MANCHESTER: Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United legend as one of the Munich air crash survivors and then a European Cup winner a decade later, has died aged 81.
Foulkes, who passed away in the early hours of today, made his debut for United in 1952 and went on to play 688 times for the club – a figure surpassed only by Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes.
United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said: “Bill was a giant character in the post-war history of Manchester United.
“He was a very gentle man, who I was privileged to meet on several occasions, including most memorably with his team-mates at the Champions League final in Moscow, 50 years after his heroics in the Munich air crash.
“Bill’s contribution over almost 700 games and nearly 20 years will never be forgotten.”
Foulkes, whose father and grandfather had both played rugby league for his home-town side St Helens, started work as a coal miner and was still going down the pit at Lea Green Colliery in the mid-1950s, by which time he was a regular member of Matt Busby’s United first team and had won his only England cap, in 1954.
Foulkes was a key member of Sir Matt Busby’s team of talented young players, who were nicknamed the Busby Babes.
On February 6, 1958, the Elizabethan airliner carrying the team back from Belgrade crashed on take-off after re-fuelling at Munich’s old Riem airport. Twenty-three people died – eight players, eight newspaper journalists and seven members of backroom staff.
Speaking about the disaster in 2008, Foulkes recalled: “The back end [of the plane] came up and I saw it came up and down again and this meant all the stuff came out of the back and hit me in the back of the head.”
He managed to escape from the plane and ran to safety before returning to help the survivors, adding: “I ran over to Matt and we put an overcoat underneath him and he just turned over, groaned and passed out.”
After Munich Foulkes took over the captaincy and became the leader of the ‘Busby Babes’.
He played for United for his whole career, the highlight coming near the end of his playing days after he had moved from right back to central defence in the team who won the 1968 European Champions Cup against Benfica at Wembley. He was then 36.
Foulkes had played a key role in the semi-final, scoring a crucial goal in a 3-3 draw against Real Madrid at the Estadio Bernabeu – 11 years after playing on the losing side side in the 1957 semi-finals.
Charlton described Foulkes as “hard as nails,” adding: “He was as tough as teak – I was always glad I didn’t have to play against him. He was a really, really good defensive player and you could say he helped change the course of history for United in that 1968 semi-final.
“I couldn’t believe what he was doing in the Madrid penalty area in the first place, something must have been triggered in his mind, then George Best crossed it and Bill sidefooted the ball into the back of the net.
“It was one of the most important matches in the history of Manchester United so you could say he helped changed that history.”
United are expected to wear black armbands against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday and to also mark Foulkes’s passing at their next home match, against Everton on December 4.