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PART II: Bill Foulkes the Busby Babes

Part I of this tribute to Bill Foulkes looked at his early playing days. In this part of the story we’re told about Bill’s rise to the first team and being a part of the Busby Babes.

Bill and the Busby Babes

Eventually Matt managed to persuade Bill to quit the pit and go full time, but not before the craggy full back had played for England in 1954, bizarrely the only time he did so. It was only after he’d worked his full shift as usual in the pit that Bill joined the England squad to play the next day in Belfast against Northern Ireland. By that time Bill was becoming increasingly confident that he would be able to make the grade as a professional, as Matt had been trying to persuade him for some time, despite the fact that Bill would have to take a drop in money, no easy decision when he had a young wife, Teresa, who was recovering from tuberculosis. It’s one of the nice things about Bill’s autobiography that he makes frequent affectionate mentions of Teresa, acknowledging what a crucial role she played in supporting him in his career, especially after Munich when they started a family, daughter Amanda, and sons Stephen and Geoffrey,who all survived him after his death in November, 2013.

When Bill went full-time, the old guard, Pearson, Cockburn and Chilton, were gradually being phased out and a brilliant succession of youngsters were coming through, coached by the passionate Welshman, Jimmy Murphy.

Roger Byrne, who succeeded Chilton as captain, had already won a league champions medal in the 1951-52 season, along with the aggressive right winger Johnny Berry, signed from Birmingham City. When the majestic centre forward Tommy Taylor joined United from Barnsley for £29,999 in 1953 that was effectively the last major transfer until Harry Gregg was signed about six weeks before Munich. The world began to take notice when United won the newly created FA Youth Club for the first five years of its existence, often before crowds that exceeded attendances at other clubs’ full league matches. There was a buzz about the players coming through, such as Duncan Edwards, Jeff Whitefoot, John Doherty, Dennis Viollet, Jackie Blanchflower, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Liam Whelan, Albert Scanlon, Wilf McGuinness, Geoff Bent and Bobby Charlton. Bill Foulkes was never part of that exalted Youth Cup company as he came through a different channel, but as the amazingly young team gradually took coherent shape he fitted in perfectly as a fast, tough-tackling full back, paired with the more skilful Roger Byrne on the left.

Bill wrote movingly about all the players who died at Munich but none more than Byrne, whom he admired greatly not only as a player and inspirational leader but also as a person. Perhaps Roger sensed that Bill was something of a shy outsider at the club because he would sometimes kindly invited him to go for a meal with him, often at a Chinese restaurant. Bill was very impressed by Roger’s intelligence and the range of topics he could talk about.

Bill was consistently modest about his own skills and accomplishments as a player and was very conscious how much more talented the rest of the Babes were, something he happily admitted throughout his career. He knew that only fanatical hard work and commitment to the team would give him something to offer a line-up with so many of the best young players in England. One of the biggest stars was the constantly smiling Tommy Taylor, the England centre forward, who would always make himself available for a pass out of defence.Bill admits he’d sometimes just whack the ball blindly up the line and Tommy would say ’Good pass, Bill!’ Everyone was fond of the little halfback Eddie Colman, the elusive ‘Snakehips’ , a slight but gregarious character, alongside whom Bill was a hulking and taciturn giant. Whenever they were going away to play, Eddie would cheerfully assure Teresa that he would ‘look after Bill’.

Amongst all the Babes, Bill probably felt the closest affinity to Bobby Charlton, even before Munich, partly because of their shared coal mining background. Bobby came from Ashington in Northumberland, where his father worked in the pit and that created a bond that was to endure till the day Bill died , reinforced by the tragedy to come. It’s very touching to know that in the last few years before Bill’s death in November 1981, Sir Bobby made a point of visiting him regularly, sadly aware that his old friend was in very poor health.

Champions in 1955-56 and 1956-57

United won the old First Division three times in the 1950s, first with the old team featuring Carey, Rowley and Chilton, and then twice in succession with the Babes , at a time when it was rare for a club to keep on winning the title. Having quit the pit, Bill now had another distraction when he had to undergo National Service, a now defunct system of obligatory military training which several other Reds also had to do, including Duncan and Bobby. At times Bill couldn’t get a pass out from barracks to join the team so he would go AWOL, disguised in a long overcoat and trilby, dodging the ever present Military Police. It’s odd that no-one in the military establishment noticed that one B. Foulkes was playing First Division football when he was meant to be back in his Nissen hut. For most of the Babes’ first title winning season , 1955-56, Bill coped well with the long journeys and lack of contact with his team mates, although for the last part of the season he lost his place to Ian Greaves. Both played enough games to qualify for championship medals, but Bill just trained even more obsessively to make sure he never lost his place in the United first team again. Broadly speaking he remained an automatic selection for the next ten or eleven years, picking up his second title winning medal the following season, 1956-57. By that time United were tilting for honours on three fronts.

The first European Cup campaign

The story of how Matt Busby faced down the Football League authorities and insisted that United would take part in the European Cup in 1956-57 is well known. Having qualified as champions, there was unanimous support for the decision among the players. They were proud that Matt had had the guts to make a stand on principle , in contrast to the previous champs Chelsea, who’d feebly not taken part in the very first European Cup. Bill in particular was thrilled, not least because he loved flying.

The whole nation seemed to get behind United’s exciting first foray into the continent, with many people regarding the youthful team as somehow representing the nation as a whole, in a way that simply doesn’t happen any more. Almost certainly that’s in part why there was such an emotional response when United crashed in Munich on the way home from a victorious European Cup quarter final against Red Star Belgrade. Of course when my babysitter was shedding tears over Munich she was primarily lamenting the loss of so many precociously talented young men, but she was also acutely aware that they had been ‘flying the flag’ for Britain.

The whole of the first campaign created enormous interest as people bought into Matt’s visionary approach to international club competition. There were some classic encounters, the 10-nil thrashing of Belgian champions Anderlecht, the astonishing come-back from a 5-3 first leg deficit against Athletic Bilbao when United won the home leg 3-0 in one of the most exciting matches in United history, and then the titanic struggles against multi-national Real Madrid in the semi finals. Real were on their way to winning the first five five European Cups in succession and were widely regarded as the best club side in the world. They starred outstanding players such as Alfredo di Stefano and Francisco Gento, the ‘Flying Bicycle’, whom Bill confronted in both legs. Ultimately United lost 3-1 away and could only draw 2-2 at home, but the rest of Europe took notice of what this incredibly young United team could do. Bill loved almost every minute of the European campaign. Except for one episode that left him with a new nickname.

Popular Bill

When United flew out to Bilbao in February 1957 for the first leg of the quarter finals against Athletic Bilbao, the weather conditions were appalling, although Bill, who adored the excitement of flying loved it as the aircraft bucked and reared. He was even relaxed enough to be able to put his feet up for a nap. Unfortunately he inadvertently put his foot on a lever controlling the heating system, causing the cabin to become freezing cold. The elderly chairman Harold Hardman turned blue and had a minor stroke, requiring hospitalization which meant he missed the match.When the cause of the heating ‘failure’ was discovered, Bill had got his new nick-name, ’Popular Bill’ or PB, as he wryly confessed in his first autobiography in 1965.

The dreadful weather continued in Bilbao and the flight home was almost cancelled because of the snow, ice and slush at the airport. Almost exactly a year before the Munich Disaster, players including BIll helped clear snow from the wings of the plane, enabling the team to get home without incurring the wrath of the Football League who were still furious at United’s defiance over entering the European Cup. Fear of repercussions if the team were late was almost certainly a factor when United crashed after three failed attempts at taking off after re-fuelling at Munich Airport.

The ‘bitter taste’ of missing the Double in ‘57

Bill was always passionately committed to Manchester United, and proud to be part of such an attractive team as the Babes, who seemed always on the verge of making history and breaking new records. Like everyone at Old Trafford in 1957 he was excited at the prospect of becoming the first club in the 20th Century to win a League and FA Cup ‘Double’ when they got to Wembley as League Champions. They were quietly confident at the prospect of facing Aston VIlla in the final but it all went horribly wrong, in a manner that still rankled with Bill half a century later.

In the early minutes of the match Villa’s Northern Ireland international winger Peter McParland shoulder charged the United goalkeeper Ray Wood with such force that he broke his cheekbone, an incident that is a matter of controversy to this day. In a recent issue of the football magazine Back Pass McParland attempts to convince us, and perhaps himself, that he was not guilty of a foul with his headlong charge (Memories: Not Guilty, by David Harrison, Back Pass October/ November 2013). The BBC TV commentary by the late Kenneth Wolstenholme is cited in support of the claim that it was ‘a pure accident’, despite the fact that numerous expert observers at the time considered it a serious infringement. In those days the BBC was arguably a very establishment body that shied away from controversy, in sport as much as politics, so good old Ken was never going to point the finger at anyone, except the furious United fans who booed the Northern Ireland international continuously after the shocking incident.

McParland himself then quotes Bill Foulkes as having told him that he’d thought ‘Woody could and should have avoided me’. But that doesn’t doesn’t quite square with what Bill said in the past. In Back at the Top (1965), Bill says McParland came in ‘like an express train as Ray caught the ball’. He expected that McParland would ‘draw away as Ray moved past him. Not McParland. I was close by as the Irishman carried straight on, and crashed into Ray, who, totally unprepared for the blow, went down as if he’d been pole-axed’.

In his second autobiography in 2008, Bill is even more trenchant in his criticism. ‘I could hardly believe my eyes,’he says,’because, to me, it was a deliberate head butt. McParland just hammered in and put his head straight into Ray’s cheekbone, which was shattered by the impact. The point was that Ray had taken possession of the ball already, so it was no longer there to be challenged for. It was the clearest of fouls, and today McParland would have been sent off instantly.’ If that wasn’t bad enough, McParland then scored the two goals that gave VIlla a 2-1 victory over 10-man United, there being no substitutes then. ‘(He) showed not a scrap of remorse for what he had done, claiming afterwards that it had been an honest accident when all the evidence suggested that he had clattered Ray in cold blood…(The)Ray Wood episode was unsavoury, it left a bitter taste in the mouth, and we departed Wembley feeling we had been both unlucky and unfairly treated.’

After the match United skipper Roger Byrne declared that the Busby Babes would be back at Wembley for the following year’s FA Cup Final. He was right, of course, but he wouldn’t be with them and nor would so many others. The tragedy at Munich no doubt added to the simmering sense of injustice that lingers to this day over McParland’s assault on Ray Wood, a wrong that could never be righted. One senses that Bill wrote in such blunt terms so long after the event because in some way he was speaking on behalf of those who could no longer speak for themselves.

Part III looks at Foulkes’ career post-Munich, focussing particularly on the huge involvement he had in rebuilding our club.

For more first hand historical accounts of Manchester United, buy Giles’ e-book ‘Red Matters – 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United‘.

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6 Comments

  1. Fletch™ says:

    Thanks for your memories Giles. Always a brilliant read. Looking forward to part III!

  2. Fletch™ says:

    Off topic:
    Manchester United draw Olympiacos in UEFA Champions Knockout round 16

  3. gra mar says:

    We should progress from that one. Not counting chickens though.
    Olympiakos know we are not at our best so they won’t be running scared. We could be a completely different team by Feburary though.

    Bye bye Villas Boas. Two spectacular fails in England. Not given muoh time in either case though.

  4. Fletch™ says:

    ManUtd v Olympiacos Match History.

    United have never lost to Olympiacos. Playing 4 and going WWWW in the 2001 and 2002.

    The first 3 matches were clean sheets & the last a 2-3 away win.
    The combined score for all 4 matches was 12-2.

    Think everyone will love a little Greek holiday in February?! Expect a stern test, but Moyes will be happy with the draw and pick his strongest side for both legs. No muckin about! :twisted:

  5. Fletch™ says:

    sorry, that was 2001-02 and 2002-03 that we played Olympiacos.

  6. Tommy says:

    Great read, yesterday I was lucky enough to be at a United season tickets xmas function with Wilf Maguinnes, Alex Stepney, Gary Pallister and David May, Bill was mentioned quite a lot by Alex and it was moving having all those ex players mentioning the past!

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