St Helens-born Bill Foulkes will “stand proud” alongside the footballing greats of Manchester United, Sir Bobby Charlton told mourners at his funeral.
Sir Bobby was among former team-mates who attended a requiem mass in thanksgiving for the life of the defender who survived the Munich air disaster in 1958 and went on to lift the European Cup a decade later.
He spoke of Foulkes’s heroism in returning to the wreckage of the plane crash to help fellow passengers on the icy runway in Germany as they returned from a European Cup tie.
He also recalled his crucial, and unlikely, clinching goal in the 1968 semi-final tie against Real Madrid which set up the first triumph by an English club in the competition.
Also paying tribute at the service, was Foulkes’s son, Stephen, who said his father was always a competitive and uncompromising man but his determination grew after Munich as he “bore a responsibility” to fulfil the legacy of the spirit of a team he loved.
Even when suffering from Alzheimer’s he would always welcome autograph requests from supporters and obligingly give his signature despite his condition, he said.
Among those joining his family and friends, including wife Theresa and children Stephen, Geoffrey and Amanda, at St Vincent de Paul RC Church in Altrincham, Cheshire, were ex-team-mates Dennis Law, Alex Stepney, Pat Crerand and Brian Kidd.
Also in attendance was Manchester City great Mike Summerbee and former United star Bryan Robson.
A floral tribute was sent by former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and his family.
St Helens-born Foulkes, 81, was one of the club’s most long-serving players with 688 appearances.
Sir Bobby said his first memory of “Billy” was him turning up at The Cliff training ground with an unwashed face from his shifts as a miner at a colliery in his home town.
He said his will to train one-and-a-half hours every Tuesday and Thursday night had “inspired me and many other players”.
“Billy was a great defender and a giant in the air,” said Sir Bobby. “Tough as teak.
“He was one of the really really great footballers. When I say great, he was great at what he did.”
Recalling the Munich tragedy, he said: “Harry Gregg (fellow survivor) and Billy Foulkes on their own took it upon themselves to help in any way they could by actually going back into the aircraft.
“Something I always find interesting is he never once mentioned it when we were in conversation.”
He said the pair had “heroically saved many many lives” and he and others were “ever so grateful”.
Sir Bobby said the 1968 European Cup triumph against Benfica must have given Foulkes great satisfaction after all he had gone through in Munich.
Speaking of the goal that knocked out Real Madrid in the semi-final, he said: “The last goal was unique. George Best took the ball to the dead-ball line. He crosses the ball and you are hoping someone is there to knock the ball in the back of the net.
“There was someone there...in a red shirt. Billy Foulkes was there and I thought ‘what are you doing there, you have never crossed the halfway line in donkey’s years’. And he just side-footed the ball as elegantly as anyone ever played it and we go into the European Cup final for the first time. It was the most sensational thing.
“It was a great thing that Billy had scored this goal. It will remembered everywhere in football terms. It was unique.”
He said it was the early stage of the club’s European football history which had progressed to “a most fantastic story”.
“He was a great player,” Sir Bobby added. “He was a fighter. He stands proud with the many stars who have graced Old Trafford. He will remembered for his important part in this club’s history.”
Sir Bobby told his widow that he was grateful that Foulkes was a friend and that he was “a good honest man” who his family could be proud of.