You are probably not familiar with the name William Augustine Whelan. You may not even be familiar with the name by which he was better known, Liam or Billy Whelan. But he was, and still is, the great ‘lost genius’ of Irish football. He hated flying, which is ironic, because he is also one of this country’s most celebrated air crash victims.
Whelan was born on April Fool’s Day 1935 and spent his footballing life making fools of many defenders, amateur and professional alike. Like so many gifted young footballers he played for the great Dublin youth team Home Farm before progressing into the very top of the professional ranks when he was scouted and signed by Manchester United. He was one of the Busby Babes, playing in the position then known as ‘inside forward’ – today he would be an attacking midfielder. His boss was the great Scottish manager Matt Busby who, in the 1950s, was in the process of assembling a young squad and building them into one of the premier European sides.
Whelan might have expected to serve the sort of long rugged apprenticeship customary for young professional footballers in the 1950s. Lots of boot cleaning and maintenance and the distant hope of making it to the top level. But he actually broke into the United first team at the age of 18 where he was joined two years later by another teenager, from Northumberland, one Robert Charlton.
In his four seasons at Manchester United Whelan made 98 first team appearances. He averaged more than a goal every two games, scoring 52 in all competitions for the club. He played four times for the Republic of Ireland but did not score. He was United’s top goal scorer in the 1956/57 season when his team won the old First Division championship. With 26 goals in the League Whelan contributed a quarter of United’s total that season.
In the 1957/58 season, as First Division champions, Manchester United became the first English club to play in the European Cup, a competition, up to that point, dominated by Real Madrid but held in low esteem by the English Football Association. They reached the quarter-finals, where in early February, 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. A direct Belgrade to Manchester flight was beyond the range of the Airspeed Ambassador plane in which the team travelled. 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 and fatalistically to one of his teammates “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready.” Tragically, it was the time. The Airspeed Ambassador hit slush at the end of the runway, slowing the plane down. It did not now have sufficient speed to take off and skidded through a barrier, collided with a house, breaking in two pieces. 23 of the 44 passengers and crew died, including eight of the 17 Manchester United players on board. Whelan was one of the fatalities.
In 2006 he had a railway bridge named after him in Cabra, not far from Dalymount Park, where he had played with the Irish international team. The unveiling was performed by his teammate and one of the fortunate survivors of the Munich Air disaster, Sir Bobby Charlton, another goalscoring inside forward who lived to realize his potential with World and European Cup medals, 106 caps for his country and the prized Ballon d’Or – world player of the year – in 1966. While Whelan would never have won a World Cup winners medal all the rest that Bobby Charlton achieved was available to him.
Liam Whelan was two months shy of his 23rd birthday when he died, 57 years ago, on this day.