Liam Whelan: Manchester United and Ireland’s lost genius

Anyone that has been to Old Trafford will have noticed a plaque on the wall of the East Stand in honour of the victims of the Munich Air Disaster on February 6th 1958 in which 23 people lost their lives, 8 of them Manchester United players. There is also a Munich clock at the stadium stopped at 3:04, the time of the crash.

While most fans of Manchester United nowadays were probably not even born when this tragedy occurred, you will still see youngsters and young adults among the hustle and bustle of match days outside Old Trafford, stop and pause at the plaque or clock. They reflect on the events that took place and try to comprehend the grief and sadness that must have surrounded the club at that time and the years following it.

As the 58th anniversary occurs we once again remember those who died.

United fans gathered outside Old Trafford under the memorial plaque to sing the ‘Flowers of Manchester’ on Tuesday last before the home game against Stoke City, the nearest home tie to the February 6th anniversary. Families of those killed in the disaster joined them. They joined the fans at the game in which a giant surfer flag was passed around the stadium celebrating the Busby Babes and the fallen heroes. The ‘Flowers of Manchester’ was played over the public address system. Both teams wore black armbands and the united club flag flew at half mast. A second service will be held on February 6th at the time of the crash as is tradition at the club.

Eight of the fated ‘Busby Babes’ side died in the crash as they made their way home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade. They were Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Geoff Bent and Irishman Liam Whelan. They were among the twenty three people who perished that day including eight journalists and three club officials.

While many regard George Best or Roy Keane as the greatest Irish player ever for Manchester United, Liam Whelan, many say, would have gone on to achieve great things in Manchester had he not lost his life so young. Liam Whelan’s death was not only felt in Manchester but also in Cabra, Dublin, his hometown. Billy Whelan as he was affectionately know, was a promising footballer with a great career both at club level and International level, cruelly robbed from him at the young age of 22.

Whelan was said to be a young genius of the game who never forgot his roots. Born on April 1st 1935, he went on to play for Dublin youth side Home Farm. It wasn’t long before he caught the eye of famous Manchester United scout Billy Behan. He broke into the team at the tender age of 18, to be joined there two years later by Bobby Charlton.

In his four seasons at Manchester United Whelan made 98 first team appearances. He scored 52 goals in all competitions for the club. He played four times for the Republic of Ireland but unfortunately failed to score for his beloved nation. He was United’s top goal scorer in the 1956/57 season when his team won the old First Division championship.

In the 1957/58 season, as First Division champions, Manchester United became the first English club to play in the European Cup, a competition that was, up to that point, dominated by Real Madrid but held in low esteem by the English Football Association. They reached the quarter-finals, where they beat the Yugoslav champions, Red Star Belgrade, the second leg taking place in Serbia. The flight they took back to England stopped off for re-fuelling in Munich. While the passengers waited in the Munich terminal building snow began to fall heavily. Two take off attempts were aborted. The passengers were asked to disembark while minor repairs were carried out.

Just before the plane took off for the third time Whelan was overheard by one of the other passengers to remark nervously to one of his teammates “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready.” Tragically, it was the time. The tragedy was made even worse when not long after it emerged Whelan had asked Busby if it was possible to miss the trip and return home to Ireland as he often had done in the past with Busby’s permission.

Unfortunately on this occasion Busby decided it would be best if he travelled to with team. That decision bore heavy with Busby in the aftermath of the crash and he lived the rest of his life with that regret. Manager Matt Busby recalled years afterwards that “had he been spared, he would have been one of the greatest players of all time”.

Albert Scanlon a Busby Babe and himself a Munich survivor said of Whelan: “Billy was a magician with a ball at his feet. I really don’t think he knew how good he was and how much better he could have become. A world-class forward. There is no doubt about that. His vision and passing was sheer class.”

Whelan’s funeral in Dublin, one week after the crash was one of the biggest Dublin has ever seen. In 2006 the railway bridge in Cabra was named after him. He used to cross that bridge on a daily basis as a young boy in Cabra. Former teammate Bobby Charlton came to Dublin for the unveiling of the plague on the bridge alongside Whelan’s family. Charlton himself survived that fateful day. He went on to both club and International success, Whelan’s family and fans were left to wonder what might have been.

An Post commemorated the 50th anniversary by launching a specially designed stamp featuring Whelan’s image and that of the Munich Memorial Clock at Old Trafford.

The events of the 6th of February 1958 define the club more than any trophy it has won in its history. Manchester United fans are united across the world on February the 6th each year and forever more will be. The events on that day are deep rooted in the club and are the foundation for the success the club has had since and will be in the future. Legends at the club like George Best, Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo among many more will go down in the history books for what they achieved at the club. Liam Whelan and his seven teammates who perished will never be forgotten at Manchester United as they lost their lives playing a game they loved, for a club they loved.

It is impossible to know what the club would have achieved had the disaster not occurred, however some things we will never know. What is for sure that on the day Manchester United not only lost Liam Whelan, Ireland lost a promising star that would have gone on to make a name for himself in the football world rather than be remembered as a victim of tragedy. Ireland too were robbed of a football genius.

Written by Damien McEvoy

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