LONDON – Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United defender who survived the 1958 Munich air crash that killed eight players and had a key role in the storied team’s recovery, died Monday. He was 81.
Foulkes won titles four times in the top tier of English soccer and helped the club capture the European Cup for the first time.
“He was as hard as nails, as tough as teak – I was always glad I didn’t have to play against him,” said Bobby Charlon, a former United teammate who also survived the crash. “He was a really, really good defensive player and you could say he helped change the course of history for United.”
Foulkes still worked five days a week in a coal mine initially after joining United in 1950. “Bill used to turn up pitch black with coal dust, straight from the pits in St. Helens and straight into training,” Charlton said Monday, recalling a time when pay for soccer players was capped at 20 pounds a week.
When he did, Foulkes stayed committed to United for his entire playing career. Foulkes was one of the survivors of the Feb. 6, 1958, accident in which 23 people died and stripped the heart of the “Busby Babes.” The plane carrying Matt Busby’s team back from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade stopped to refuel in Munich but crashed on takeoff.
Twice the pilots aborted the takeoff, but they tried again.
“I could see we were going to take off and thought, ‘This is stupid, they’re going to take off,’” Foulkes said. “The back end came up and I saw it came up and down again and ... I managed to get out of the plane. Someone shouted to me to get out, quick, and I got out the quickest way I thought was there, I could see the light. So I went and I got out of the plane.”
After the crash, the center back was made captain.
“He’s assured of his place in our history ... by the way he performed, particularly in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster,” said United director Alex Ferguson, who managed the team from 1986 to 2013.
“Having gone through that, how he and (goalkeeper) Harry Gregg managed to perform a couple of weeks later, leading those young lads out against Sheffield Wednesday – and winning the game – was absolutely incredible. He was an exceptional man.”
A decade after the disaster, at 36, Foulkes scored the goal against Real Madrid that took United to its first European Cup final, where it beat Benfica in the final.
“It was in my mind, the fact we survived (Munich),” Foulkes recalled of the Wembley final. “That’s what I thought: ‘Now we’ve got to do it.’”
After spending his entire playing career at United, Foulkes enjoyed less success in management, mostly in the United States and Norway. He took charge of three teams in the North American Soccer League: the Chicago Sting, the Tulsa Roughnecks and the San Jose Earthquakes, where he coached former United teammate George Best.
Foulkes is survived by his wife, Teresa, and sons Stephen and Geoffrey.