Bill Foulkes

A tribute to Bill Foulkes

There was a feeling of overwhelming sadness six years ago today when news broke that Bill Foulkes, a truly towering figure in Manchester United's history, had passed away. He was 81.

He had been suffering ill health for some time, but in typical Foulkes fashion he battled to overcome several setbacks but even he had to cede to the passage of time on the morning of Monday 25 November 2013. By a strange twist of coincidence, his passing came on the eighth anniversary of the day we bade farewell to another giant from the club's past - George Best, a former team-mate of Bill.

Bill was born on Tuesday 5 January 1932, in the town of St Helens, 25 miles from Old Trafford. He played local football, whilst working at a colliery close to his home, before joining United in 1950. His first-team debut, in a 2-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday 13 December 1952, was the first step along a road that would lead to 688 appearances for the club. Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes are the only players to have taken the field on United's behalf on more occasions.

Bill Foulkes leads the Manchester United team out during the 1950s
Foulkes leads out the team for a game in the 1950s.

Beginning as a full-back, Bill later converted into a rock-solid central defender with all the required attributes to succeed in that position. Strong, dominant and a force to be reckoned with in the air, he was one of the pillars on which Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy built their great sides of the 1950s and 60s. Bill's prominent bow legs earned him the nickname 'Cowboy', with reference to those legendary figures from the Wild West.

Although not known for his goalscoring prowess, Foulkes will be forever remembered for his rare contribution in the second half of the 1968 European Cup semi-final second leg against Real Madrid - his effort made the score 3-3 and gave United an aggregate 4-3 victory, taking the club through to a first-ever appearance in the European Cup final.

In the final itself, at Wembley, the Reds overcame Benfica, the Eagles of Lisbon, 4-1 after extra time, to claim the continent's premier club prize. Coming ten years after the trauma of the Munich air disaster, it was the climax to a long road back from the dark days of February 1958 when the plane carrying United back from a successful European expedition crashed.

United players wave to the crowd before the European Cup semi-final, second leg against Real Madrid in May 1968
Foulkes and his team-mates wave to the crowd before the 1968 European Cup semi-final second leg in Madrid.

United had drawn 3-3 against Red Star Belgrade to reach the European Cup semi-final and the team, in good spirits, were travelling back to Manchester when their plane stopped at a wintry Munich Riem airport in order to refuel. Twice the crew attempted to take off on a slushy runway but both times they were forced to abort.

The 44 passengers on the chartered aircraft were asked to return to the departure lounge, but soon after they were again called to take their seats in order to continue their journey to Manchester Ringway. The third fateful attempt to take off was to end in tragedy as the plane crashed through the airfield's perimeter fence before hitting a house.

Twenty-three people lost their lives as a result of the crash, including eight United players and three members of the club's backroom staff. It was a tragedy that rocked football, and the wider world, but United were determined to overcome the horror which had struck the club. Having survived the crash without a serious injury, Bill would become a pivotal figure in the years that followed as the club was steadily rebuilt.

Bill Foulkes
Foulkes, pictured here with Sir Alex Ferguson, regularly returned to Old Trafford after retiring.

Having won two league championships with the Busby Babes before Munich, in 1956 and 1957, Foulkes helped the Reds claim another two league titles in 1965 and 1967, as well as being part of the team that beat Leicester City to win the FA Cup at Wembley in 1963. But the zenith of his monumental career had to be that aforementioned May evening in 1968 when United became the first English club to lift the European Champion Clubs' Cup.

On retiring as a player, Bill went into football management and became something of a global traveller as he gave service to clubs in the United States, Norway and Japan.

Foulkes was without doubt one of our club's great servants and a figure to stand alongside the genuine legends who have helped to make the club one of the world's most revered sporting institutions.

His contribution cannot be understated and his name will endure forever in the rich tapestry that is the Manchester United story.

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