Eight years ago today, Reds and non across the globe mourned the passing of George Best, one of the greatest players to have ever lived and arguably the symbol of a generation and a figure still idolised by United fans. Today, Manchester United Football Club (for the man himself lived throughout an era when teams were essentially just that, football clubs) lost a man who, despite being the polar opposite of Best, reached a status every bit as legendary as the Belfast boy.
While Best epitomised United’s panache and flair, Bill Foulkes embodied the spirit of the club through sheer determination, unreserved dedication and total commitment to the cause and to that red shirt which he proudly wore 688 times, the club’s fourth-most capped player, during a career that spanned over 18 seasons.
Younger fans like myself marvel at Ryan Giggs’ phenomenal record for the club but, put in perspective, Foulkes’ achievements are nothing short of spectacular, particularly considering the circumstances that surrounded the St.Helens-born defender throughout his career.
Perhaps, as he lifted United’s first European Cup to the Wembley sky in 1968, Bill casted his memory back to the summer of 1951 when, having been offered a contract by the club, he opted to remain on the book as part-timer, as he harboured doubts on whether he would make it as professional footballer and did not want to give up his job as a miner.
In that bygone era where the winter skies were as dark as the coal Foulkes loaded into the trucks and onto the rails, the taciturn defender would spend five days in the pits, and only train two nights a week before turning out for United on weekends until he made his debut at Anfield in December 1952.
The circumstances that surrounded Foulkes’ debut epitomised the man’s attitude and willpower, for he refused to let a sore ankle stand in the way of his first senior appearance and impressed Sir Matt Busby, even though his ankle gave way and he was forced to miss the rest of the campaign.
The 1953-54 season proved to be Foulkes’ breakthrough season, as the right-back established himself as a pillar of Sir Matt’s exciting young squad and went on to win his first England cap, taking the pitch in Belfast only hours after having completed his shift in the mine, a job he would eventually give up thanks, in so small part, to Busby’s insistence.
The euphoria that had surrounded the Busby Babes since their back-to-back league titles in the 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons was tragically cut short on a bitter February afternoon in Munich, as the finest team of a generation – and probably of many generations – was decimated.
Surrounded by dying teammates and hellish scenes, Foulkes, much like Sir Bobby Charlton, survived the crash and was miraculously unscathed, the only tangible damage being a ruined deck of cards. Foulkes would often tell how, having just put the cards in his chest pocket, he dragged himself away from the wrecked plane and noticed that the top of the cards that emerged from his pocket had been sliced off.
As United rose again from the ashes of Munich, Foulkes represented the club’s phoenix, captaining an incredibly young side less than two weeks after the crash in a 3-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday and then, some 10 years later, scoring the most important goal of his career and arguably one of the most important in the club’s history – certainly the most crucial at the time.
With the score 3-3 on aggregate and United 3-2 down on the night, Foulkes surged through the pitch to meet George Best’s cross and silence the 125,000 that had packed the Santiago Bernabeu hoping to see Real Madrid secure a place in the final, but were denied by Sir Matt’s men, on a mission to finally banish the demons that had afflicted their manager for over a decade.
As it was the case with Busby and Charlton, Wembley represented the highest moment of Foulkes’ career at the club, a momentous triumph ten years after the club’s darkest hour, and one in which he played a pivotal role, as he nullified Benfica’s attacking threat, before becoming the first English captain to lift the European Cup.
Bill Foulkes wasn’t a star but if United are what they’re now, they owe a great deal to men like their former captain who has now joined his former teammates and manager up there in the skies.
We don’t know whether football is played in Heaven, but if it is, it’s definitely football taught by Matt Busby and his lads.