The Quiet Genius
In 1953, United trainer Bert Whalley travelled to Dublin, tasked with finding a new forward. Originally watching a different player, Whalley became distracted by an 18-year-old who had been with Home Farm FC since the age of 12. United immediately moved to sign Liam Whelan, and within two weeks of joining, the Irishman had scored in both legs of the FA Youth Cup final against Wolves.
FA Youth Cup final programme, 1953. Within weeks of signing, Whelan had scored in both legs of United’s 9-3 aggregate victory over Wolves.
Left to mature in United’s reserve team, Whelan quickly became known for his prolific goalscoring, magnetic ball control, and exceptional stamina. Two years after his move to United, he made his debut in a 2-0 win over Preston North End. His pinpoint accuracy ensured that by the 1956/57 season, Whelan was a regular in the first team. He scored 52 goals in just 98 matches and set a club record which remained unbroken for almost 50 years when he scored in eight consecutive League games.
League Championship celebration menu from 1957. Whelan’s goalscoring prowess saw him take the title of top goalscorer for the club as United retained the League Championship.
Whelan won four caps playing for the Republic of Ireland. His final two international appearances, against England, saw Whelan face off against many of his United teammates. A sportsman’s bet between him and Duncan Edwards saw the Irishman nutmeg his rival – a move which was something of a specialty.
Liam Whelan in action.
Off the pitch, Whelan was a quiet and devout Catholic who was very close to his family, sending a quarter of his weekly wage home to his mother. On his regular trips home, he could still be called upon to play football in the street, once joking that he had won at Dalymount and in the local park on the same day.
Liam Whelan's contract signed in 1956.
Upon first moving to Manchester, the Irishman lived in digs with a number of his teammates. Homesickness got the better of him, however, and he moved in with a family friend.
At the time of his death, Whelan had been planning marriage to his girlfriend Ruby, due to take place the following June. He died instantly and it was estimated that 20,000 people lined the streets at his funeral procession through Dublin, and the city came to a standstill.