“I have been a very lucky man indeed. I consider myself blessed to have known Shay Brennan and to have had him as a friend and colleague for so long. He was a very special man and I know that he is looking down on us here tonight and wishing he was with us.”
Those were the opening words of the former Manchester United player and World Cup hero of 1966, Nobby Stiles, who was one of the guest speakers at the Waterpark RFC Annual Corporate Night in Dooleys Hotel on Friday last. Irish legend, Trevor Brennan and former England selector David Trick were the two other guests.
I met Nobby as he entered the hotel, prior to his address to the gathering that received a standing ovation from those present. “I love coming to Waterford as I am great friends with Shay’s wife Liz and we stay in touch all of the time. We used to call Shay ‘The Bomber’ because he was useless in the air and could not head a ball for love or money. It was my brother-in-law John Giles who first called him the ‘bomber’ and I used to be called “Happy” because of the way I used to act on the pitch with opponents and referees.
“Next week will be the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster and I have been invited to the service and then the dinner and that pleases me very much. I was an apprentice at Manchester United at the time along with John Giles and it was then that I began my friendship with Shay Brennan. He looked after me and John and of course he broke into the team when all of those wonderful players perished in the crash.
“Eddie Coleman and Duncan Edwards were very special players, just to name two and heaven only knows what they would have gone on to achieve. It will be fantastic to be present at the service and then the dinner but in many ways it will be very sad, remembering those players who left us in such tragic circumstances.”
When I asked Nobby to talk about Sir Matt Busby his eyes lit up and a broad smile stretched across his face. “Matt was unique, a real one-off. Following the crash in Germany he put his faith in the youth players at the club and he continued with that policy during his long period at the club. He had a really marvelous man working with him, Jimmy Murphy. I feel that Jimmy did not get the praise he fully deserved outside of the club, not that that fact would have worried him because he was Manchester United out and out and that was all that mattered to him.
“Matt and Jimmy not only made us good players but they also moulded us into fine people and guys like Shay Brennan, John (Giles) and many more never forgot that”.
Those of us old enough to remember the World Cup final of 1966 in Wembley when England defeated West Germany 4-2 after extra time will never forget the sight of Nobby Stiles dancing around the pitch, holding the Jules Rimet Trophy with his toothless grin.
He fondly remembers that day. “Geoff Hurst got all the headlines following that victory because of his hat-trick but in my opinion the best player on the pitch that day was Alan Ball. He covered every blade of grass on the park and he never stopped barking out instructions to us all through the game.
“I will be telling a few stories about ‘Bally’ inside a little later. It was so sad to hear that he passed away not so long ago. He was my room-mate with England for a long, long time and we became soul-mates together.
“In many ways recent times have been sad because we also lost George Best. George was unique also and although he was renowned for his skill on the ground with a football he was also very good in the air, a good header of the ball and he could also win the ball for you when the need arose. He would run back and take the ball off an opponent and that area of his game was never fully acknowledged in my opinion.”
Love of the Irish
Manchester United have always had a strong connection with Irish born players and of course Irish supporters, a fact that is not lost on Nobby Stiles, a true blue Englishman. “Down through the years players such as Noel Cantwell, Jackie Carey, Shay Brennan, John Giles and many, many more have graced Old Trafford.
“I know everyone here thinks a lot of John O’Shea and rightly so. I can recall John (Giles) talking about this player when he came over first and he was wholesome in his praise for the lad and now we all know why. He has played in almost every position for the team and he does not look out of place in any of them. He has been a great servant to Sir Alec and John has been a good player, a very good player for the boss.”
When I asked Nobby for his opinion on Sir Alex Ferguson he was full of praise for the Scotsman. “I will always be grateful to Sir Alec because he gave me a job at the club coaching with Brian Kidd when different things did not work out properly at other clubs (Preston North End for example where he managed for a period of time).
“I had the honour of working with young players at the time such as the Neville brothers and a young fellow called David Beckham. He has a good way of mixing experienced players with young players and he has never lost that art. It can be a very difficult task mixing teams for different games but he somehow nearly always manages to do it successfully.
“He is a brilliant manager, pure and simple and his desire to win trophies for the club is as strong now as it has ever been. In many ways it is probably stronger because of the clubs they are competing against. Manchester United is in safe hands for a long time yet with Sir Alec,” said Nobby.
Dressed in a very smart dress suit, Nobby Stiles looked extremely fresh and ready to entertain the audience that awaited him inside the main hall of Dooleys Hotel. Of course no talk of Manchester United would be complete without a mention of Sir Bobby Charlton. Needless to say Nobby has fond memories of Bobby, as he has of his brother Jack.
“Bobby is different class. He has always been and always will be Manchester United. Next week will be a tough and sad week for Bobby as we remember the 50th anniversary of Munich. He survived that crash but he will never forget Duncan Edwards and the other players who lost their lives that day. He has served the club superbly and continues to do so to this very day.
“Jack came into the England side at the same time as myself and we hit it off straight away. Along with John Giles and Shay Brennan I would consider Jack to be a true friend.
“I have been asked many times about his success as a manager with Ireland. Was I surprised? The answer is no because Jack was always a very good judge of a player. He proved that fact at the clubs he managed and the Irish job was right up his alley. He made the best of the players he had with Ireland and he also had some gifted players to work with, players like Paul McGrath for example.
“Jack loved Ireland, the countryside, the fishing, the few pints and everything that went with the job.”
As I was about to bring the curtain down on out conversation I remarked that he was looking healthy and fit – cue another wide smile. “I have quit the smoking following a heart attack five years ago. I count myself to be a very lucky person to have made a living in football but more importantly to have known such wonderful people.
“I have had a great life and to have known people like Bobby and Jack Charlton, John Giles and especially Shay Brennan has been a privilege. Shay, as I said earlier, is with us tonight. He would have loved it here this evening. I think about him everyday without fail.
“John Giles called me ‘Happy’ because of my antics on the pitch. Perhaps he knew something I did not know at the time, because that is what I am right now, happy,” concluded the affable little man with the big glasses before making his after dinner speech.
It was indeed a magical night presented by Waterpark RFC.