Part II of this tribute to Bill Foulkes looked at the rise of the Busby Babes and the tragedy of Munich. In this part of the story we’re told about the role Foulkes played as the club was rebuilt after Munich.
The Munich Aftermath
When the Babes were destroyed on the runway at Munich Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg were the first to get back into action, soon followed by Bobby Charlton, whose injuries were relatively slight.The patchwork team led by skipper Bill heroically fulfilled Roger Byrne’s prediction that United would return to Wembley, beating West Bromwich Albion and then Fulham on the way, in both cases after replays, in matches of breathless intensity and emotion. It was thus something of an anti-climax when the Reds lost the final tamely to Bolton Wanderers. The match featured yet another controversial refereeing decision, when Nat Lofthouse scored his second goal in a 2-0 victory by barging Harry Gregg in the back, knocking him out and bruising him extensively.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that United had shown they were still capable of fighting for honours so soon after the Crash meant more than the result itself, however disappointing. And the season wasn’t over yet, as there were still the two legs of the European Cup semi-final against Italian champions AC Milan to come. Amazingly, United won the first leg 2-1 at Old Trafford, with yet another heroic performance by the makeshift team, something the near exhausted Bill felt in later years was a vastly undervalued achievement. Almost inevitably Milan won the second leg, 4-0, when the Italian fans disgraced themselves by abusing the Munich-stricken team, hurling large and painful bunches of fruit and vegetables at the young players. Others in Europe took a much more compassionate view of matters and invited United to compete in the European Cup in the following season, disregarding the rule that only national champions qualified. Typically, the football authorities in England vetoed the proposal.
Matt Busby had put in an appearance at Wembley, looking dreadful, but returned full-time for the new season, with physical and emotional scars from which he never fully recovered. Nonetheless, there was a surprising air of expectancy as the 1958-59 season opened In August, a curious amalgam of faith, hope and optimism about the future. Somehow the club had survived , for which enormous credit went to Jimmy Murphy, who now resumed his duties as Matt’s assistant. But credit should also be given to Bill Foulkes, the skipper, who had plunged back into the fray so unhesitatingly. He was now the senior pro and most experienced player left at Old Trafford, with his his two title-winning medals and two FA Cup runners up medals to show for it, already making him one of most successful players in United history. If he had never done anything more his place in the annals of Old Trafford would be secure, but there was more to come, much more.
The forgotten triumph: runners up in 1958-59
Bill remained captain for that first season after Munich, a steadying influence at the back as Matt put together a marvellously attacking side, strengthened by the expensive acquisition of Albert Quixall. The swashbuckling forward line now included injured Munich survivors Dennis Viollet and Albert Scanlon – both good friends of Bill- and they scored 103 goals in the league, equalling the club record set by the Babes in ‘56-‘57. They thrilled crowds everywhere, especially those wanting to see the rising superstar of the age, Bobby Charlton, who scored 29 goals, the best seasonal tally of his career. In the end the strength and resilience of Wolverhampton Wanderers led by England skipper Billy Wright was too much for United as they powered to the league title for the second year running, but United’s achievement in coming second was really extraordinary, and Bill was justly proud of what his boys had achieved. They played wonderfully entertaining football, at times just as exciting as anything the old Babes had put together, and in every way they were a credit to the club and to themselves. And how I loved them.
In some ways that runners-up spot was a false dawn but it was vital in somehow keeping United in the public eye, already attracting some of the resentment and envy that has shaped public perceptions of the team to this day. It also reinforced the romantic image created by the previous year’s cup run that the club was heroically unsinkable. It was an important part of the ‘nationalisation’ of Manchester United, as supporters sprang up in every part of the country, from Amersham to Aberdeen.
Busby’s third great team
Matt always said it would take five years before United would be in a position to challenge properly for honours, and he was correct. The intervening years in the early Sixties were some of the most stressful in Bill Foulkes’ career. There were acute tensions within the team, sometimes between those who’d come up through the ranks and new-comers who Busby signed from other clubs, notably the cerebral left back Noel Cantwell who was shocked at the rudimentary training facilities and seemingly shambolic coaching systems at Old Trafford. Morale was low, factions were forming, and Matt received ‘poison pen’ letters from fickle fans demanding that he quit. Bill had long ago asked to be relieved of the burden of the captaincy, and was followed in turn by Dennis Viollet, Maurice Setters and then Cantwell himself as Matt endlessly sought the winning combination that would settle nerves and bring back that ‘family’ ethos at the heart of his vision of how football should be played.
Some of the outsiders who were recruited became central to the success that Matt eventually delivered , after much trial and error, particularly a trio of Scots, David Herd (a marvellous goal scorer), the electrifying Denis Law, all snap and fury in the box, and the midfield master-craftsman, Pat Crerand. By this time Bill had finally achieved his ambition of playing in his favoured position, centre half, where he remained for the rest of his career. His rock-solid performances saw him dubbed the ‘Iron Man’ or the ‘Man of Teak’ as opponents bounced off him in the tackle. He was an indomitable, ‘old fashioned’ stopper who would repel any aerial attack, fearlessly putting his head where elbows were flying or thrusting his surprisingly slender bandy ‘cowboy’ legs into action to get the ball, disregarding the boots and studs that centre forwards sometimes wielded as weapons. Bill became the foundation stone of a defence which was beginning to shape up.
1963 FA Cup: ‘The most important trophy in the history of our great club’
The first trophy won by Matt’s third and last great team was the FA Cup, when United beat Leicester City 3-1 in 1963, after a fraught season that nearly saw United get relegated to Division 2. The goals were scored by Law and Herd (2) but it was the overall quality of the performance that stirred the spirits , as I remember watching at home on TV. The team just ‘clicked’ that day and at long last one felt a corner had been turned. And didn’t Bill and Bobby Charlton know it. A couple of years later Bill wrote about the Wembley victory: ‘There was a particularly poignant moment for Bobby Charlton and I after the match. As the other lads went tearing round the field, Bobby and I just stood and looked at each other. We had been there twice and lost. We had been to Munich, and come back, and at this moment it was impossible to think of anyone but the lads we had left behind there, never to return. I think Bobby and I – although I never asked him about it – felt that we had won the cup for them. We went off to join in the gallivanting, because it was expected of us, but we both slipped away before the rest of the team….We gave the cup to the Boss, and this was a wonderful moment. There were a lot of tears spilled that May afternoon’ (Back at the Top, P 71-2 )
Those words about the FA Cup win in 1963 were written soon after the event, long before he helped win the European Cup in 1968, but it is clear that even after that great triumph Bill regarded the victory over Leicester as a seminal moment. In 2007 he contributed a chapter on the subject to an anthology of United players reliving their greatest games. He couldn’t be blunter on the subject: ‘I will always believe that Manchester United’s victory in 1963 was the single most important trophy in the history of our great club. We’d been down and out after Munich. No club could recover quickly from the kind of devastation that the disaster caused.We had lost so many players and friends but, incredibly …we had enough about us to fight our way to Wembley and lift the FA Cup. It was the first time United had won the competition for 15 years , and half a decade of glorious success was to follow’ (Match of my Life, edited by Ivan Ponting, 2007)
The glory years
Between 1963 and 1968 Manchester United had an era of previously unparalleled success, adding two league titles and the European Cup to that vital first trophy. Throughout the period Bill Foulkes was in every sense central to the whole project, as Matt Busby acknowledged, even when the world’s attention focussed on the brilliance of United’s three European Players of the Year, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and then George Best. When the first post-Munich league title was secured (on goal average) from Leeds United in 1964-65 it was clear how vital the new defensive formation had been, providing the platform for the fantastic fire-power up front. Bill was justly proud of how the back line operated in front of Irish goalkeeper Pat Dunne with the elegant Seamus ‘Shay’ Brennan at right back and fellow Irishman Tony Dunne on the left. Bill formed a combative centre back partnership with Nobby Stiles, soon the gap-toothed hero of England’s World Cup winning team of 1966. Nobby was indefatigable in defence, having first played as an inside forward or midfielder (as he played in Alf Ramsey’s team). He was a terrier in the tackle, but more importantly he was a terrific reader of the game, anticipating opponents’ moves like radar, ordering his fellow defenders about like a pocket general, always with that head back posture that conveyed the impression of total alertness. He and Bill came to understand each other’s moves almost telepathically, working in harness with the full backs who were quick and mobile, each providing cover down the flanks or coming in to fill in behind the central defenders. It was all quite a contrast to the sometimes pedestrian manoeuvres of United’s struggling defensive formations in the early 1960s, and made United suddenly look modern and sophisticated, regardless of the frustrations of a Noel Cantwell and others who had despaired at United’s supposedly primitive coaching.
The second league title was won in 1966-67 and the basic defence remained the same, although Alex Stepney had taken over in goal and the young Bobby Noble later came in at left back , while Tony Dunne switched to the right. Those players who contributed to both league championships – and there were several in a relatively stable period – sometimes disagreed over which was the better team, Paddy Crerand, for instance favouring the ‘65 vintage while Bobby Charlton was a ‘67 man. Those of us privileged to see both can just luxuriate in the ecstatic moments of fantasy they might suddenly produce as if by magic. There have been some great United teams in the modern era as the trophies have piled up in a seemingly endless succession and who can forget Eric Cantona , but in some ways none of them quite match those great Sixties teams, perhaps because of the lurking sub-stratum of Munich grief that then underpinned everything. It was never talked about but all the players, even ‘outsiders’ knew they had to deliver for Matt, who was tormented by guilt for having taken his lovely bouncing Babes to their deaths. When Bobby volleyed home a ‘special’ from 30 years, or Denis sprung into an overhead bicycle kick to despatch the ball to the back of the net in the blink of an eye, or George turned a full-back inside out before sliding in an improbable shot from an ‘ impossible’ angle, there was a special kind of joy, a moment of transcendence to lift the spirits and remind one that it was good to be alive at such a moment.
Older supporters remember United’s return to the European Cup in 1965-66, especially for the almost legendary 5-1 victory against Eusebio’s Benfica on their own territory, where European Cup defeat was unknown. It was certainly one of the finest performances I ever saw in that period, albeit on TV, largely remembered for Best’s stunning early goals when he ignored instructions to ‘play it tight’ for the first 20 minutes to silence the crowd. But one of the things I recall from that game was how calmly Billy Foulkes and the other defenders were passing the ball out of defence. Bill knew he was no great play-maker but he would constantly look for Bobby Charlton or Paddy Crerand to get the ball to them in midfield and he was extremely consistent in the way he set about doing that, week in, week out. All the United players knew exactly what to expect from Bill and Nobby, now vital cogs in a well-oiled machine before age and injury took their toll a year or two later.
It’s such a shame that that ‘66 team didn’t win the European Cup that year, when they were in many ways the best team in the competition. One reason was because United persisted in playing the same basic team week after week, with little or no squad rotation, so by the end of the season players were burnt-out and drained, especially when they were competing on several fronts at once. The Reds got to the FA Cup semi finals 5 times in the mid-Sixties, but only got to the final that once, in ‘63.They also got to the later stages of the Cup Winners Cup, the Fairs Cup and then the European Cup in ‘66 when they lost in the semi-finals. Bill argued that it was really ‘unacceptable’ to reach only two finals when getting so close on six other occasions.
It was incredibly frustrating when United fell at the last hurdle in two or three competitions in the space of a week or two. I’ve always suspected that Matt resisted having a larger first team pool because so many players were killed and injured at Munich when he did indeed have a much larger squad, almost in the modern manner, despite there being no substitutes then. The guilt that did not speak its name was perhaps finding expression in other ways.
Part IV looks at Foulkes winning the European Cup and his career that followed.
For more first hand historical accounts of Manchester United, buy Giles’ e-book ‘Red Matters – 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United‘.