Written by John White
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club
Where Ireland is neither Green nor Orange but Red!
On 25 September 1957, William Augustine Whelan returned home to Dublin but the reason for the trip was not to visit his family.
Manchester United had been drawn against the League of Ireland Champions, Shamrock Rovers, in the Preliminary Round of the 1957-58 European Cup. It was only the second season of the elite European competition and the first time teams from Ireland were permitted to take part in it. Glenavon from Belfast represented the north of the country as Irish League Champions and Rovers went into the competition as the defending League of Ireland Champions.
William was a devout Roman Catholic who came from a very large family and when he was only 8-years old his father died. Better known as “Billy” or “Liam” to his teammates the young Whelan was a prodigious talent and this was evident from the moment he kicked a football in the playground of St Peter’s School, St Peter’s Road, Phibsboro, Dublin. From the window of his classroom Liam could see Dalymount Park, the home of Bohemians FC in the city but also the ground where the Republic of Ireland played their home international matches.
Teachers at his school would often find the young Whelan staring out the window dreaming that one day he would follow in the footsteps of his hero, United and Ireland captain Johnny Carey, and run out in front of a huge crowd of Irish fans wearing the famous green national jersey.
Liam started his football career at Dublin’s famous football nursery, Home Farm Football Club. Like so many wonderfully gifted players over the years the teenage Whelan was first spotted by Billy Behan, Manchester United’s scout for the Dublin area. Whelan was the star performer in an Eire Schoolboys side which defeated an English Schoolboys side 8-4 in Dublin and Behan sent a telegram to Matt Busby in which he raved about the young Irish kid he has just seen tear the English side apart.
Busby was intrigued and sent first team coach, Bert Whalley, to Dublin for a closer look at the kid from Cabra. Four days after Whalley arrived in Dublin the 18-year old Whelan was put on a boat and sent to Old Trafford to sign as an amateur and play in Matt Busby’s young Manchester United team, the Busby Babes. Within two weeks of his arrival in Manchester, Liam agreed professional terms with Manchester United. Although he was not blessed with lightning pace for an inside-right he possessed other skills in abundance; he was athletic, a quick thinker, a magnificent dribbler and he could ghost past defenders with a deft shimmy.
Three days after he arrived in Manchester Busby was so impressed with the young Irishman in training that he handed him a place in the Manchester United Youth Team which played Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Youth Team in the 1st leg of the inaugural FA Youth Cup at Old Trafford on 4 May 1953. Liam replaced the injured John Doherty and scored in United’s 7-1 win and became an instant success with his team-mates including his fellow Irishmen, Pat Kennedy and Neil McFarlane. Whelan scored again in the 2nd leg in a 2-2 draw which was good enough to win the competition 9-3 on aggregate.
Not many players can lay claim to making their first ever appearance for their club in a cup final and scoring in it to help win the trophy. Not a bad start to what promised to be a glittering career for this affable yet very shy young Dubliner. When he arrived at Old Trafford Johnny Carey told the young Whelan that whatever he did to hold on to his Irish name as the people in Manchester were unaccustomed to Irish names such as Augustine or Liam. However, in the end Liam had no say in it as his teammates started to call him Billy and it stuck with him until he went home for the occasional visit when his family and friends called him Liam.
After retaining the FA Youth Cup on 26 April 1954 defeating Wolves 5-4 on aggregate, the Manchester United Youth Team was rewarded with a trip to Zurich, Switzerland to compete in what was quickly becoming Europe’s premier youth tournament, The Zurich Blue Star Tournament. Billy was in mesmerising form and helped United win the trophy. After Busby’s kids beat Bienne 9-2, Billy scoring 5, Busby gave an interview to the Manchester Evening Chronicle and said:
“I wish you could have been there to see some of Whelan’s five goals at our 9-2 win over Bienne on Saturday. For three of his goals he dribbled through the entire defence and rounded the goalkeeper too!”
Unknown to Busby the Brazilian national team were in the crowd watching the game on a day off from preparing for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals which were being hosted by the Swiss. The South American masters, who would go on to win the World Cup in 1958, were so impressed with the skinny kid from Dublin that Manchester United received enquiries from the famous Santos Football Club from the State of São Paulo, Brazil as to whether they would release him and allow him to play for them.
The young Irishman was very flattered but politely declined the invitation much to the relief of Matt Busby who held high hopes for his yet uncut Irish diamond. Everyone from the first team right down to the third team was fighting for a place in the Manchester United team but such was the camaraderie instilled in the players by Busby and Murphy that not a single ounce of animosity or jealousy was displayed among them. They were all in it together, showing happiness for a friend who broke into the first team yet quietly concealing their own bitter disappointment at missing out. They were as tight a group of players that could be found anywhere in Britain or Europe.
After establishing himself in the United Reserve team Matt Busby decided it was time for Billy to make the step up to the first team and see what he could do. On 26 March 1955, he made his senior debut for Manchester United in their First Division game against Preston North End at Old Trafford. He was handed the No.8 shirt for the game which Northern Ireland’s Jackie Blanchflower had worn 26 times before him that season, scoring 8 goals. The young man from Dublin knew he had to seize the moment and impress his manager, or he may not get another chance to prove how good he was. Things went well for him on his debut helping the team to a 2-0 victory and Busby saw enough to merit Liam’s inclusion in the side for the following Saturday’s visit to Sheffield United.
Whelan was magnificent at Bramall Lane scoring in the game and helping his strikers to four more goals for an impressive 5-0 win. He kept his place in the team for the next five League games but after just 1 win, 1 draw and 3 defeats Busby reinstated Blanchflower for the remaining 3 League fixtures of the season. Jackie repaid his manager’s faith in him by scoring twice in a 3-1 away win over Arsenal and then helped the team to a 1-1 draw at Charlton Athletic before rounding of the campaign with a 2-1 home win over Chelsea on the final day of the season. Manchester United finished in 5th place in the table. Blanchflower was still Busby’s first choice at inside-right at the start of the 1955-56 season although Billy did play in 13 League games and scored 4 League goals to help United to the title and his first senior winners’ medal. His form for United impressed the Republic of Ireland national team’s selectors and Billy was awarded his first cap for his country on 10 May 1956. The Irish travelled to Feyenoord to play Holland in an international friendly and won 4-1.
In season 1956-57, his career at Old Trafford really took off when he was told by Busby that the United No.8 shirt was his to lose. Liam played in 39 of United’s 42 League games, including the first 36 in succession, and scored 26 times in the League to ensure United retained the First Division Championship. In September and October 1956, he was in sensational form scoring in 8 consecutive League games. Billy also played in every Round of the FA Cup for United scoring 4 in 6 games (including the Final where they lost 2-1 to Aston Villa) and also played in United’s first ever game in European competition as well as their following seven legs of the 1956-57 European Cup finding the net 3 times.
A snapshot of just how well he played this season came in the European Cup quarter-finals versus the reigning Spanish La Liga Champions Athletic Bilbao. United visited Bilbao in the Basque Country, Spain on 16 January 1957 for their 1st leg tie. The game was played before 60,000 boisterous Basques at Spain’s oldest stadium, Estadio San Mamés, also known as La Catedral (The Cathedral). The pitch was rock hard and covered in snow with the match played in extremely cold conditions. The partisan home crowd were baying for United’s blood and were calling on their team, Los Leones (The Lions), to maul the English invaders.
The Spanish Champions started the game well and powered their way to a 3-0 half-time lead; Ignacio Uribe Echevarría scoring in the 3rd and 28th minute, Felix Marcaida Aurrecoechea adding the third in the 43rd minute. Talk among the fans on the terraces was of yet more goals in the second half. How right the fans were with first Tommy Taylor (48 mins) and then Dennis Viollet (54 mins) netting for the visitors. Suddenly the Cathedral took on an eerie, almost spooky, silence as the parishioners stood high up on the terraces prayed to the heavens desperately hoping that their team could stop attack after attack reigning down on the Spanish goal from the Champions of England.
These were the nights Busby and Murphy longed for, a chance to show Europe just how good the Busby Babes were. Fear spread throughout the ground before the home fans prayers were finally answered. Armando Merodio Pesquera scored the fourth for Bilbao in the 73rd minute and when José Luis Arteche Muguire netted a fifth in the 78th minute even Busby and Murphy knew that United would have a mountain to climb to turn around a three goal deficit in the home leg at Maine Road (Old Trafford did not have any floodlights at the time). But up stepped Whelan. The Irishman collected the ball deep in his own half, dribbled his way up the pitch leaving five defenders in his wake and scored with a shot so precise it looked like an arrow released from the bow of Robin Hood.
The Savoy Cinema in Dublin showed Whelan’s goal on Pathe News and the whole audience erupted, clapping with delight as they got to their feet. Liam was a local boy and all of Dublin was proud of his achievements in the famous red jersey of Manchester United. Very few people had television sets at the time and no football was being shown on television. Those who were lucky enough to own a TV sat at home and gathered around it to listen to Sports Report on RTE Television on a Saturday evening at 5.00pm.
Liam used to write home and tell his family how good a player the teenage Bobby Charlton was and it would not be long before Charlton would have the football world at his young feet. On his rare trips back home to Dublin, Whelan would sit with his family for ages and tell them about the famous Busby Babes and the superb skills the likes of Byrne, Charlton, Colman and Edwards had, in awe of their ability but an ability he too possessed. Bobby once remarked that he always wanted to be the best player in the world but admitted that as long as Billy Whelan was at United that particular dream would never come true. This was high praise indeed from one of the greatest footballers that has ever graced the beautiful game.
Having scored 33 goals in 53 games during the season, a ratio of better than a goal every two games, Whelan was on his way to becoming a superstar. His 26 goals in the First Division, 4 more than the prolific Tommy Taylor, made him the club’s leading goal scorer in the League. Every boy in Dublin wanted to be the next Liam Whelan. During the season Liam also won 3 more caps for his country; 3rd October 1956 versus Denmark at Dalymount Park, Dublin in a qualifying game for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals to be played in Sweden (Ireland won 2-1); 8th May 1957 versus England at Wembley Stadium, another qualifying game for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals (Ireland lost 5-1) and finally his fourth and final cap for Ireland, versus England at Dalymount Park on 19 May 1957 in yet another qualifying game for the 1958 Fifa World Cup Finals (Ireland drew 1-1). Whelan’s Manchester United team-mates, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, were all in the England team for the game in Dublin.
In season 1957-58, Whelan faced his sternest of tests yet at United when he vied with Bobby Charlton for the inside-right jersey. Bobby had made his debut on 6 October 1956 at centre forward and impressed the Manchester United manager, Matt Busby, scoring twice in a 4-2 First Division home win over Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford just five days before he celebrated his 19th birthday. However, not to be outdone, and to show the new kid on the block that he had a fight on his hands, Billy also scored in the game. The season could not have started any better for Billy, scoring a hat-trick on the opening day of the season when United beat Leicester City 3-0 away at Filbert Street.
In the weeks before the 1957-58 European Cup match in Dublin the city was buzzing with excitement. The Whelan family were inundated with requests for tickets for the game whilst the kids in Cabra, where Liam was born on 1 April 1935, had already played the match on the streets a dozen times before the two teams even met. Everyone wanted to be Liam in those kick-a-bouts but in reality only one boy could be him for the game, with that lucky boy probably the best player among the lads going home afterwards daydreaming that maybe just one day Billy Behan or another United scout would see him play and send him to Old Trafford for a trial with United.
The 1st leg was played in Liam’s home city which United won 6-0 at Dalymount Park. The vast majority of the 45,000 in attendance that day just turned up to see their fellow Dubliner play and he did not disappoint them scoring twice in the game (other scorers: Tommy Taylor 2, Johnny Berry and David Pegg). The victory was all the sweeter for Liam because Shamrock Rovers were bitter rivals in the Irish capital to his former club, Home Farm. Standing on the terraces that day were hundreds of young Irish boys who were all sharing the same wish that that one day they too could pull on the famous red jersey of Manchester United.
One 12-year old boy in particular that evening watched in awe as Whelan cast his magical spell around the ground and was transfixed by the magnificent Irish winger. His name was Eamonn Dunphy, a highly promising young midfielder, who grew up in Drumcondra on the northside of Dublin. Within 5 years Dunphy found himself at Old Trafford as an apprentice but the competition at United at the time was phenomenal and he left in May 1965 to join Millwall without ever fulfilling his dream of playing for Manchester United.
Liam missed the return leg two weeks later which United won 3-2 for a convincing 9-2 aggregate victory (Glenavon were beaten 3-0 on aggregate by the Danish Champions, Aarhus Gymnastikforening, or better known simply as AGF). Is this the moment when Ireland, well Dublin anyway, became Manchester United mad and adopted the team from across the Irish Sea as their own? Or would it be shortly after another game which Liam played in less than five months later? One of the Shamrock Rovers players who scored that day was a former Manchester United trainee, Thomas “Tommy” Hamilton, a native from Bray, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. Tommy never made a first team appearance for United and left Old Trafford in November 1955 to join Shamrock Rovers. He also played for Cork, Hibernian and Limerick. He was a midfielder and he won two caps for the Republic of Ireland, making his debut on 5 April 1959 in a European Championships qualifier against Czechoslovakia at Dalymount Park. The Irish won 2-0. His second and last cap was the return Group game versus Czechoslovakia, a 4-0 defeat on 10th May 1959.
Jimmy “Maxie” McCann played for Shamrock Rovers in both games (he too scored in Rovers’ 3-2 loss at Old Trafford) and when he was once asked what memories he had of them he said:
“I can remember the crowds trying to get up the lane at Dalymount to get into the changing rooms. You had to almost beat your way up. The whole country went bananas when Shamrock Rovers were drawn to play Manchester United. They had lots of great players such as David Pegg, Johnny Berry, and, of course, Duncan Edwards and Liam.”
McCann scored for the Irish side in the 2nd leg at Old Trafford and went on to say that all of the Shamrock Rovers players would have personally known Liam from his Home Farm days and how sad they were when they heard the devastating news that Liam had died in the Munich Air Disaster:
“Liam used to come up to train at Milltown because he was a friend of Tommy Hamilton (Hamilton also played in both games for Shamrock Rovers). He became a friend of all the Shamrock Rovers players then. They had a TV in the bar at Milltown and most of the squad went up to watch the news on the BBC. It was a terrible blow. It was like losing one of your own family. Liam was a really lovely guy.”
Liam played in United’s opening 9 League games of the 1957-58 season in defence of their First Division Championship crown (and hoping to win three titles in a row), scoring 8 times, before missing the trip to Wolves on 28 September 1957 which United lost 3-1. John Doherty who replaced Whelan in the Wolves game scored the United goal. Whelan then played in United’s next 11 League games, scoring 4 more goals, before eventually losing his place in the team to the ever-improving Bobby Charlton. Liam’s final League game for Manchester United was played on 14 December 1957, a 1-0 home defeat to Chelsea.
Bobby replaced Liam for United’s next game, a 4-0 win over Leicester City at Old Trafford on 22 December 1957 with Bobby scoring in the match. The game also marked the debut of Northern Ireland’s international goalkeeper Harry Gregg, a recent acquisition from Doncaster Rovers. Billy never wore the United shirt again and was only on the plane to Yugoslavia for United’s European Cup quarter-final 2nd leg tie versus Red Star Belgrade as a back-up to Charlton. And so, one of the most talented of all of the famous Busby Babes was tragically killed in the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958. It has been claimed that Liam, like his manager, Matt Busby, a regular attender at Church, said
“If the worst happens I am ready for death. I hope we all are.”
as the plane sped down the runway for a third and last time.
Manchester United’s loss was also the Republic of Ireland’s loss and just like Duncan Edwards who also perished in the disaster, the football world were deprived of seeing just how good footballers these two young men would have unquestionably have become. Both were nowhere near their peak with Duncan aged just 21-years old and Billy just 22-years old when tragedy struck. Billy played in 96 games for Manchester United, scoring 52 times, a quite astonishing goals-to-games ratio when you consider that Billy was not even an out-and-out striker.
When his body returned home from Munich it was placed in the gymnasium at Old Trafford and lay alongside those of his six teammates whose lives were also so cruelly ended when the plane crashed (Duncan died from his injuries 15 days after the crash). Seven Busby Babes side by side again for one last time. Liam’s funeral took place at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and was one of the biggest in the history of the cemetery. His cortege left the Christ the King Church on Offaly Road, Cabra close to his parents’ home and slowly made its way through the streets of the north side of Dublin with thousands of fans lining the route to pay tribute to one of their own.
As the funeral procession passed St Peter’s School hundreds of pupils stood with their heads bowed. His coffin was covered in wreaths including one sent by his former teammates, the management and Board of Directors of Manchester United which was a miniature Old Trafford. At one point the hearse carrying his coffin had to wait until the Garda Síochána na hÉireann (the police force in the Republic of Ireland) moved mourners off the road who had spilled off the crammed pavements and on to the path of the funeral route. Many Irish fans still visit his grave today, placing red, white and black flowers on the grave as a mark of respect, to a footballer who quite possibly could have even rivalled George Best for the title of Ireland’s greatest ever player. However, the vast majority of visitors to his grave never saw Billy play yet because of the ever-lasting legacy he left behind, still regard him as one of the best ever footballers to play for Home Farm, Manchester United and Ireland.
On 8 December 2006, the railway bridge on Faussagh Road/Dowth Avenue junction in Cabra was renamed in his honour. Fittingly the unveiling ceremony was performed by Billy’s close friend and Manchester United teammate Sir Bobby Charlton. Speaking about Billy Sir Bobby said:
“Billy had brilliant close control and was a natural goal scorer. His forte was to scheme, to shape possibilities with his skill and excellent vision. He scored so many goals from midfield he would be a wonder of today’s game.”
Nice words from the Manchester United legend who dubbed Old Trafford “The Theatre of Dreams.” When he was a young boy Liam had to cross the bridge to go to school, cross it to attend practice at Home Farm FC and cross if to visit Dalymount Park to watch the Republic of Ireland play. Even today the people of Cabra, quite rightly, speak with enormous pride about Liam whilst the plaque serves as a lasting memory to the people of the area and reminds the children growing up that their area was home to one of the greatest players Manchester United ever had, Liam Whelan a Busby Babe. And who knows maybe one day Cabra may present Manchester United with another William Augustine Whelan. The inscription on the plaque on the Liam Whelan Bridge reads:
“To honour the memory of Liam Whelan. A Cabra boy who played for Ireland and Manchester United. A Busby Babe who died in the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. Aged 22 years.”
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern led a memorial service on Saturday 2 February 2008 at Liam Whelan Bridge and two days later the Irish national postal body “An Post” issued a 55 cent postage stamp to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster which showed a photo of Liam. On 6 February 2008, exactly 50 years to the day the disaster occurred, the Republic of Ireland played an international friendly against Brazil at Croke Park, Dublin in memory of those who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster.
Manchester United’s John O’Shea played in the game as did former United player Liam Miller. The Irish lost 1-0 with Robinho scoring for the Brazilians. Many sports writers likened Whelan’s style of play as being relaxed, a player who shuffled along the pitch with ball skills a conjuror would have been proud, a dummy salesman as it where to his unsuspecting customers, defenders. He was put quite simply, pure poetry in motion.
When I was writing my book,
“Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish,”
I interviewed Father David McGarry (Parish Priest of The Roman Catholic Parish of St Catherine of Siena, Didsbury, Manchester) who was coached at St. Bede’s College, Manchester by Johnny Carey during the late 1940s remembers the artistry of Liam Whelan:
“Billy Whelan was a very unusual player. One day I was watching him from the Scoreboard End at Old Trafford and I saw him walk up to a full-back with his knees in a high step with the ball at his feet. He mesmerised the poor chap as he walked along the dead ball line. In many games there are certain magic moments which capture the beauty of football. I’ll never forget the grace of Billy Whelan and I bet those standing beside me in in the Scoreboard End that afternoon will never forget him either.”
The above is taken from my book – Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish (Publisher: Simon & Schuster).