When Manchester United announced that Bill Foulkes, one of the club’s finest former players, had died at the age of 81, I was greatly saddened to hear that one of my all-time favourite footballers had passed away. Bill had been such a central figure throughout my earliest days as a supporter the feelings of nostalgia were poignant, but also tinged with a strange kind of guilt. I will always be grateful for everything he achieved in the red shirt of United in the 1950s and ‘60s, but I am also uncomfortably aware of how his greatest triumphs were all painfully linked to memories of trauma and loss as a survivor of the Munich Air Disaster on February 6th 1958, when 23 people were killed. That tragic event shaped his life ever after , meaning his career in football was markedly different from the norm, and it deserves to be commemorated as such. People should not only know that Bill Foulkes was a ‘Legend’, but why.
Despite being nearly overcome by shock and bereavement himself immediately after the Crash , Bill was guided from the start by a deep sense of commitment to Manchester United and to the memory of the eight players and three members of staff who had lost their lives, many of them good friends. He was acutely aware of assistant manager Jimmy Murphy’s near isolation as he tried to ‘keep the flag flying’ for manager Matt Busby who lay grievously injured in a Munich hospital. It wasn’t just the team which had been decimated, the coaching and administrative staff had been largely obliterated too. Amidst speculation that United would withdraw from all competitions for the rest of the season, the Chairman Harold Hardman and the small board defiantly took the decision to resume playing as soon as possible. Ignoring medical advice to rest and recover, Bill and fellow survivor , goalkeeper Harry Gregg, went straight back to work to start the process of rebuilding, aware that Murphy had lost not only the dead players but several others who were badly injured, two of whom never played again. Amidst the welter of emotions in Manchester prompted by the melancholy succession of funerals which Murphy had to attend, Bill had the presence of mind to suggest United approach Jack Crompton, their former goalkeeper in the 1948 FA Cup winning team, who was now coaching at Luton Town. He instantly rushed back to help United as team trainer, having been generously released by Luton in United’s hour of need.
Together with countless thousands of others all round the country and even abroad, where the glamorous Busby Babes had already made a name for themselves in the European Cup, reaching the semi-finals two years running with teams with an average age of around 21, I found myself ever more emotionally involved in the whole unfolding saga. Almost everything about it was totally new to my experience as while I loved sport of all kinds I didn’t support any particular team, living about 35 miles from London, far from all the big clubs.I was only eleven at the time of the Crash, which I heard about in the early evening after my tearful ‘babysitter’ told me there was some terrible news and asked me to put on the wireless. It was the first time I’d seen an adult crying and it made quite an impact on me as one of my earliest acquaintanceships with the effect of death on others. In those days, little more than a decade after the Second World War, there was still a disinclination to display emotion or ‘give way’ to feelings of grief. There was little understanding of post traumatic stress disorder and no counselling while the old wartime spirit of ‘Carry On’ was deeply embedded in public consciousness. This was perhaps a subtle pressure on how Gregg and Foulkes reacted to the disaster, although that doesn’t remotely diminish the significance of their moral courage, steadfastness and leadership qualities.Bill had lost over a stone in weight within the first week and was barely able to eat or sleep yet was still thinking first of others.
The first match after Munich: United 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0
Even with this ‘don’t make a fuss’ ethos, it is still extraordinary that it was less than a fortnight before United played their first match, a postponed FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday. Murphy didn’t finally know who he could put into the team until shortly before kick-off, when newly appointed skipper Bill Foulkes led out the patchwork team containing a handful of reserves and youth teamers plus a couple of emergency signings. The match day programme pointedly had eleven blanks, to be filled in with mostly unfamiliar names. The match itself was played under the wintry, misty Old Trafford floodlights in an almost unreal atmosphere of intense emotion bordering on hysteria, with the noise pouring down the packed terraces incessantly . One supporter could be heard repeatedly calling out the name of one of the most popular Babes, Duncan Edwards, who died a few days later from his injuries. Only 21 and already an England star, he was readily spoken of as the greatest player United ever had. It must have been an eerie and deeply unsettling sound to hear the constant cry, ‘Dun-can! Dun-can!’
I wasn’t present at the match but followed from afar, at a time when it seemed the world was watching to see how the makeshift team would cope with the almost intolerable burden of replacing one of the finest football teams ever assembled in England. They were the current league champions for the second year running and had a squad full of household names and internationals. Bill Foulkes has admitted that he was very close to complete breakdown and only accepted the captaincy out of a sense of obligation, especially to Jimmy Murphy who he’d caught unawares weeping at the enormity of the loss of so many players he’d nurtured almost from childhood. I still have a press cutting I kept at the time, the match report in the News Chronicle covering United’s astonishing 3-0 victory with two goals from debutant Seamus Brennan and one from 18 year old Alex Dawson. Under the headline UNITED FLAG IS SKY-HIGH AGAIN, the reporter John Camkin acclaimed the contributions of the two crash survivors:
‘In the swaying cut and thrust of a robust game it was impossible to believe that Harry Gregg, United’s fine goalkeeper, and captain Billy Foulkes had been involved in disaster only 13 days ago. Both were impossibly brilliant’. (New Chronicle, 20 February, 1958)
It’s now difficult to put my finger on the precise moment when I considered myself a United supporter but this match was undoubtedly a massively significant part of that process, certainly the point when I first came to regard Foulkes and Gregg as heroes. I was greatly affected by press photographs and Pathé Newsreels showing the gaunt Bill leading out the team for that first post-Munich match, and then shaking hands before kick-off with the Wednesday skipper, Albert Quixall, who later joined United. Bill himself has said that he looked ‘like a ghost’ emerging from the tunnel at Old Trafford and I was struck by the haunted look on his face, a troubling insight into his grief and trauma. Afterwards Bill and Harry sat in the dressing room staring into a void, their eyes barely concealing the inexpressible depth of their feelings. For the rest of his career at United over the next twelve years or so, whenever I watched Bill play I always fancied I could still detect an inextinguishable trace of those emotions in his eyes, however granite-like and impassive his features appeared in other respects. Bill sometimes talked , or rather wrote, about the ‘special bond’ he felt with other Munich survivors, particularly Sir Matt Busby and Sir Bobby Charlton with whom he achieved so much in the ten years following the Crash, as United painfully re-built and become a European force once more. The Munich connection was not something any of them really spoke about directly to each other, but each in their separate ways knew, without words, how much the still raw wounds meant. There was perhaps another bond between these three men who have each had such an extraordinary impact on the history of Manchester United. They all came from coal mining communities, with all the powerful traditions of collective loyalty and solidarity that entails.
Down the pit and on the pitch
William Anthony Foulkes was born on 5 January, 1932 in St Helen’s, Lancashire and grew up in a nearby pit village called Thatto Heath, which was surrounded by farming country, somewhat detached from the big nearby urban conglomerations. His was a close-knit sporting family in which his grandfather Tom played rugby league for St Helens and England while his coal miner father played both rugby league and soccer, turning out as a goalkeeper in the 1920s with the Football League team, New Brighton in the old Third Division (North). Bill’s father remained a pitman and, as an area secretary in the Miner’s Union, was a highly respected man who was determined to avoid his son having to go down the pit, knowing just how dangerous and unhealthy the job could be. He got Bill a carpentry apprenticeship when he left school aged 14 but the lure of better money underground eventually attracted the youngster, although he hid the fact from his dad for some time.
Bill played for various amateur football teams and was somewhat surprised when he was offered a trial by Manchester United in 1949, the year after they had won the FA Cup in one of the most thrilling finals of all time against Stanley Matthews’ Blackpool. The young Bill was amazed when Matt Busby, Jimmy Murphy and chief coach Bert Whalley ( a much loved figure who died at Munich) all turned up on the touchline to watch him. He was offered amateur terms at United, who he signed for in 1950, while still a full-time miner, something he remained until he felt he was securely established in the first team at Old Trafford over four years later. It was physically a very demanding and often perilous way of life as a miner and he also had to fit in his training in two evening sessions a week after completing full shifts down the pit. He’d get up at 5 am, walk across the fields for an hour to Lea Green Colliery, work his shift, shower at the pithead and get the train to Manchester for training at 6 pm. He wouldn’t get home until midnight.
The hard labour underground certainly made Bill supremely fit, something he remained obsessed with for the rest of his life, enabling him to continue playing until his 37th year, but this part-time existence as a professional in one of the country’s top sides seems almost incredible from today’s perspective some sixty-odd years later. One of the sad things about Bill’s death is that we have lost an invaluable link with that past way of life, deeply rooted in industrial working class culture . We have also lost one of the last sources of testimony regarding what the club was like in that period, just as Matt Busby’s first great team was coming to an end. Bill got to know many of the very best players who’d helped United win the FA Cup in 1948 and League title in 1951-52 and in their own often feisty and uncompromising way, they seemed actively determined to pass on the spirit and ideals inculcated in the players by Matt. He was about to create his second great team, which Bill would become part of, just as he did the third great team in far less happy circumstances.
Matt gave Bill his debut as a right back in late 1952 in a 2-1 victory over Liverpool, whose star winger, the great Billy Liddell was directly opposite him. He did reasonably well and appreciated words of encouragement from the United captain, Johnny Carey who’d led the team to both of Matt’s first trophies. United were now undoubtedly in transition, but old stalwarts such as Carey, Jack Rowley, Stan Pearson, John Aston (Senior), and the formidable Allenby Chilton still formed the heart of the team. Bill was hugely impressed by these often very tough characters, and by the tremendous camaraderie they embodied.
In some ways Bill was at that stage somewhat detached from his team-mates, not least because, as a part-timer, he didn’t take part in the normal daytime training routine. He continued doing his shifts down the mine, only coming in for the special evening sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays which meant he’d often only see his team mates an hour or two before kick-off. But he was also a rather proud, independent loner by temperament, perhaps because, regardless of his super-fit hard man image, he was actually quite shy. In his first autobiography, written soon after winning the first post-Munich league title in 1965, he says, perhaps a little defensively, ‘I have never made any great friends amongst the players at Old Trafford. I do not think I am too difficult to get on with, but for me soccer is a profession, my job of work and when I have finished it, either on match day or when training, I like to leave the ground, forget about the game, and get as far away from it as possible…..Footballers to me have always been workmates rather than friends’. (Back at the Top)
Bill’s role models
Bill wrote a much fuller autobiography years after he’d retired, with the help of Ivan Ponting, entitled United in Triumph and Tragedy. It’s very attractive in its portrayals of players he’d known and it’s striking how generous he is about rivals and opponents. He’s excellent about the older players when he was first at Old Trafford and breaking into the team and was especially appreciative when the brilliant but cantankerous centre forward Jack ‘Gunner’ Rowley bestowed upon him his nickname, which stuck: ‘Foulkesy, how are you son?’ He found inside forward Stan Pearson far easier on younger players – ‘a lovely footballer and an absolute gentleman’. Bill also found diminutive wing-half Henry Cockburn very supportive, as was Johnny Carey, a veteran from whom man he learned so much.Bill was mainly deployed in Johhny’s old position of right back while John played at right half, often guiding Bill through matches, coaxing and encouraging him, telling him where to position himself.
Bill was not only inspired by the team spirit and commitment he saw in these old guys, he was in awe of the intensity of training sessions. Bill always wanted to play at centre half but there were several others ahead of him in that position, not least the raw-boned , almost frightening skipper Allenby Chilton, who had served in the Durham Light Infantry in the War. Later we’ll come to criticisms of Bill after Munich and his ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach to training when he was the senior player , when one hears fearsome stories of just how hard he could be. But we should bear in mind what Allenby Chilton was like around the rising younger generation, who he was determined to knock into shape. As Bill says, in awed tones, Chilton was ‘one of the toughest centre halves who ever lived’, with a ‘raw desire to win’. In a memorable description, Bill says Allenby ‘was an awkward , testy fellow who often picked an argument and was known to chin a few people – and yet he was loved. There was no better word for the regard in which he was held at the club.People used to accept his occasional outbursts with ‘Oh, it’s Allenby, that’s the way he is!’ Above all he was a leader who inspired by example and was afraid of absolutely nothing’.
All through this period Bill was absorbing and responding to Busby’s philosophy of football, the aim being the creation of a ‘ close-knit unit’ in which players of very different temperament and skills would be turned into brilliantly attacking teams. Bill felt a great affinity with what Matt was trying to create, in which he saw clear parallels with life down the pit, where miners had to be able to trust and rely on each other as a matter of life and death. Bill found the attitude among these older players tremendously impressive, and it was an approach to football that he carried with him for the rest of his life. At Old Trafford he was very clear about where it originated: ‘I believe it was an ethos which stemmed from Matt Busby, who himself hailed from a humble pitman’s cottage in the Lanarkshire mining village of Orbiston. He understood basic values and possessed this incredible ability to mould men together in teams’.
Amidst these uplifting experiences early on in Bill’s career, there were also the sometimes hair-raising, sometimes hilarious clashes on the training pitch and elsewhere. The goalkeeper in the ‘52 title-winning team, Reg Allen, seems to have been particularly prone to furious outbursts. He once got into a massive punch-up with Jack Rowley, who’d offended him with some typically blunt opinions, hitting him so hard he flew over the back of a settee. The two were snarling and squaring up for more when they were parted by team mates. Bill himself only narrowly missed the same treatment on another occasion when he accidently hit Reg in the face with a ball. Reg went mad and chased Bill out of the ground , up the road and round a roundabout and back down the road to the training pitch. Only Bill’s greater fitness enabled him to escape a pasting. This was a hard, demanding world, and Bill’s exposure to it goes some way to explain just why he conducted himself in the way he did in later years.
All the while when such explosive moments happened behind the scenes, the charismatic Matt presided over things with his softly spoken, benign manner, exuding calm, civilised authority. However, there was always a steely quality about the way he set up his teams, even as he pursued his dream of creating beautiful expressive football to thrill the great mass of ordinary working class folk.
Part II looks as Bill and the Busby Babes and Munich
For more first hand historical accounts of Manchester United, buy Giles’ e-book ‘Red Matters – 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United‘.