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Old 17th October 2009, 05:17   #1
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
Posts: 1,537
Default "50 Years On" - Liam Whelan

50 Years On – Liam (Billy) Whelan

He was probably the quietest in character of the “Busby Babes” but nonetheless, Liam, or Billy as he was known to the fans on the terraces, made more than a significant contribution to the legacy left behind by that wonderful team of young boys.

He was born in Dublin on April 1st 1935. As a youngster, he joined the famous Home Farm club that produced so many players that have graced British football. He had come to the attention of the United scouts in Ireland with some blistering displays for the Home Farm junior teams. His progress was being followed by United’s Irish scouting team, but due to an injury to United’s John Doherty in a Youth team game, his move to Old Trafford was accelerated. United needed a talented replacement for Doherty as they were to play in the Final of the 1953 F.A. Youth Cup Final against Stan Cullis’s young lions from the famed Wolverhampton Wanderers club in the West Midlands.

Billy answered the call and his impact was immediate, seeing him play the starring role in a 7-1 demolition of the young Wolves team. Interesting to read the very first team that United ever fielded in that first F.A. Youth Cup Final; Gordon Clayton; Bryce Fulton, Paddy Kennedy; Eddie Colman, Ronnie Cope, Duncan Edwards; Noel McFarlane, Liam Whelan, Eddie Lewis, David Pegg and Albert Scanlon . That 7-1 win made the second leg a formality and it ended in a 2-2 draw and United were the first ever winners of the FA Youth Cup. Billy had immediately made a huge impression on Tom Curry, Bert Whalley, and most of all, on Jimmy Murphy.

Immediately after the 1952-53 season ended, Manchester United’s Youth team travelled over to Switzerland to play in what was fast becoming Europe’s premier youth tournament – The Blue Star Tournament. Once again, “Billy” turned in some tremendous performances which helped United win the trophy. So well did he play during that tournament that United were to receive enquiries from the Santos Club from Brazil as to whether they would release him and allow him to play for them.

For the next two years, the quiet unassuming young Irishman was left to develop in the Central League team. It was to be an examination of not only his skill, but also his temperament and his courage. The Central League, or Reserve League as it was known back then was a tough environment for young players to come in to. Most teams in that league had a number of older pro’s who were either returning from injury or were seeing out their careers with their clubs… it was certainly not a place for the faint hearted.

United’s coaches kept a watching eye on “Billy’s” development and he became a prolific goal scorer at that level. He also filled out in physique somewhat during those two years. For an inside forward he was tall and gangly standing over 6 feet. But he was deceptive and although a lot of pundits were of the opinion that he lacked pace, that wasn’t true. He covered the ground a lot quicker than a lot of people realized. He had tremendous dribbling skills and could go past players very easily. If there was a weakness in his game it was that he wasn’t a great header of the ball. His passing was a joy to see and like Pat Crerand a few years later, “Billy” had a real eye for the opening and could pass a ball through the eye of needle – long or short.

Off the field “Billy” was quiet and shy. He was the typical young Irish boy, away from his home and his family. There were times when he was homesick and longed to be back in Dublin and woulkd travel back home whenever the opportunity arose, However, like most young men of his age, he was to settle down eventually and he mixed well with the other young boys at United. He shared digs in Stretford with Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards, and Bobby Charlton and was often seen out and about with them.

On 26th March 1955 just five days before his 20th birthday, Matt Busby pitched him into the hurly burly of First Division football by giving him his debut at Deepdale, against Preston North End. A paltry total of just 13327 fans witnessed the likeable young Irishman’s first game at senior level as United won 2-0 with goals by Roger Byrne, and another youngster, Albert Scanlon. The following week he scored his first goal as he helped United go nap against Sheffield United winning by 5-0. “Billy” was to play in the next five games, and although he didn’t score in any of them, he had made a good impression on both the United manager and the coaches… there was still a lot more to come from this talented youngster.

The season 1955/56 was the season in which United’s team of young “Babes” came of age by winning the First Division Championship. “Billy” was used sporadically through that season playing just 13 games and scoring 4 goals .. but it was enough for him to qualify for a Championship winner’s medal. There was some stiff opposition for the inside right berth at that time and appearances throughout that season were also shared by John Doherty, Jackie Blanchflower, and Welshman Colin Webster.

At the start of the 1956/57 season, Busby made “Billy” his first choice inside right, and “Billy” repaid him with some astonishing performances and a bag full of goals. United’s prolific strikers at that time were centre forward Tommy Taylor and inside left Dennis Viollet. It was a fearsome duo and a partnership that scored goals on a regular basis. This was also the season that United went into Europe for the first time and “Billy’s” contribution in that campaign that season can never be underestimated, particularly in the quarter final, first leg tie against Bilbao in Spain.

He scored an incredible 33 goals that season in 54 games (26 in 40 appearances in the League; 4 from 6 appearances in the FA Cup; and 3 from 8 appearances in the European Cup) and this from what would be termed a mid-field player today! When you consider that the strike duo of Taylor and Viollet also scored 34 and 26 goals respectively in all competions, it doesn’t take a genius to see why they retained their league title that season and also reached the FA Cup Final and the European Cup semi-final. 93 goals shared between three players is an astonishing strike rate by any stretch of the imagination especially in top class football.

“Billy” was a joy to watch and if he had a flaw, it was that he didn’t realize just how good he was. At times he seemed to have an inferiority complex. There was so much talent around at Old Trafford at that time, and “Billy” used to wonder if he was really good enough. His performances belied those thoughts. He was such a quiet boy and you would never ever see him in the newspapers or the media. As soon as the game was over he would be bathed and then off home to his digs. For the kids who idolized him at that time, he was always happy to stand and sign their autograph books and never refused. My good friend John White recalls a lovely tale from that season:

“Why was he my favourite? Well, I’ve thought back some 51 years or so and I can only say that it HAD to have been because of the game against Aston Villa at home on 25th February 1956 not long after my 10th birthday and some 5 weeks away from his 21st birthday. Ironically and meaningfully, which has just dawned on me as I was putting this together, it was also less than 2 years away from his death.

It was a typical cold Saturday in February and strangely, I’ve learned that OT was not full as it seemed it was. There were only 36,277 in the ground for the visit of Villa and I honestly remember very little of the detail of the game but I do remember it was pissing down throughout and I did remember that we won 1-0 and Liam scored the winner.

It wasn’t that this goal was THE goal of the century that made him my favourite.
It wasn’t that he’d played out of his skin to win the day that did it either.
It was simply this. I stood around (as lads did back then) in a soaking Duffle coat at the players’ entrance to get autographs as the lads came out after the game. As they started to come out, I’d seen big Dunc dart off followed by Eddie Colman without any hanging about at all. The rain was absolutely atrocious it’s fair to say, but the only man who patiently stood and signed for us lads that evening was Liam. Even our captain Roger Byrne sneaked round the back of the posse of lads gathered around Liam and made off as Liam was encircled by us grateful lads.

I can see him now, with his belted grey gabardine mac and his trilby hat jauntily dripping water all over our autograph books as he signed until there was no-one left waiting. So it’s that night more than anything that made Liam my favourite. It’s also such memories of a hero who had that personal touch that remain with you all your life.”
21 years old and he wore a trilby hat – hard to believe in this day and age. My own memories of him were very similar. He was always one of the gang that would congregate at the Galleon Swimming Baths during the summer. He would be there with his quiet unassuming smile, cigarette in hand as he relaxed and enjoyed the company of his team mates and friends. Like so many of them he was so approachable and especially where kids were concerned.

The 1957/58 season started for him at Leicester City’s Filbert Street Ground in the opening day’s game and he started off where he had left off just a few months before – he scored all three goals in the 3-0 win! He was to score a further 11 goals before on December 21st 1957, he was left out of the team along with Ray Wood, Johnny Berry and David Pegg. Ray Wood’s omission came as no surprise as Busby had paid a world record fee for a goalkeeper earlier in the week when he bought Harry Gregg, the Northern Irish international ‘keeper who came from Doncaster Rovers. When the team changes were announced just half an hour before the return game against Leicester City at old Trafford, I can recall that there was much head shaking and gasps of astonishment.

Manchester United had hit something of a stutter but it seemed to be defensively that they were suffering because the forwards were still scoring goals. Unfortunately the defence had conceded some silly goals in high scoring games that had cost the team points. “Billy’s” last appearance in a first team shirt came at home to Chelsea in a 1-0 defeat on December 14th 1957. He was replaced by Bobby Charlton for the Leicester game.

There was no banging on the Manager’s door and asking for a transfer. He went back into the Reserve team and got on with his game. In my opinion, “Billy” was just too good a player not to have won his place back again and at sometime in the future would have returned. He travelled to Belgrade for the second leg European Cup quarter final tie as one of United’s reserves. The following day, as the ill fated Elizabethan aircraft thundered down the slush filled runway at Munich’s Reim Airport for the third time, he was to utter his final words among the quietness and apprehension inside that aircraft cabin: “If this is death, then I am ready for it” a reference to his religious beliefs. “Billy” was a staunch Roman Catholic who took great comfort from his faith. Sadly, moments after he uttered those words, he left this world so tragically. I’ll always remember his quiet unassuming manner, his lovely smile and Irish brogue, and the fact that he was a wonderful player to watch. The most underestimated player in that great team with a phenomenal strike rate.

Billy played 96 games for Manchester United and scored 52 goals.
He also won 4 caps for Eire.

Sleep on in peace Liam, you are still so loved by your family, friends, and the many fans that were so privileged to see you play.
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