Bill Foulkes – A Forgotten Hero?
Football used to be described as "a man's game." In this so called modern era, I often wonder whether or not this phrase is still true. The game has altered so much over the last 25 years as far as the physical aspect goes. Sadly, I think that it has lost some of the attraction that it once had because of the fact that the physical side of football has been slowly eroded down through the years. Yes, we can all eulogize about the great players in the game today, but I'll guarantee that most of the players placed in that bracket are either forwards or midfielders. It used to be that when going to the match, your appetite would be whetted by looking forward to the confrontations of full back against winger; inside forward against wing half; goalkeeper and centre half against centre forward. It was a joy to see those defenders who had mastered the art of the tackle, whether it be of the sliding type; the block type; or the full blooded ‘come into the office’ type! It also gave the spectator a chance to see something about the character of the players that these defenders were marking, and would also allow them to see whether or not they had heart, courage, and that little bit of ‘devil’ not to be intimidated and to give it back.
All players need the skill to make that top echelon, but skill alone will not see them prevail. They have to have the temperament to survive and progress, and that comes from attitude, character, courage, strength of mind, the will to compete and win, and having a great pride in the shirt that they wear. Unfortunately today, in my own honest opinion, I see a lot of players that lack those extras to make themselves truly great players. Those that do attain greatness, certainly do have that mix.
I got to thinking about some of the great defenders that I have seen during my lifetime, and wondered just how long they would last on the pitch if they played the game today. The conclusion that I came up with was, not more than ten minutes! The rough and tumble and physical aspect, was all part and parcel of football back then and accepted without rancour. Players had to come to terms with it or they would disappear into oblivion – and believe me, many of them did! People today will argue that the game back in the past was brutal and that something had to be done to clean it up. I disagree with what I hear. Yes, the tackle from behind had to be outlawed, but I see far more brutal assaults on players in this modern era than I ever did back then. Today's brutality is more often than not cynical, cowardly, and also downright dangerous. The art of tackling has all but disappeared. This certainly does not surprise me given the edicts handed down by FIFA and our own F.A., and also the various governing football body’s Referee’s Committees around the world. There has also been a great change in referee’s personalities from the moment that they became professional – some of them have egos bigger than today’s star players. As Bill Shankly once said; "the trouble with Referees is that they know the rules, but they don't know the game!" Never has that statement been more truer than in this modern era!
The term "hard men" is often heard and I got to thinking about what that term really meant. What constitutes a ‘hard man?’ Is it somebody who just kicks and intimidates opponents? Is it a player who takes the kicks without retaliating? To me, the epitome of the ‘hard man’ is the player who has an abundance of skill, be it a defender or a forward, who has the physical and mental strength to meet the challenge, who gives and takes without question, is honest in his endeavours and gives his all for the shirt that he wears, and who, at the end of the day, fans grudgingly admire with the greatest of respect. Players from yesteryear whom I would place in this bracket would be Jimmy Scoular, Peter Farrell, Roy Paul, Stan Willemse, Roy Warhurst, Trevor Daniel, Tommy Banks, Roy Hartle, Tommy Docherty, Tommy Cummings, Brian Miller, Alex Forbes, Maurice Norman, Dave Mackay, Dave Hickson, Trevor Ford, Tommy Smith, Ron Flowers, Tony Kay, Dennis Smith. That's twenty without thinking too hard! If I look at today's players, I struggle to come up with very many. Where are today's real ‘hard men?’ All of those players that I mentioned were players that opposing fans grudgingly respected and would not have hesitated to have had them in their own teams. United have had more than their fair share down the years, even going back as far as the first decade of the 20th Century when the famous United half-back line of Duckworth, Roberts and Bell, sprang to prominence. Charlie Roberts was as hard as they came, and in the 20's nobody in the game had a more fearsome reputation than a United centre half by the name of Frank Barson. Busby's first team after he became manager had another rock hard centre half in Allenby Chilton, a player who gave nor asked any quarter. He was followed by Mark Jones, and then came Stan Crowther, Wilf McGuinness, Maurice Setters, Nobby Stiles, John Fitzpatrick, Jim Holton, Kevin Moran, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam. From the forwards, players I would bracket as "hard men" were Jack Rowley, Dennis Law, George Best, Joe Jordan, Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona. Of course Duncan's name is not included because, well, Duncan was just Duncan, and if I start going on about him, there would not be enough print in this edition to allow for anything else!
One player's name is missing though, and to me he is one of, if not the, biggest, unsung hero in United's great history - and he would, without doubt in my opinion, be classed as a ‘hard man.’ He made 679 appearances in the red shirt over a period of 19 years but his career took in eras of both a glorious, and tragic part of United's history. United very nearly missed out on signing him as he was courted fastidiously by Bolton Wanderers. Although he had been given trials by United, he didn't hear from them for a while, and was on the verge of signing for the Trotters. However, being fair minded, he did let United know what he was about to do, and they immediately sent for him, and got him down to Old Trafford to put pen to paper and sign part-time professional forms. Prior to this he had been playing his football for St. Helens Town, for whom his father had kept goal a number of years beforehand. He was also working down the pit at the time that he signed for United and did so for four years afterwards, even after he had won a place in the first team. His debut game in the first team came at the age of 20 years and 11 months, at Anfield against Liverpool, wearing the number two shirt, on the 13th December 1952, in a 2-0 victory. The player concerned is of course, Bill Foulkes.
If you look back at the '50's and '60's and think of United's glories throughout those years, the names that immediately spring to mind are of Carey, Rowley, Aston, Pearson, Byrne, Colman, Edwards, Taylor, Viollet, Pegg, Charlton, Law, Best, Stiles, Crerand. Yet look a little deeper and one man really did play more than his part in those glories. That man was Bill Foulkes. Unfashionable, unassuming, never the player to really catch the eye, but he was certainly effective. Initially as a right full back, and then as a centre half. Foulkes was a fitness fanatic, and it says a great deal about his physical dedication in that he was able to stay part time for four years, only training at United on a Tuesday and Thursday throughout the early part of his career. One thing that a lot of United fans do not realize is that just prior to United signing Tommy Taylor, Busby had been giving thought to playing Foulkes in the first team at centre forward! Jimmy Murphy had experimented with Foulkes by playing him up front in the reserve team, and it had met with quite some success. Foulkes scored a bagful of goals in just a small number of games. In fact in one game against Newcastle Reserves at St. James's Park, he scored 4 times! He was earmarked for a run out in the first team against Stoke City, but turned an ankle in training in the mid week and he was ruled out. The following week Tommy Taylor was signed from Barnsley!
The 1952 Championship winning team was slowly being broken up as Busby's youth policy started to bear fruit. With only training twice a week, most of his work was done with the young players from the junior teams at The Cliff on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Foulkes was only too well aware of the task that confronted him in trying to break through into United's first team. He had made his debut at Liverpool in the latter part of 1952, but his chances in the immediacy after that were few and far between. Roger Byrne had cemented his place at left back, and the right back berth was a choice between Johnny Carey, Johnny Aston, and Tommy McNulty. Plus Billy Redman was also in contention. Carey was almost at the end of his career as was Aston, and McNulty did himself no favours with Busby due to his off the field activities. In the 1953/54 season Busby slowly began introducing his young players. However, he was a wise manager in that he kept two of his old guard in the team, namely Allenby Chilton, and Jack Rowley.
Upon Carey's retirement from the game, Chilton was made Club Captain. He was a very feisty character and wasn't averse to handing out a few 'backhanders' to the younger players if he felt that they had stepped out of line. Jack Rowley was also a player who could look after himself, but in my opinion, Busby kept these two old stalwarts in his team to 'look after' and 'mind' the youngsters. In the middle autumn of 1953, Foulkes got his chance again, and for the next 16 seasons was hardly out of the team. It was a tribute to his dedication and fitness, that even as a part timer, he managed to force his way into the first team. He played so well over the next twelve months that on 2nd October 1954, he appeared in the England team that beat Northern Ireland 2-0 at Windsor Park, Belfast. Again, no mean feat for a part timer. It's sad to reflect today though, that little was he to know that day, that it would turn out to be his one and only appearance for his country.
Matt Busby had been badgering him to turn full time professional from the day he got into the first team. But Foulkes was married, earned more from working down a coal mine than he did from football, and was more secure in financial terms than most full time players. However, he was still ambitious as far as his football was concerned, but there was another reason holding him back from signing on as a full time pro - a thing called National Service! As a miner, he was in a category that fell under the term of 'protected trade' and as such, he was ineligible for the mandatory two years of military service. However, his call up for the full England team in October 1954, was the spur that he needed to take the plunge into the full time professional ranks, and in January of 1955 he pleased his manager by signing a full time professional contract.
Busby's youth policy had now started to bear fruit, and the team was now being affectionally referred to as 'The Babes'. By the Easter of 1955, Chilton, and Rowley, had departed - Chilton as player-manager to Grimbsy Town, and Rowley as player-manager to Plymouth Argyle. Busby's team of youngsters were now starting to take the First Division of the Football League by storm, playing an enterprising attacking style of football. They were precocious, effervescent, and even audacious. For the players, once they had made their mark in the first team, they did not want to be left out. There was so much brilliant young talent around Old Trafford, that if they did lose their place, they found that it was so difficult to regain it once more. The two oldest players in the team in 1955, were Johnny Berry and Roger Byrne, both 26; Foulkes was 23, Whitefoot 21, Jones 22, Edwards 18, Whelan 19, Taylor 23, Viollet 23, Pegg 20, McGuinness 18, Doherty 20, Bent 19, Goodwin 20, Lewis 20, Scanlon 20, Webster 22, Wood 22, Blanchflower 21. There was a conveyor belt of youngsters on the way up as well, with players like 18 years old Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman, to name just two. So to hold down a first team spot was essential as far as the player was concerned. Foulkes had to be on his game each and every week.
He played in the last game of the 1954/55 season, and then sure enough, his 'call up' papers dropped through the letterbox of his home in early May of 1955. Not only was he 'called up', but a number of other United players also received their beckonings not too long afterwards - Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman being to the fore. Foulkes was conscripted into the Royal Army Service Corps, and was initially stationed down in Aldershot. Busby talked to Foulkes before he left for the start of his army service. He made a statement that would leave most people with lockjaw had it been heard today! Busby told Foulkes that as he was stationed so far away, if he wanted to keep his place in the first team, he would have to make his own arrangements for getting to the games - the Club could not help him! He promised Foulkes that if he arrived at the various grounds in good time, he would play! Whether or not this was a tongue-in-cheek statement, or whether or not Busby was testing Foulkes' resolve is hard to say – only Busby had the answer. Nonetheless, for a player who had not long cemented his first team place down, and had won his call up to the full England team as well, it was a rather disturbing thing to hear. I also wonder if he told the other players who were doing their National Service, the same thing? I have my doubts.
Nonetheless, on 20th August 1955, Foulkes turned up at the St. Andrews ground in Birmingham, for the opening game of the 1955/56 season against Birmingham City. The story goes that Ian Greaves, the young reserve team full back, was already in the dressing room getting ready to get changed and play at right back in that game. Foulkes' arrival put Busby in a predicament given his statement to Foulkes just before he had departed for military service. True to his promise, he told Foulkes to get changed and Greaves had to hand over the number two shirt! How long this arrangement went on for, only Bill Foulkes can tell!
After basic training, life in the Army for Foulkes was not so bad. There was plenty of football and he captained an Army team that would have held its own against any team in any competition. Footballers from most clubs in the Football and Scottish Leagues were also doing their National Service and the Army XI regularly contained as many as eight or nine international players. In November of 1956, I can recall going to Maine Road to watch the Army XI play against an FA XI, and Manchester United supplied four players for the Army team - Foulkes, Colman, Edwards, and Charlton. Also as team mates they had Alan Hodgkinson, and Graham Shaw from Sheffield United, Jimmy Melia from Liverpool, David Dunmore and Cliff Jones from 'Spurs. The Army won 4-1 as I recall and there was an attendance of over 50,000!
With all the football, Foulkes had no problem with his fitness. He played week in and week out, and thanks to an understanding Commanding Officer, was always allowed to get away to play for Manchester United. He had endeared himself to the United fans and had earned himself the nickname of 'Cowboy' because of his bandy legs! Foulkes was an uncompromising, no nonsense, type of full back who had done well against the myriad of talented wingers who plied their trade in the First Division. In those bygone days, every club played with two wingers, and they were excellent at what they did. Oh! that this was the case today! To hold his place down, first as a part timer, and then whilst doing his National Service, was a very big compliment to his skill, fitness, ambition and attitude.
He was virtually ever present in United's team from the start of the 1955/56 season, until just after the turn of the year. United suffered a disastrous exit at Bristol Rovers in the third round of the F.A. Cup in the January of 1956, losing 4-0 at the Eastville ground. 14 days later, at Deepdale, against Preston North End, United were again beaten, this time by 3-1. Bill had a torrid time that day against Angus Morrison. It was a game that I attended with a number of my school mates and I can recall that it pissed it down heavily throughout the game and the pitch was a quagmire! Busby decided to leave Foulkes out for the next game in favour of young Ian Greaves, and he was never to regain his place again during that season. This was the break through season for the young 'Babes' and they finished as League Champions by a the massive distance of 11 points in front of their rivals, with a young team of which the average age was just 22 years! Foulkes had played more than the requisite number of first team games to qualify for a winners medal that season, as had a young, cheeky, fresh faced wing-half, by the name of Wilf McGuinness. That Championship win really did make the British football public sit up and take note. No team had ever won the Championship before with such a young average age.
At the start of the 1956/57 season, Busby restored Foulkes to the right back position for the opening game, which again, was against Birmingham City at St. Andrew's. From that moment on, he made sure that he wasn't going to be left out again. This was the season that United first entered European competition and the Army authorities were more than generous in allowing him leave for the away legs in Europe. United played 57 matches that season and Foulkes played in 54 of them. The three games that he missed were because, twice the Army required him to play in Kentish Cup matches against the Belgian Army, and then the week before the F.A. Cup Final in the final League game of the season, Busby rested several regular first team players. It was another Championship winning season for United, and they also reached the F.A. Cup Final.
Foulkes was definitely the first choice full back and just before the start of the 1957/58 season, the day that he had been looking forward to, arrived - 'demob day!' He could now go home to his wife, and also concentrate fully on his Manchester United career. United began that season well winning 5 and drawing one of the opening six fixtures. But they then lost to Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park by 4-0. this began a run of three straight defeats, the other two being against Blackpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. By United's standards of the previous two seasons, they were suffering a stutter, and three more defeats followed during the next few months. It left them 6 points adrift of Wolves by mid-December, so Busby decided to act. He bought in goalkeeper Harry Gregg from Doncaster Rovers, and he dropped Ray Wood. He also dropped Johnny Berry, Billy Whelan and David Pegg and brought in a young winger named Kenny Morgans who was not long out of the youth team, Bobby Charlton, and Albert Scanlon. At that time, making changes like this was considered drastic, but it had the desired effect. From then on until February 6th 1958, the team never lost, winning seven games and drawing four, and in that period trounced their ‘bogey’ team, Bolton Wanderers by 7-2!
Foulkes was playing well, but little was he to know that his life was about to change forever. We all know the happenings of February 6th 1958, and we know the part that Bill Foulkes had to play in that tragic event. That United were able to put a team out just thirteen days later in an F.A. Cup tie, was little short of a miracle. When you consider what happened, even more of a miracle was the fact that both Bill Foulkes, and Harry Gregg, were able to play in that F.A. Cup tie. They had lost seven of their closest friends (and were to lose one more just 30 hours after that tie took place) and several more were still lying injured. No trauma counseling back in those days for them. Jimmy Murphy made Foulkes the Club Captain, and given the circumstances, that was a tremendous burden and responsibility for him to have to carry, given the state the club found itself in. The first team was all of a sudden a mixture of reserve team and youth team players, plus two buys, Ernie Taylor and Stan Crowther. As well as playing his own game, Foulkes had to lead from the front and help carry a lot of players who were not only scarred by the tragedy, but also before their time as far as playing in the first team was concerned. Somehow, that team fought their way to the F.A. Cup Final, eventually losing to Bolton Wanderers at Wembley. They also performed heroically in the European Cup semi-final against A.C. Milan, winning 2-1 at Old Trafford. The team had to make the long overland journey to Milan by rail, and this was no preparation for the second leg. Tired, the team lost 4-0. We all know that Busby created three great teams, but for me, Jimmy Murphy’s team from February 1958 until the end of the 1958/59 season, stands right up there alongside them all. I always refer to that team as the fourth great team, because although it never won any silverware, what they achieved in carrying the club forward, and finishing as runners-up in the First Division just over a year after the tragedy, was nothing short of a phenomenal effort.
Foulkes' character, like that of the other survivors, changed after the tragedy. He also, became very introverted, moody, and was difficult to get inside of and kept his distance. The younger players christened him 'popular Bill' or 'PB' for short. It was a reference to his moodiness. As Club Captain, he had carried that enormous responsibility on his shoulders. The pressures on Foulkes were obviously at some time or another going to eventually tell, and so it was that his form became a little erratic. The burden had proved a little too much for him – and that in my own honest opion, was perfectly understandable. In the early part of 1959, Busby decided to leave Foulkes out of the team and the Club Captaincy was given to Dennis Viollet. Foulkes needed that rest. On Easter Saturday in April 1959, young Ronnie Cope, the United centre-half, was injured in a game at Turf Moor, Burnley which United lost by 4-2. There was no adequate cover available and so, for the fixture at Portsmouth on the Easter Monday, Busby drafted Bill Foulkes back into the team, only this time at centre half. He stayed there in the team until Cope was fit again in the following September of the new 1959/60 season, but was then reverted back to his right back position and was not left out of the team for the rest of the season. The centre half position was becoming problematical and the 1960/61 season saw Ronnie Cope and young Frank Haydock, battling it out for the shirt. Both of them never really made it. I think that it would be true to say that Busby had been impressed with Foulkes' performances during his run at centre-half, and so it was, that in the middle of the 60/61 season he made centre half Foulkes' permanent position.
For the next 8 years, Foulkes was virtually an ever present in the Manchester United team. He shared in the glory of the F.A. Cup win against Leicester City in 1963, he won another two First Divison Championship medals in 1965 and 1967, and of course he was in the team that triumphed against Benfica in the European Cup Final at Wembley in May of 1968. I suppose that it was also such a fitting script, that Foulkes should score the goal against Real Madrid in the Bernabeau, that took United into that European Final. He was by this time, almost 38 years of age.
Without doubt Bill Foulkes had played his part in the Club's history. No player plays 679 games for Manchester United, and for a manager like Sir Matt Busby, without being more than a half decent player. Foulkes was as tough as granite and in my opinion was as hard as anybody that has ever played the game. Nobody took any kind of liberties with him. Even in training he neither gave, nor asked any quarter. As a full back, he played against some of the greatest wingers in the game; as a centre half, he also mixed it with the toughest and the best of centre forwards of his era, and in both cases, the number of times that he came off second best could be counted on one hand. He was almost never out of the team through injury, and there was a solid consistency in his play. He was a rock at the heart of the United defence. He was the minder for ball playing colleagues who were of a more delicate disposition than he was. Foulkes was very destructive in the tackle, and relentless in pursuit of the man he had been assigned to mark. In his 'minder's' role, I recall that sunny afternoon in Madrid in April 1957 when the great Alfredo Di Stefano had kicked young Eddie Colman to the ground in his frustration of being man marked so effectively. It was both a cruel, cowardly act, and one that should have brought the great man an early bath. Foulkes was onto Di Stefano in an instant grabbing him by the front of the shirt. The great Alfredo paled visibly, and uttered the words; 'oikay Foulksay - no more!' as he feared for his own wellbeing! On another occasion, in a league game at Preston's Deepdale, I saw Tommy Docherty cynically kick him, off the ball. He'd picked the wrong guy to be cynical with - Foulkes was onto him like lightning and picked him up with one hand, and hurled him into the Deepdale mud like a rag doll! Unpretentious, unassuming, solid, dependable, consistent, that was Bill Foulkes. Never one to court the limelight, nor to be in the news for the wrong reasons.
Age finally did catch up with him just a year after that wonderful European Cup win. At the start of the '69/'70 season, after just three games, and a heavy home defeat against Southampton by 4-1. Ron Davies the big Welsh centre-forward scored all four goals that day, and it was to prove to be Bill Foulkes' last game for Manchester United. It was sad that he had to end his playing career on that low note but the march of time was there for all to see.
As I said earlier, the mention of the 1950's and 1960's team immediately brings to the tongue the names of some of United's greatest ever heroes. Sadly in my opinion, Bill Foulkes hardly ever gets a mention. Yet he was a tremendous servant of Manchester United both as a player, and a man, and he never ever let them down. He had the mental toughness to overcome adversity, tragedy, and the physical toughness to survive in what was back then, a very, very, tough era. After retirement, he went into coaching and had spells in Norway. U.S.A. and Japan. Sadly, he found it necessary to secure his family’s future by selling his hard won football medals and his cap. I am glad in a way that he never donated this memorabilia to the United Museum, as I find it insulting that former player’s families have to pay for the privilege of seeing their loved one’s pieces of Manchester United’s history. Others with less conspicuous records than Foulkes' have been honoured by club and fans alike - in my opinion, it is about time that this situation was remedied.