In the pre-Munich side, he did not have the panache of Edwards, the silky skills of Colman nor the consistency of Byrne, while ten years further on he stood in the shadows behind his more illustrious team mates of Best, Law and Charlton. Even the toothless warrior in Nobby Stiles would have stridden past him in a popularity contest. But despite this, perhaps only Charlton from that period, and only the likes of Ryan Giggs from more recent times could hold a candle to Bill Foulkes in terms of his career as a Manchester United player.
Born in St Helens, Foulkes, like many others found employment down the mines, but he was also blessed with a talent that took him away from those harsh conditions – he could play football. But even the lure of joining Manchester United was not enough to make the talented youngster instantly forsake the coal face, as he was more than content to toil away between the two. Money being the deciding factor in him working during the day and training at night, travelling back and forward at all hours.
He joined United as an amateur in March 1950, having previously played for Whiston Boys Club, signing professional in August the following year and as the 1948 FA Cup winning side began to age and disperse, he found himself thrust into the first team at Liverpool in December 1952. National service, like his holding down of two jobs at once, was taken in his stride and two years later, he was making his England international debut against Northern Ireland. Further international honours followed at under 23 and Football League level, but he was never to add to that solitary cap at full international level.
What of Foulkes the player?
Obviously being a miner, he had the physical attributes to become a strong no nonsense defender, with his pen picture in the Scottish League v English League programme of March 1955 describing him as “A resolute, quick thinking back who has gained distinction by his cool, accurate tackling and judgement in the pass. He rarely parts with the ball without endeavouring to place it to a colleague positioned to develop attack from defence, while he holds a close link with his goalkeeper.”
Early appearances were at full back but, surviving the Munich disaster, he became the cornerstone of the ‘new’ United, being thrust into the limelight as captain, guiding his younger team mates through those dark days.
In the early sixties though, he began to find the captaincy something of a weight on his shoulders and asked to be relieved of the position. The move was a wise one, as his form returned to the level expected of him and he helped United to both FA Cup and First division success.
A no-frills defender, Bill Foulkes was always there when required, as well as being there when least expected as transpired in the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid in May 1968 when he went AWOL from his defensive duties and latched onto a George Best pass to steer home United’s third goal in that dramatic 3-3 draw which took Matt Busby’s team into the European Cup Final.
Bill Foulkes was a dedicated one club man, who played for some 18 years and accumulated a total of 688 games for United before retiring in the summer of 1970.
Upon leaving the club, he took up a coaching role before moving to the States and later to Scandinavia and Japan, where his experience was passed on to eager pupils.
If ever a player deserves to be called a legend, it is Bill Foulkes.
He was by the way, also a gentleman and I had the pleasure of his company one night when I was in the process of writing my biography of Roger Byrne.
William (Bill) Anthony Foulkes – 5 January 1932 – 25 November 2013. RIP.
You can buy ‘Manchester United 1958-68: Rising from the Wreckage’ by Iain McCartney from Amberley Publishing HERE, Amazon HERE or Waterstones HERE.