From coal mines to championships: the story of a survivor
Bill Foulkes, who has died aged 81, was one of Manchester United's most capped players and experienced both the agony of the Munich air crash in 1958 and the ecstasy of winning the European Cup 10 years later.
It was a triumph in which Foulkes, a defender, played a crucial and unexpected role when, with United losing 3-2 against Real Madrid, he embarked on an unlikely run to convert a George Best cross. The goal, one of only nine that Foulkes scored in 688 appearances, secured United's passage to the European Cup final, a tie in which they beat Benfica at Wembley.
Bobby Charlton, who won the World Cup in 1966, later described the semi-final against Madrid as "maybe the most crucial [game] I ever played in". "No one," he noted, "did more than Bill towards winning the game."
Yet Foulkes himself had been as astonished as anyone to find himself in a goalscoring position. "I just made a run, thinking I might create some space for George Best," he told the Manchester Evening News in 2000. "By the time he [Best] looked up I was the only United player in the box, which is incredible in itself. He pulled the ball back to absolute perfection and all I had to do was side-foot it into the opposite corner. There was complete silence in the crowd and then everyone was jumping on me."
William Anthony Foulkes was born on January 5, 1932, in St Helens, where his father and grandfather had played rugby league. Yet Bill's own sporting prowess lay principally with the round, not the oval, ball, and he began to gain notice as a strapping teenager with Whiston Boys Club. Meanwhile, he was also working underground at Lea Green Colliery.
In his autobiography, Manchester United and Beyond (2003), Foulkes described a typical day: "I would leave my bed at 5am, then walk across the fields to reach the colliery an hour later. Then I would do my shift and be up on the first winding of the cage at 2.30pm. I would shower at the pithead, snatch my football kit from my locker and catch a train from Lea Green station, arriving in Manchester at 4.30pm, though training didn't start until 6pm." He would not be back in bed until midnight.
He was signed to United in 1950, making his debut for the first team in late 1952. Despite his success he would continue to work as a miner until 1954 – when he was capped for England. For most of his early career, his salary for playing top-level football (£7 a week) was under half what he made at the coalface.
He won the first of his four league titles with United in 1956, but found himself falling out of the first team when he was obliged to complete his National Service. It was during the late 1950s and early 1960s that Foulkes established himself as an indispensable part of the team, rarely missing a single game. Such was his reliability that in the club's history only three United players – Charlton, and more recently Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – have appeared more often.
In the 1956-57 season United made it to the FA Cup final and the semi-final of the European Cup, in which they lost to Real Madrid. But as champions of England they qualified to play in Europe again the following season, and it was returning from the quarter final tie against Red Star Belgrade that disaster struck.
The aircraft in which the team was travelling struggled to take off in icy conditions after a refuelling stop in Munich. Failing to get airborne, it crashed, with the fuselage splitting almost directly underneath the seat, near the middle of the cabin, in which Foulkes was sitting.
Perhaps for that reason he was almost totally unscathed by the crash, sprinting through the snow to escape the explosion he expected at any moment. When it became clear that the wreckage was not going to blow up, he and goalkeeper Harry Gregg turned back to see what they could do for their fellow passengers; they were soon led away. When, next morning, Foulkes visited the hospital where survivors had been taken, he discovered he had been extremely lucky.
In all, 23 of the aircraft's 44 passengers died. Foulkes always kept the pack of cards – neatly shorn of a half centimetre during the crash – which he and his team-mates had been playing with that night.
The impact of the disaster on him was lasting, especially as the stoicism of the era demanded that survivors simply get on with their lives. "I wish we had spoken about it more," he said half a century afterwards. "I survived, but at a cost to me. Emotionally, especially. I also had pains in the head and I didn't get any sort of help for it. I just carried on playing."
While other survivors, like Charlton, took time off to recuperate, Foulkes almost immediately returned to action. A mere 13 days after the crash, and promoted to club captain, he led United out at Old Trafford to take part in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday. Over the next years, however, he became fretful and struggled to sleep, losing weight and the stature and fitness that was a major part of his game.
It was only by 1963, when Busby moved him to centre back, that he truly rediscovered his form, helping United to win the title in 1965, and again in 1967, when he and Charlton were the only Munich survivors left in the side. The following year they were European Champions.
He played two further seasons, and remained at the club as youth team coach until 1975 before beginning a managerial career.
In later life Foulkes was a frequent visitor to Old Trafford, where he was often presented to visitors. He found his recollections much in demand on the 50th anniversary of Munich and, more happily, in 2008, after United won the European Cup in Moscow, where he was a guest of honour.
Teresa, his wife of more than 50 years, survives him with two sons and a daughter.