Bill Foulkes will “stand proud” alongside the footballing greats of Manchester United, Sir Bobby Charlton told mourners at his funeral yesterday.
Sir Bobby was among former team-mates who attended a requiem mass in thanksgiving for the life of the defender who survived the Munich air disaster in 1958 and went on to lift the European Cup a decade later.
He spoke of Foulkes’ heroism in returning to the wreckage of the plane crash to help fellow passengers on the icy runway in Germany as they returned from a European Cup tie.
He also recalled his crucial, and unlikely, clinching goal in the 1968 semi-final tie against Real Madrid which set up the first triumph by an English club in the competition.
Also paying tribute at the service was Foulkes’ son, Stephen, who said his father was always a competitive and uncompromising man but his determination grew after Munich as he “bore a responsibility” to fulfil the legacy of the spirit of a team he loved.
Even when suffering from Alzheimer’s he would always welcome autograph requests from supporters and obligingly give his signature despite his condition, he said.
Among those joining his family and friends, including wife Theresa and children Stephen, Geoffrey and Amanda, at St Vincent de Paul RC Church in Altrincham, Cheshire, were ex-team-mates Denis Law, Alex Stepney, Pat Crerand and Brian Kidd. Also in attendance was Manchester City great Mike Summerbee and former United star Bryan Robson.
A floral tribute was sent by former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and his family.
St Helens-born Foulkes, 81, was one of the club’s longest-serving players with 688 appearances. Sir Bobby said his first memory of “Billy” was him turning up at The Cliff training ground with an unwashed face from his shifts as a miner at a colliery in his home town. He said his will to train one-and-a-half hours every Tuesday and Thursday night had “inspired me and many other players”.
“Billy was a great defender and a giant in the air,” said Sir Bobby. “Tough as teak. He was one of the really really great footballers. When I say great, he was great at what he did.”
Recalling the Munich tragedy, he said: “Harry Gregg (fellow survivor) and Billy Foulkes on their own took it upon themselves to help in any way they could by actually going back into the aircraft. Something I always find interesting is he never once mentioned it when we were in conversation.”
He said the pair had “heroically saved many many lives” and he and others were “ever so grateful”.
Sir Bobby said the 1968 European Cup triumph against Benfica must have given Foulkes great satisfaction after all he had gone through in Munich.
Speaking of the goal that knocked out Real Madrid in the semi-final, he said: “The last goal was unique. George Best took the ball to the dead-ball line. He crosses the ball and you are hoping someone is there to knock the ball in the back of the net.
“There was someone there...in a red shirt. Billy Foulkes was there and I thought ‘what are you doing there, you have never crossed the halfway line in donkey’s years’. And he just side-footed the ball as elegantly as anyone ever played it and we go into the European Cup final for the first time. It was the most sensational thing. It was a great thing that Billy had scored this goal. It will be remembered everywhere in football terms. It was unique.”
He said it was the early stage of the club’s European football history which had progressed to “a most fantastic story”.
“He was a great player,” Sir Bobby added. “He was a fighter. He stands proud with the many stars who have graced Old Trafford. He will be remembered for his important part in this club’s history.”
Sir Bobby told his widow he was grateful that Foulkes was a friend and that he was “a good, honest man” of whom his family could be proud.
His son, Stephen, told the congregation that his family had drawn great comfort from the many kind words they had read in the press and social media.
He said descriptions of “determined, non-compromising, competitive, hard” were words that definitely applied to his father. “That was him, through and through,” he said.
“He worked hard and he trained hard to make himself physically the best he could be.”
His father studied many sports and was ahead of his time in concentrating on weight training and diet to give himself an edge when no-one else focused on such things at the time.
But the keen golfer with a love of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan was also sentimental and particularly so with his grandchildren.
Foulkes made many great friends in his later coaching stints in the United States, Norway and Japan, and would always enjoy recalling his playing days for Manchester United – and was honoured to have been invited by the club to the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow.
Munich was a key part in his life and he earned plaudits when he led the team out at Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days after the crash which claimed the lives of several players.
His son said: “He was determined before, and afterwards that determination grew even higher.
“He loved the spirit of that team. He felt he bore a responsibility to that legacy. That legacy brought a bond with the supporters that is still here today.”
Foulkes went on to suffer from the “dreadful condition” of Alzheimer’s, said his son, but his determination remained.
“It was almost as if it was hard-wired into his fabric.”
Supporters would often approach him for autographs and he always obliged even when he found it a struggle to spell his name, he went on. “The effort and concentration he put into trying to sign it was sometimes heart-breaking to watch,” said his son, “but it was important to him.
“It was part of the responsibility in fulfilling that legacy.”
He said the family had read a lot of messages from supporters on social media, including, gratefully, many from Manchester City fans, some describing how they had met him. “He had given them time, they felt he was a gentleman (they wrote),” he said, “and he would have been pleased with that.”
The family requested donations in lieu of flowers to Alzheimer’s Research UK.