The legend of Billy Whelan

Monday 05 February 2024 09:00

The Brazilian party watching in the stands would have a global phenomenon on their hands four years later, as Pele’s teenage rampage helped them win a first World Cup in Sweden in 1958.

But, in May 1954, as representatives of the Selecao checked out the cream of Europe’s young players while preparing for that summer’s tournament in Switzerland, they had eyes for one young lad in particular: the Irish kid at inside-forward for Manchester United.

He’d turned 19 just a month earlier, to look at him, you’d have struggled to peg him as an elite sportsman.

But then these chaps already knew about another lad back home they called Garrincha, and he had one leg 6cm shorter than the other and knees that faced different ways.

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This willowy boy from Dublin was pale as a ghost, legs like lollipop sticks, but was clearly something else.

When he dribbled, as he loved to do, the ball appeared stuck to his feet, attached as if by an invisible string. He could create mayhem at his own languid pace and nutmeg people for larks.

These were tricks honed to perfection with a tennis ball on the pavements of his boyhood stomping ground Cabra, one of three brothers in a typically football-mad family.

His name was Liam Whelan – or Billy – as he’d become known to his Manchester United mates since catching the eye of Billy Behan, Matt Busby’s eyes and ears in southern Ireland, in spring 1953 as a 17-year-old with Home Farm.

Two weeks later, the lad who had daydreamed about playing for Ireland at Dalymount Park, visible from his schoolroom window, was getting closer to that golden vision, pulling on a red shirt in United’s FA Youth Cup final culling of Wolves, 9-3 on aggregate.

He scored in both legs, one an audacious backheeled effort.

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Exact details of that Blue Stars Youth Tournament, United’s first Continental trip, are hard to pin down. Time has naturally lent the tale an element of artistic license. There’s even a discrepancy in the scorelines given in various accounts.


But there’s little doubt that Whelan’s performances across that week in Switzerland, the pick of United’s swashbuckling, mesmerising displays, carried strong tasting notes of what was to come from Busby’s young tyros. Young boys that played like men, they were itching to be unleashed on an unsuspecting top-flight. It’s what modern screenwriters would call an ‘origin story’.


Whelan – alongside Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman, David Pegg and Albert Scanlon – was one of United’s 16-strong party picked for a tournament that also featured representatives from Germany, Denmark, and the host nation. Having reached the final after two wins and a draw at the group stage without conceding a goal, the Reds saw off MTV Munchen 2-1 to set up a final with Red Star Zurich.


A convincing romp finished 4-0 in United’s favour – the first trophy on foreign shores. A couple of informal friendlies concluded the week.


Word has it that Whelan was approached by representatives from the Brazilians. Would he care to come back to South America? The answer was a polite, if flat: ‘No’.

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The future was dazzingly bright, if tragically brief. Whelan’s death at Munich carried a poignant caveat.

Leading goalscorer in United’s 1956/57 championship triumph, with an astonishing 26 from midfield – including an eight-game consecutive stretch of league games, a record not passed until 2002/03 by Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Whelan had ice in his veins when faced with the target. It was his sumptuous 40-yard surge through the slush to score with a late strike in Bilbao that gave United hope at 5-3 down for the quarter-final return, a night of nights in that first European campaign.

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It had been some achievement to outstrip the devastating duo of Tommy Taylor and Dennis Viollet – but Whelan had been kept out of the first team since mid-December 1957 by the increasingly impressive Bobby Charlton, his housemate at Great Stone Road, just round the corner from Old Trafford.


He had travelled to Belgrade as a reserve, his request to stay at home, having recently returned from a two-week trip to Dublin to recover from flu turned down by his boss, who was understandably keen on taking a strong squad to face the mighty Red Star.


It was Whelan, the devout Catholic who went to mass every day, the former altar boy who had seriously considered the priesthood, the lad whose nightly religious rituals Charlton vividly recalled, that said: ‘if this is the end, I’m ready for it,’ as the plane careered off the runway.


That line still chills the bones, but to paraphrase that popular Mancunian ballad, theirs is a light that never goes out.


Twenty thousand people lined the streets en route to Glasnevin Cemetery as their Liam came home for the last time. They stood solemnly outside his old school gates at St Peter’s, saluting the boy next door from Dublin that charmed the boys from Brazil.