Tribute to ‘Busby Babe’ Foulkes

Former Manchester United ace Bill Foulkes has died at the age of 81, the club has announced
Former Manchester United ace Bill Foulkes has died at the age of 81, the club has announced

St Helens-born Bill Foulkes, who has died aged 81, was a stalwart defender who became the first captain of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ after surviving the Munich air disaster and helped the club to their first European Cup triumph.

Foulkes played 688 times for the club - he never played for another - and became a legendary figure in the history of United.

The highlight of his club success came late on in his career, when aged 36 he scored the winning goal against Real Madrid - and this was by a player who averaged less than a goal a season - to send United through to the 1968 European Cup final, where they went on to beat Benfica.

Foulkes was born in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1932. He came from strong sporting stock: his father and grandfather had played rugby league for their home-town club.

Foulkes began work as a coal miner, playing football for the Whiston Boys club where he was spotted by United, joining the club in 1950, turning professional in 1951 and making his debut in a 2-1 win over Liverpool in December 1952.

Foulkes soon matured into a fearsome defender: “He was as hard as nails, as tough as teak,” recalled his former team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton. “You didn’t want to catch one of his swinging arms or elbows and I was glad that I never had to play against him.”

Foulkes was twice called up to the England Under-23 team, and then capped for England, playing at right-back against Northern Ireland on October 2 1954. It was, however, the first and last time he played for England despite going on to win four league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup.

However, it was not until some time after becoming a professional that Foulkes stopped working down the pits at Lea Green Colliery.

At that time, the maximum wage of £20 a week - for the top players - was in force, and Foulkes still harboured doubts about his footballing ability.

Charlton remembered: “When I first went to Manchester United aged 15 we used to have training on a Tuesday and Thursday nights as a lot of people had other jobs. Bill used to turn up pitch black with coal dust, straight from the pits in St Helens and straight into training.

“It took a long time to persuade him to become a full-time professional, I think he liked the security of having another job.”

Foulkes also had the demands of National Service to cope with, and initially lost his place in the team before manager Matt Busby recalled him, as the club went on to win the 1956 First Division championship.

The defining moment in Foulkes’ life came in 1958 when he survived the Munich air crash where 23 players, journalists and officials died when the plane carrying the team back from Yugoslavia crashed on take off in snowy conditions after stopping to refuel.

Foulkes said in a 1998 interview: “The plane was bouncing along and obviously not going fast enough and then suddenly there were three tremendous sickening thuds and everything was spinning around. A second later I was sitting in my seat with my feet in the snow.”

Unhurt, apart from being struck on the head by a bottle of gin that fell from an overhead locker, Foulkes did what he could to help the injured and spent the night in a hotel with Harry Gregg.

Foulkes visited his team-mates in hospital the following morning, including Charlton, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Viollet, Albert Scanlon and Ray Wood.

“I was just beginning to think it didn’t look too bad when I asked where the rest were. The nurse simply shook her head and said: ‘That’s it, everybody else has died’.”

After the disaster, Foulkes became club captain but struggled to cope with the memories and later said it was many years before he enjoyed football again.

He was part of the United team that won the FA Cup in 1963, and the league again in 1965 and 1967, which led to the ground-breaking European Cup triumph of 1968.

Foulkes played a hero’s part in the semi-final against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu to secure a 4-3 aggregate win for United.

Charlton said: “I couldn’t believe what he was doing in the Madrid penalty area in the first place, something must have been triggered in his mind, then George Best crossed it and Bill side-footed the ball into the back of the net.”

Foulkes retired from playing in 1970, but stayed with United as a youth coach until 1975 before coaching abroad in the USA, Norway, and Japan.

In 1992, Foulkes auctioned all his medals plus his European Cup final shirt for almost £35,000. By his own admission, he needed the money, but said at the time: “They meant a lot to me, but I still have the memories.”

William Anthony Foulkes (5 January 1932 - 25 November 2013) is survived by his wife Teresa and sons Stephen and Geoffrey.

Foulkes, whose father and grandfather had both played rugby league for his home town St Helens, started work as a coal miner and was still going down the pit at Lea Green Colliery in the mid-50s, by which time he was a regular member of Matt Busby’s United first team and had won his only England cap, in 1954.

After the Munich tragedy, he took over the captaincy and became the leader of the ‘Busby Babes’.

He played for United for his whole career, the highlight coming near the end of his playing days when he was part of the 1968 European Cup-winning team, aged 36. Foulkes had played a key part in the semi-final too, scoring the winning goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.