By his own admission John Stiles was not the best player to pull on a Leeds United shirt, but one windswept afternoon in Wigan will live with him forever, Leon
A windy day in Wigan is not most people’s idea of fun on a Sunday, but for John Stiles, it will always represent a footballing day to treasure almost a quarter of a century ago.
Now a successful comedian, Stiles – son of World Cup hero and Manchester United icon Nobby and nephew of United great Johnny Giles – might not have exactly seen his name in lights during his playing career in the eighties.
But it was on March 15, 1987 in the renowned clubbing mecca. At Springfield Park, former home of Wigan Athletic FC, to be precise.
As grandiose areas go, that pokey venue was about as far removed from United’s next FA Cup destination – the positively palatial Emirates Stadium for a second glamour meeting in 12 months with establishment club Arsenal – as it gets.
Yet it brimmed full of northern footballing soul in a David-versus Goliath cup quarter-final contest played out in front of a capacity 12,500 crowd, switched to a Sunday on police advice.
Goal heroes in gale-hit Lancashire that day for United – beset by suspensions and ineligibility with no-nonsense skipper Brendan Ormsby and talisman striker Ian Baird missing – were Stiles and Micky Adams as Billy Bremner’s troops progressed to the semi-finals for the first time in 10 years in a high-noon shoot-out.
It proved a particularly sweet moment for a then 22-year-old Stiles who broke the plucky third-division outfit’s resistance with a fine 58th-minute curler for his first goal of that 86-87 campaign. It was celebrated deliriously by United fans packed on the grass bank in the visiting Shevington End not to mention scores of supporters back in Leeds watching the action unfold on big screens at the Town Hall and Queen’s Hall.
And it came against a boyhood hero of Stiles’ to boot, in the shape of veteran Latics custodian Roy Tunks, who played under his father Nobby at Preston North End in the seventies.
Recalling that spring day, Stiles said: “One of the best football days I’ve ever had in my life was on my eighth birthday when my uncle John (Giles) took me on the pitch after Leeds beat Arsenal (in the 1972 FA Cup final). But I suppose playing-wise that day at Wigan was the best day I had, especially with me being a Leeds fan as a kid. I’d always dreamt about putting on the shirt.
“My dad and brother were in the stands and it was altogether a great day. Nearly as good as May 6, 1972.
“We came close in the play-off final at Leeds, but that Wigan game was my best memory. My dad never had much luck in the FA Cup, but my uncle John did.
“Especially with all the adversity, making us play at lunchtime, it was great to win it for the fans.
“It was one of my few decent days with Leeds. Every player will tell you that sometimes you just feel as if it’s going to be your day.
“I had a good season that year, probably my best ever one. But at the particular time, Leeds signed Mark Aizlewood and I was getting a game in the cup matches when he was cup-tied.
“As usual, I was a reserve really. But that ended up being my day.
The ironic thing was their goalkeeper at the time was a hero of mine as a kid because he was the keeper at Preston when my dad was the manager there when they got promoted – and I scored past him.
“Roy was a good goalkeeper and it’s funny how things turn up in football. I didn’t see Roy before the game, but he was kind enough to come over and congratulate me afterwards. Roy was one of my boyhood heroes.
Having knocked out the likes of Hull City and Norwich City in previous rounds, Wigan fans were salivating at the prospect of toppling Leeds, then a middle-of-the-road second division outfit before the game.
And confidence wasn’t in short supply among the Latics players, entitled to fancy their chances with talented lower-division operators like a decidedly svelte Paul Jewell and David Lowe in their ranks, alongside seasoned pros such as rugged ex-Bradford City targetman Bobby Campbell and Tunks. There was even a future United centre-half in the shape of a young Paul Beesley.
Stiles is the first to acknowledge that on another day, things might have been different, with Whites keeper Mervyn Day the real hero as he came to the visitors’ rescue on numerous occasions.
But the glory largely belonged to Stiles afterwards, with his strike past an unsighted Tunks something the lifelong Leeds fan will never forget.
He said: “To be fair, Wigan were flying at the time. They had some good players, like (David) Lowe on the wing. For me, it was one of those days where I felt great and it just seemed to be my day. I remember Billy saying to me at half-time: ‘You’re the threat today’. And I was.
“Two of the unlikeliest scorers you could think of, in me and Micky, scored. Especially with Micky scoring with his right foot. They were both good goals though.
“Merv had a blinder and we rode our luck a bit, but we just about deserved it.”
Stiles added: “I actually think people remember the game more than anything because of all the stuff that had gone on before it. They made it a noon kick-off and a lot of Leeds fans have come up to me since and said they watched it in the Queens Hall in town.
“I remember Billy joking that the way some people were going on about Leeds, that we might have to kick off at eight in the morning!
“Unless you are a Leeds supporter or player – particularly a fan – you can’t appreciate that it’s almost like a unique membership. At that particular time, we felt everyone was against us.
“I also remember Emlyn Hughes saying on Football Focus that he thought Wigan would beat us. Most people wanted us to get beat but, typical Billy, he pulled us all together. We were determined to go to Wigan and get a result.”
One game away from Wembley following a famous cup run, Stiles insists that United players to a man believed their name was on the cup.
We all know what happened next, with a tear-jerking semi-final exit at Hillsborough to eventual winners Coventry City, a result which still sticks in the craw of thousands upon thousands of Whites supporters.
Stiles rued: “We did think we could win it, because we were that close. Looking at the semi-final, we were the better side for most of that game. We should have got to Wembley, but football is about fine margins sometimes and a bit of luck here or there.
“It was a great cup run. I remember beating QPR at home, a first division side, and again that was one of my best games. I’ll always remember Brendan scoring at the end and the players going berserk.
“And after winning at Wigan, we genuinely thought we’d get to the final. Obviously, everyone speaks about Brendan not kicking the ball into the stands (against Coventry) still. But Brendan was an excellent whole-hearted player and that wasn’t like him, to be fair. Everybody makes mistakes, although I’ve never forgiven him!”
Understandably, quips are never far away where Stiles is concerned, with his renowned mickey-taking and quick-witted skills in the dressing room enabling him to later forge a successful career as first an after-dinner speaker and now a comedian.
But while he is the first to admit he wasn’t among the leading vintage of players to play for Leeds, no-one can dent his pride at donning the Whites jersey during that mid to late eighties period.
Stiles, the rarest of breeds in being someone born across the Pennines in Manchester, but who passionately supported Leeds, added: “I might not have been one of the best players to play for Leeds, but I was one of the proudest.
“I actually went on one of the Leeds United blogs the other day and it had on it the top-50 worst Leeds players ever. And I thought: ‘I wonder if I’m on this?’ – and there I was at number 22!
“So I sent an e-mail saying I was disgusted and that I should be in the top five at least!
“But I’ll always be proud of playing for Leeds, the club I’ve always supported.”