Busby Babe who went Awol from Army to play, he survived Munich air disaster and went on to win European Cup
It IS scarcely possible to exaggerate the colossal stature of Bill Foulkes in the Manchester United story. A one-time miner and an extraordinarily hard man both physically and mentally, he grew up with Matt Busby's "Babes", the exuberant masterclass of English football who seemed destined to sweep all before them until calamity struck on a snowy runway at Munich airport in 1958.
He survived the crash which claimed the lives of eight comrades, then played a seminal role in the rebuilding of the team before becoming the Red Devils' granite-tough defensive cornerstone throughout the high-achieving Sixties. Verging on the realm of comic-book fiction, he confounded friend and foe alike by forsaking his customary back-line beat to surge forward and grab the semi-final goal against Real Madrid which lifted United to within touching distance of achieving their treasured ambition of lifting the European Cup.
Then finally, having become the old man of Old Trafford at the age of 36, along the way making more appearances as a Red Devil than any other footballer – since then his total of nearly 700 has been surpassed by only Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – he was a key figure in the glorious denouement of his beloved club's epic quest on a balmy evening at Wembley in May 1968 when Benfica of Portugal were beaten by four goals to one.
Foulkes hailed from a keen sporting family, his grandfather having excelled as a rugby league full-back for St Helens and England, and his father guarding New Brighton's net during the Merseysiders' spell in the Football League between the wars. However, despite being a natural at all ball games, the sturdy, rather stolid six-footer opted initially for the security of a mining job and when he turned professional with Manchester United in 1951, it was on a part-time basis.
Despite dividing his time between kicking footballs and man-handling coal trucks, he progressed rapidly through the junior ranks at Old Trafford, becoming part of the exhilarating youth revolution which was shortly to overturn the established order. The grittiest of realists, Foulkes recognised readily that he was not blessed with the extravagant natural talent possessed by most of his fellow rookies – the likes of Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and company – but it became steadily more apparent that his iron resolution and implacable aggression were valued hugely by manager Busby and his coaching staff.
Foulkes made the right-back berth his own, performing with such consistent authority that he was handed a full England call-up to face Northern Ireland in October 1954, incredibly enough while still a part-timer.
Accordingly, after a shift at the pit he sailed for Belfast, where he acquitted himself competently in a 2-0 victory but was never selected for his country again. Years later, having enjoyed vast success as a centre-half, he would reflect ruefully that his only international chance had occurred when he had played only a handful of League games in a less-favoured position.
Still, the England experience emphasised to Foulkes, who had been loath to relinquish the long-term security of his colliery job, that his future lay in football, and now he bowed to long-term pressure from Matt Busby to go full-time. It was a decision that was to be vindicated handsomely as he thrived at club level in a precociously entertaining team which fired the imagination of the sporting world.
He was anything but a celebrity in the modern footballing sense, as illustrated by his mid-Fifties experiences while completing his National Service in the Army. Unable to arrange permission to leave barracks on a regular basis, frequently he went absent without leave, disguising himself on train journeys to grounds all over the country in a successful attempt to avoid the military police. Thus, with the aid of a smart trilby, a voluminous overcoat and a briefcase, he played in 27 games during 1955-56, garnering a League Championship medal for his pains and amazing Busby by the single-mindedness, independence and audacity which underpinned his outwardly dour nature.
In 1956-57 there was another title, but also the bitter disappointment of FA Cup final defeat by Aston Villa. By then, the Red Devils were pioneering Britain's path into European competition and in 1957-58 had qualified for their second successive semi-final when the team was decimated by the air disaster. Foulkes walked from the wreckage unscathed physically but suffering severe psychological wounds which would never leave him. However, he battled on as emergency captain as an under-strength United rode an emotional rollercoaster all the way to Wembley, where they lost the FA Cup final to Bolton Wanderers.
Busby embarked courageously on radical team reconstruction and Foulkes was switched to his preferred role of centre-half. He emerged as one of the most dominant stoppers in the game and struck up a formidable partnership with Nobby Stiles. He helped lift the FA Cup in 1963, League titles in 1965 and 1967 and, climactically, the longed-for European Cup in 1968.
That season, despite being closer to 40 than 30, and carrying a serious knee injury, Foulkes remained a veritable bulwark at the back, and he stunned manager, colleagues, opponents and fans by his derring-do in snatching the goal which scuppered Real in the European Cup semi-final.
Subsequently he became a successful coach, first at Old Trafford, then in the United States, Norway and Japan. Thereafter he returned to the Manchester area, passing on his expertise to local youngsters when well into his 70s, and remaining astonishingly fit for his age.
He is survived by his wife Teresa – to whom he was married for more than 50 years – and three children.