Remembering a Fallen Hero – Liam “Billy” Whelan

One of the very first people Liam Whelan met when he first arrived in Manchester in 1953 was Johnny Carey. The captain of the 1948 FA Cup winning side and the 1952 league winner was approaching the end of his career at this point. The new man, just off the boat, had been signed from the famed Home Farm academy and was highly thought of. The veteran had one piece of advise for him….”whatever you do, hold on to your name”. He had remembered how his name had been changed around upon arriving in England. He was determined the younger man not let the same thing happen. Any footballing advise would have been pointless given his talent. He merely wanted him to be his own man.

Despite initial doubt, a goal-scoring role in that years FA Youth Cup final convinced the manager to sign the then 17 year old on a professional contract. Home sickness was an issue for the youngster for the first few years but he quickly played his way into the side. A radical alteration was happening to the club at the time and he was to the forefront of it. A generation of future stars were emerging through the club’s youth system and beginning to set the league alight. The majority of the 52′ side were replaced with the up-and-coming players. In a system incorporating five attackers, Whelan operated as an inside forward. In today’s tactical language; a false number 9. Opponents did not take the precocious reds too seriously when meeting them in the tunnel. They certainly knew about them afterwards however. The Cabra lad was tall, seemingly awkward looking and ungainly. All deceptive though. It belied his fantastic control and his quick burst of pace. The common nickname for him was ‘The Shadow’. A comparison can perhaps be made with Tottenham’s Harry Kane.

League titles followed in 1955/56 and 1956/57. The Irishman top scoring in the latter year. 26 league goals and 33 overall in a campaign were they were champions of England, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup and the FA Cup. Manager Matt Busby had defied orders from the FA to embark on their debut season in Europe resulting in their burgeoning reputation. Whelan also struck up a keen friendship with fellow Irishmen, Jackie Blanchflower and Harry Gregg. The North-South divide being overcome by camaraderie. Such was the amount of talent bubbling under, his place was under threat. Two months before Munich, Matt Busby decided to shake the side up and dropped Ray Wood, Johnny Berry, David Pegg and Billy for Harry Gregg, Ken Morgans, Albert Scanlon and Bobby Charlton. Remarkable he was playing in the reserves but that’s how fierce competition was. This remained the same up until the quarter-final away to Belgrade.

Most players if they were unlikely to play would be disinclined to travel. More so, in the days prior to the introduction of substitutes. Whelan was also due to be married. In the spirit of togetherness, he went anyway. A narrow victory at home had put the game on a knife-edge. An incredible opening saw the reds open a 3-0 lead, effectively killing the tie. Despite eventually being pegged back to 3-3, another semi-final was lying ahead. A crucial encounter awaited them at home. Wolves were 4 points ahead but United were playing them at home. Conditions hampered their chances of getting back in time for this encounter. The FA demanded them home, threatening points deductions. Team officials, players, staff reluctantly boarded the fateful flight. A pit-stop was required in Munich to refuel but conditions were steadily worsening. The runway was almost like a skate rink. Two take-offs were attempted but failed. The flight was emptied before another one took place. For many, it would be the last time they were seen alive.

When another take-off was attempted, the pilot lost control, crashed through a fence and collided with a house close by. The tail was ripped off and the aircraft exploded. In the wreckage, 20 people lay dead and many injured.  Heroic efforts from emergency crew, fire engine staff and Harry Gregg, saved the lives of many. The heart had been ripped out of the young side however. Eight of the team died immediately or succumbed to injuries in hospital. It was recalled that when conversation turned to possible risk of death, Whelan responded “‘well if it happens I’m ready’.” A city and a country were stunned. The average age of the side was 22, and most were considered vital members of England’s chances in the World Cup that year. The club, dazed and in mourning, had no choice but to continue. It would have been what they wanted. The efforts of Jimmy Murphy, standing in for the injured Busby, cobbled together a selection of youth players, loanees and survivors. An empty programme for the tie against Sheffield Wednesday reveals the poignancy. Amazingly they reached the cup final that year losing to Bolton. The toughest season ever had been completed and the club was still alive.

In subsequent years, the club managed to find its feet again. The holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton was formed and they succeeded in the quest of winning the European Cup final ten years on. Many believed that if Whelan had lived, he and not Charlton, would have been the fulcrum of the team. He was considered that highly. In the aftermath back home, his former team-mates and the general population were devastated. The impact he had made upon the English game made many feel he was destined for greatness. A mere 4 caps to his name showed his international career in its infancy. Who knows what the national side could have achieved under his influence.  Certainly World Cup qualification may have occurred long before 1990.

Time moves on and other stars emerge. British European Airways Flight 609 on February 6th at 15:04 will remain strong in the minds of all Manchester United supporters, whether they were alive at the time or not. Liam was a fundamental part of that side and a primary reason why many Irish reds started supporting the club. His name still resonates to this day. A bridge was named after him in 2006 near his birthplace in Dublin.  When it was defaced with graffiti in 2014, fans of all clubs lay their jerseys over it to cover it up. United, City, Chelsea, Celtic, those from local Eircom League teams and even GAA tops. That’s how much the locals loved him.

The latest tribute is being held in his name as Home Farm host a commemoration at their ground. From humble beginnings to the very top; he never forgot his roots and remained proud of his name. As we all should be.

More Stories Busby Babes Johnny Carey Liam Whelan Manchester United Munich Air Disaster Sir Matt Busby