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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Memorial Day for Liam Whelan

by Louise Gavin

It was freezing cold in Dublin on Saturday when the day’s events started on the Liam Whelan Bridge at 12pm. But that didn’t prevent people turning up to see the first part of the events to commemorate Munich and The Busby Babes. 3 wreaths were laid beside Liam Whelan’s plaque - 1 by a member of his family, another by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the last by 2 representatives from the Manchester United Supporter’s Club. There was a minute’s applause and the usual comments of thanks for people who had contributed to organising the day. Then it was onto the church for the memorial Mass

There was a brilliant turnout in the church. The mass leaflets were superbly done, with a picture of the Babes & Liam on the front, and the “Flowers of Manchester” on the back, and there was a montage for the Babes laid on a table on the alter

The mass started with some of Liam’s prized possessions being brought up to the alter - his 1957 FA Cup jersey along with his winner’s medal, his 2 League Championship winner’s medals, 3 Ireland caps and his Home Farm jersey (who he played for before he moved to United).

Bishop Eamonn Walsh is a Red (although he shamefully confessed to straying towards Luton Town when Ashley Grimes went there), and he conducted the service brilliantly. He spoke about Munich in a way that only a Red with a true appreciation for the tragedy can, talking about how much the team had achieved and what they could have gone on to achieve were it not for that fateful afternoon in Munich. He paid tribute to the 23 people who lost their lives, naming each and every one.

He spoke about Liam - the extraordinary footballer and person that he was. 43 goals in 79 games during his 5 year spell was a very impressive strike rate for an inside forward. Seen by many as the brains in the team, journalists used to joke that even though the majority of the Busby Babes would play for England, they could never hope to be as good as when they play for their club, because the cog that binds them altogether is an Irishman. An Irishman who, just before the third attempt at take-off said to Harry Gregg "If this is the end, then I'm ready for it”. An extraordinary thing for a young man of 22 years to say, and something which gave his mother and his family great comfort in their grief.

Before the service ended the Chairman of the Supporter’s Club recited the “Flowers of Manchester” and was met with wonderful applause. The emotion in the church was almost tangible at that stage and when Christy Whelan (Liam’s brother) followed the recital with words of thanks to everyone involved, it was obvious that he was moved by the words of that extremely evocative piece, and of course the occasion itself and the huge numbers who had turned out to pay their respects.

After the Mass it was great to speak to the Whelan family. My friend Brian (Gigsy to us) asked Christy if he remembered playing football with his father (who died of cancer a few years ago), only to learn that Christy didn’t play football with him – but Liam did. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Gigsy was chuffed to bits to hear that his father had played football with the legendary Billy Whelan – it was a special moment in what was already an emotion filled day.

Liam’s sister explained that the club requested Liam’s 1957 FA Cup jersey to be sent over for an event in Manchester – and returned it with big red blotches on it because they washed it wrong! Now why does that not surprise us? But on a positive note, it made the hair stand on the back of my neck when I heard that the Whelan family also have another jersey from that Cup Final in their possession – Duncan Edwards'! Amazing stuff!

Then it was back to the local GAA club for soup & sandwiches to warm us up before watching the 1st half at White Hart Lane – good ol’ Setanta Sports!

At half time we went up to the local football pitch where there was a minute’s silence and a presentation by Paul McGrath before the game. Being the gent that he is, he had no problem posing for photos and signing autographs. He really is a lovely bloke

The football match was played in great spirit and the Cabra lads, in their jerseys with Whelan and number 8 on everyone, were 2-0 up when we left the pitches (they won 6-3 in the end). We had the business of White Hart Lane to attend to and so it was onto McGrath’s in Cabra to watch the second half. As is always the case when you watch football in a pub in Dublin, there was the token mouthy Scouser. Needless to say, there wasn’t a peep out of him after our little Argie diamond scored at the end and the pub full of Reds went ballistic. A chorus of “That’s why we’re champions” made him drink up and go home. A perfect end to a moving, lovely day.


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