was absolutely hilarious at times.

"Some days I ran him home to Bolton after a game and he was beautifully mannered and well spoken in front of my wife.

"But the moment he stepped out of the car, I knew he would be swearing like a navvy.

"One day, we were playing Chelsea at Deepdale and I was sat in the dug-out with Harry and my assistant manager Alan Kelly.

"It was freezing cold, so we had a sleeping bag draped over our legs. All of a sudden there was a smell of burning and Harry had set the sleeping bag alight with his cigarette.

"We were dancing around on the touchline and the referee thought we were attempting to make a substitution, but Harry was trying to put himself out with smoke billowing over the pavilion paddock."

For all those ferocious tackles and blood and thunder epic battles for England and Manchester United, Stiles admits he never possessed the hard-nosed aggression of Sir Alex Ferguson or Sir Matt Busby, two manager's that were to colour his life so much at Old Trafford.

"I had come to suspect that I simply wasn't hard enough to be a manager.

"When I told a kid he was finished I felt his pain. I couldn't put enough distance between me and the player, the hopeful lad and the scarred old pro, and me the manager who, in his own way, had to play God. I couldn't turn off.

"The hardest thing about the job was dropping a player. At Preston, I'd always bring him into the office, sit him down and say 'son, I'm leaving you out tomorrow'.

"Some of the lads would blow up saying **** off, and storm away.

"Sir Matt Busby had a different way of doing it. He had a style of discipline that seeped into our blood. He didn't shout, he didn't rave.

"Once, he became concerned that our card-playing had reached such a level where it might affect the unity of the team.

"He didn't give us a lecture on the perils of gambling. He just came up in the middle of a session, picked up the cards and threw them out of the bus window. No-one said a word.

"Busby had instinct, though, and I knew that if you could get past the referee's room at Old Trafford on a Friday you'd be playing, because Matt was in there waiting to drop you.

"Matt would say to me, 'how do you think you are playing, Norrie'. He would always call me Norrie.

"Sometimes I would say okay boss, and I'd be in the line-up. The next time I'd be playing out of my skin and I'd be lucky to make the bench.

"His eyes would just bore into you when he spoke.

"Before we played Leeds or Liverpool, who had Norman Hunter and Tommy Smith in their ranks, he would say: 'Show him you are there, Norrie, in the first 10 minutes.'

"But Matt was a gentleman and I was proud to play for him."

Ferguson was to offer Stiles a precious lifeline back into the game when he couldn't raise the price of a gallon of petrol to get him to work and the blackness of depression swept over Stiles like a dark cloak.

"I ran my own car, without expenses, and when it broke down it was a crisis

"We were broke. My only assets apart from the mortgaged house in Sale – the payments on which were increasingly hard to find – were my World Cup, European Cup and championship medals and I couldn't bear to think of selling them.

"If I did that, what else would I have to show for the football career that had filled me with such pride?

"Sometimes I would ask myself what I was doing. What use was I to anybody?

"It was certainly true that I was worn down and feeling, more than at any time in my life, beaten.

"One day I put my bank card into a hole in the wall – I needed petrol money for the journey to West Bromwich – and I got a message back saying insufficient funds.

"I stood mesmerised by the blinking screen. It felt as though someone had stuck a knife in me.

"The next day the telephone went and it was Alex Ferguson. He wondered if I would be interested in coming back to Manchester United to coach the kids.

"When I drove back through the gates of The Cliff I was invaded by a thousand memories.

"I'd been away for 18 years but it was as though I'd just stepped back a day.

"I helped bring on kids like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, which I loved.

"But when Brian Kidd moved up to assistant manager my role changed, and it proved a personal disaster.

"The problem was me. I hated the paperwork, I hated dealing with parents and always having to say the right thing.

"I hated having to tell kids that they would be better off finding a good apprenticeship away from football and seeing their faces crumple. It just wasn't my kind of work.

"I lasted 12 months shuffling papers, trying to be diplomatic, and quite often failing. I had anger in me that, I suppose now, was fuelled by terrible disappointment.

"When Fergie gave me the sack, he said he regretted it, but the sense I got, as I felt as though my stomach was being cut away, was that I was simply another casualty of a hard business.

"I wouldn't go back into football now but the game has given me so many incredible moments and I'm an extremely happy person now."

* Nobby's autobiography 'After the Ball' (Hodder and Stoughton) is on sale now at 18.99.