Former Busby Babe

Former Busby Babe

Born: January 5, 1932; Died: 25 November 25, 2013.

BILL FOULKES, who has died aged 81, will forever be remembered as one of the famous Manchester United Busby Babes.

In truth, he was arguably the least talented of that wonderful team, certainly in terms of skill or how he could lift a crowded stadium with his ability. He was not remotely in the same class as the legends amongst his team-mates - Charlton, Edwards, Coleman or Taylor.

However, he and the equally under-rated Mark Jones, along with the magnificent captain, Roger Byrne, were the defensive rock, the security blanket in front of Ray Wood, then Harry Gregg, which allowed Edwards' power, Coleman's subtlety and the wing wizardry of Johnny Berry and David Pegg to make the bullets for the goal-scorers: Tommy Taylor, Denis Violett, Liam Whelan and the young Bobby Charlton.

Foulkes was also one of the last part-time players to play for the full England team. He had to complete his shift at Lea Green Colliery in his native St Helen's before linking up with the rest of the FA party for the ferry to Belfast. He got his cap as a stand-in for the injured Ron Staniforth and it perhaps came too early in his career; he was never picked for his country again.

At United, which he joined from Whiston Boys Club in 1950, he succeeded the legendary Johnny Carey in the number two shirt, initially as a part-timer, continuing to work down the pit. Indeed, it was not until after his England cap that he felt secure enough to quit mining and go full-time at Old Trafford.

The rest is football history: League wins in 1956 and 1957, the club's great European adventures; then came Munich. He survived that awful air crash of February 1958 almost unscathed and he and goalkeeper Gregg were the corner stones of the rebuilt team which Jimmy Murphy, standing in for the convalescing Matt Busby led to a second successive FA Cup Final defeat in April 1958.

He remained an integral part of the rebuilt United, going on to amass 688 games for the club - a total since surpassed only by Charlton and the modern legends, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. He was there, along with Charlton and their manager, to weep for absent team mates, when United finally lifted the Holy Grail of the European Cup on that emotional Wembley night in 1968. He had played his part in the win from centre-half, the position to which such a big, commanding figure was seemingly meant from birth.

Foulkes had, for just about the only time in his career, ventured up front to score a crucial equaliser in the semi-final second leg in Real Madrid's Bernabau Stadium. His goal guaranteed the final spot and was by far the most memorable of the nine he scored for United.

He retired in 1970, had a short spell as a youth coach with United, before heading across the Atlantic, where he coached Chicago Sting, Tulsa Roughnecks and San Jose Earthquakes. He briefly returned to England to manage Whitney Town, before packing his passport again for an eight-year spell in Norway, where he managed in turn: Byrne, FC Steinkjer, Lillstrom SK and Viking Stavanger.

From Norway, he headed for Japan as manager of FC Mazda and, in the years before his final debilitating illness, his fluent Japanese was put to use back at Old Trafford, guiding groups of Japanese tourists round Old Trafford. Back in Manchester, he also worked in coaching for the Manchester FA.

He retired to live in the suburbs of Sale, which was a long way from the miners rows of Whiston, in St Helen's. Indeed, it was somewhat surprising that he played football, as his father wore the famous red and white colours of St Helen's Rugby League team, while one of his grandfathers had played rugby for England.

His European Cup winner's medal is in the Manchester United museum, the club paying £11,000 to buy it when he auctioned his medals and trophies in 1992 and he continued to be a regular and much-loved visitor to the ground until his final illness.

We remember the stars, but the afore-mentioned Babes, Denis Law, George Best and Co, could not have worked their magic and built the Manchester United legend without the security of knowing Foulkes was manning the barricades at the back to let them play.

With his passing, Harry Gregg and Sir Bobby Charlton are the last remaining survivors of the team known as The Busby Babes.

Foulkes, who died in a Manchester nursing home, is survived by Teresa, his wife of 58 years, sons Stephen and Geoff and daughter Amanda and their children.