LONDON – Bill Foulkes, a former Manchester United defender who survived the Munich air disaster and played a key role in the team’s recovery, died Monday, the club said. He was 81.
United did not give a cause of death for Foulkes, who won the topflight title four times and helped the club collect 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 1958 Munich crash. “He was a really, really good defensive player and you could say he helped change the course of history for United.”
Foulkes, who still worked five days a week in a coal mine initially after joining United in 1950, made his first-team debut in 1952 and went on to make 688 appearances.
“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 footballers’ pay was capped at 20 pounds a week. “It took a long time to persuade him to become a full-time professional.”
When he did, Foulkes stayed committed to United for his entire playing career.
Only Ryan Giggs, who is still playing, Charlton and Paul Scholes have featured more times for the 20-time English champions than Foulkes.
United defender Rio Ferdinand wrote on Twitter that Foulkes was a “great servant to the club.”
Foulkes was one of the survivors of the Feb. 6, 1958, Munich air crash that took away the heart of the “Busby Babes.”
Eight players were among 23 people killed when a plane carrying Matt Busby’s team back from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade stopped off to refuel in Munich but crashed on takeoff.
“I thought, ‘What the hell are we doing in here, this plane, starting to bounce all over the place in snow?’” Foulkes recalled to reporters ahead of the 50th anniversary in 2008.
Twice the pilots aborted the take-off, 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 this meant all the stuff came out of the back and hit me in the back of the head and put me in a bad way.
“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.”
Foulkes then entered the next phase of his career, trying to honor the memories of the greats, including Duncan Edwards, who died in the crash.
After the crash, the center back was made captain of the team.
“He’s assured of his place in our history by his appearances and by the way he performed, particularly in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster,” said United director Alex Ferguson, who managed the team between November 1986 and May 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.