The word “legend” gets said a lot in football but rarely is its use accurate. When talking about Bill Foulkes, the former Manchester United defender who sadly passed away yesterday, the title sums him up well.
Foulkes, born in St Helens, joined United when he was 18-years-old and played in the youth team, making his debut for the first team two and a half years later against Liverpool. As well as playing in United’s first team, he worked as a miner until he was 22-years-old, with him believing that he wasn’t good enough to make it as a full time footballer.
Originally a right full-back, he became a centre-half, his preferred position, as his career developed. He won his first league title with United in the 1955-1956 season, which was just the fourth occasion of us being named champions.
The following season he helped United in their first ever European campaign, and the first time an English side had entered the competition, as United reached the semi-finals before being beaten by eventual winners Real Madrid.
It was the 1957-1958 season that obviously stands out though, with Foulkes starting every game in what became a year of huge tragedy for the club. United booked their place in the semi-finals of the European Cup for the second year running, having entered the competition through being English champions again, after beating Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia. After the match, the team travelled to the British Embassy where each player was given a bottle of gin. It was this bottle gin that fell from the overhead rack when the plane crashed and cracked him on the head, the only injury he sustained. The plane had broken under his seat, leaving his feet in the snow.
“I got out as quickly as I could and just ran and ran,” he later recalled. “Then I turned and realised that the plane wasn’t going to explode, and I went back. In the distance I could see the tail part of the aircraft blazing and as I ran back I came across bodies. Roger Byrne still strapped to his seat, Bobby Charlton lying quite still in another seat, and Dennis Viollet. Then Harry Gregg appeared and we tried to see what we could do to help. I ran over to Matt and we put an overcoat underneath him and he just turned over, groaned and passed out.”
After Munich, he was made captain, taking over from Roger Byrne who died in the crash. United went on to reach the FA Cup final but lost to Bolton. They beat AC Milan in the home leg of the semi-finals but were defeated at the San Siro.
In the years that followed, Foulkes was badly effected by the disaster, with him unable to eat or sleep properly. “I’d really had enough,” he later said.
But Sir Matt went on to rebuild his team and Foulkes won the FA Cup with United in 1963, with 99,604 turning out to see us beat Leicester City 3-1 at Wembley. They won the league again two years later with Foulkes playing in every game. Him and Bobby Charlton were the only Munich survivors remaining in the team. Two years later they again won the league, making him the most decorated United player in the history of the club with four title winners medals. It was this season’s triumph that set United up to go on to achieve what Sir Matt had set out to do ten years earlier, with them winning the European Cup in 1968.
United faced Real Madrid in the semi-finals again and beat them 1-0 at Old Trafford. In the return leg they went in 3-1 down at half-time, with it looking as though United were set to miss out again. David Sadler pulled a goal back, to make the scores level on aggregate, before Foulkes scored in the 78th minute to confirm United’s place in the final.
Foulkes started the final, aged 36-years-old, as United went on to beat Benfica 4-1 to win the European Cup. He later said this victory helped him “get over” Munich and he was ready to retire. Sir Matt convinced him to stay on though and he eventually retired in 1970, having played more games for United than any player in the history of the club.
Sir Bobby Charlton later beat his record, before Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes more recently, making Foulkes the player with the 4th most appearances for the club.
Having spent 20 years at United, a one-club man, Foulkes became a manager, taking up jobs in America, Norway and Japan. In 1992 he auctioned his collection of medals and other mementoes to raise money for Christies. He continued to coach at the club and was involved in United’s pre-season tours in the Far East due to his links with Japan.
Charlton described him as: “hard as nails [and] as tough as teak. I was always glad I didn’t have to play against him.”
Bill Foulkes, United legend, rest in peace.
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. Everyone who buys a copy enters a competition to win the new home shirt. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.