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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

John White on Liam Whelan

50 Years On - Liam Whelan

By John White

My most favourite of the Babes who was lost at Munich almost 50 years ago was Liam “Billy” Whelan, a gentle Irish lad aged 22 and three-quarters. He joined us as an 18 year old from United’s nursery club in Dublin Home Farm and for all of his tragically short life, I don’t believe he knew how good a player he was.

United's coaching staff, however, were under no such illusions. Right from the moment he signed as an l8-year-old with the initial task of replacing the injured John Doherty in the 1953 FA Youth Cup Final against Wolves, he was considered by Matt and the backroom staff to be quality. Liam - or Billy as he quickly became known to us Mancs - starred in a 7-1 first-leg victory that guaranteed the trophy and was penciled in for a very bright future in our red shirt and of course the green shirt of the Irish Republic.

Indeed, so eye catching were his gifts that, following a fabulous individual display in a youth tournament in Switzerland, the club received a discreet inquiry from Brazil about his availability. Needless to say, further interest was not encouraged from the samba boys!

His first team debut was in the 2-0 win against Preston at Deepdale on the 26th March 1955, just a week before his 20th birthday.
He must have played well because he retained his place in the side that thrashed Sheffield United 5-0 the following week at Old Trafford – with Liam scoring on his home debut.

It would be the first of the 43 league goals he would go on to score score. Indeed, in 1956/57 Liam netted 33 times in 53 senior outings - and he wasn't even playing as a front man. He was mostly playing in what we would today call an attacking right-sided midfield position.

He supplemented his League goals tally with 5 in Europe and 4 in the FA Cup to give him 52 goals overall.

He is still 44th on United’s list of all-time goal scorer’s …. and remains ahead of the likes of Roy Keane, Teddy Sheringham, Louis Saha and Joe Jordan to name but a few.

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 (to my mind's eye - I have checked on the website of Dreams!

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.

God bless you and rest in Peace Liam.

Thank you for the time you gave to me (and to all of us when I was just one of those piss-wet through , bright-eyed young United lads all those years ago.)


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