Today is February 6th and the second year in which the Manchester United defender has not been alive to take part in services remembering the young men who perished in the Munich air crash. Bill died in November 2013 at the grand age of 81.
Bill was on that plane and survived to live a full and happy life. But, never far from his thoughts were those who died so young. The lads he played with in the famed Busby Babes side of the fifties.
In 1997 I found myself at the home of one of the finest servants to Manchester United, David Sadler. There I met his former colleague, and lifelong friend, Bill Foulkes.
For my age group, a commanding defender.
I was born in the same year as the Munich air crash. I had two elder brothers who supported Man Utd, so I grew up knowing everything about the great team of the 1960’s.
Never could I have imagined that. years later, I would go on to interview, meet and work alongside some of that team.
Bill Foulkes was already a rock at the centre of the Man Utd defence before that fateful day in Munich. And he went on to continue his distinguished career with them when Sir Matt Busby built a new team in the 60’s.
I have undertaken some emotional interviews on camera over the years. The day I sat down with Bill Foulkes still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time i think about it. Especially today, on the anniversary of the Munich air disaster.
On that day in 1997 I sat down to interview Bill Foulkes about the history of Manchester United with the words of Sadler present in my mind. “He won’t talk about Munich, Vernon. He never does.”
As it turned out I only had to ask one question: “What do you care to recall of that day?”
Bill finished his answer many, many minutes later. Only he spoke. I did not say another word.
When Bill finally stopped recounting his memory of that tragic day, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
David Sadler and his wife sat spellbound and amazed that their friend had suddenly opened up. I’d like to think it was the manner in which i interviewed Bill that encouraged him to speak. But that had nothing to do with it.
More than likely, for Bill Foulkes, it was the right time for him to open up. And, in the home of the Sadler family, he knew he was among friends.
After the camera had been turned off, Dave Sadler pulled me to one side. He said: “I cannot believe it. In all these years, I have never heard Bill talk about the crash like that. In that detail.”
Since that day I have seen Bill Foulkes interviewed on various television stations. Usually when an anniversary of the crash comes around. And each time he tells the story exactly the same.
Here is the transcript of that answer to my one question. The very emotional, very detailed account of the Munich air crash as remembered by one of the best defenders of his day.
Me: “What do you care to recall of that day?”
Bill Foulkes said: “In those days I used to love flying and never thought anything of feeling fear. I thought happily that it would not be long before we would be back in Manchester.
“We came down in Munich to refuel. It was snowing heavily. We had a cup of coffee, a biscuit or two and then they asked us to go back in the aircraft. It tried to take off the first time and didn’t make it. It came back and tried again, pulled up short and went back to the terminal.
“We had a cup of coffee and I hadn’t finished my cup of coffee when they said we should get back on the plane as quickly as possible.
“It was then that I felt very nervous.
“I strapped myself in my seat and put my head just below the top of the seat. I felt that we weren’t going to get off.
“It just bounced. It had hit something and just bounced. It went up in the air and bounced for the second time. There was a tremendous thud.
“I lost consciousness for a couple of seconds. When i came to, the plane had split in half right underneath my feat, on a diagonal. I was sitting by the window. And the plane was cut in half on an angle.
“The plane had hit a fuel dump. It was a truck with big canisters of fuel. The back end of the plane went up into the air in a big flame and the front part of the aircraft just went spinning on and on.
“I was sitting looking into space. There was nothing in front of me and nothing under my feet. I took my seatbelt off and just ran
“I could see the whole thing as i turned around. The back end of the aircraft stuck in these flames and a lot of people thrown out. So i started to run back. I saw Harry Gregg with a baby in his arms. I didn’t know there was a baby on board.
“I can see Matt (Busby) sitting up on one hand. I saw a lot of the other boys. The ambulances came. We put Sir Matt on a stretcher. And Bobby was sitting in his seat. He got up and was just standing there dazed and shocked. Dennis Violet, Jackie Blanchflower the same.
“We went to the hospital. I remember asking the doctor there: ‘Where are all the other missing boys. Do you have another hospital?’
The doctor replied: ‘No, this is the only hospital.’
“I realised then that all the other boys had been killed. “It was terrible when i first realised.
“Why they took off, I don’t know. Why they came to the decision to take off… why didn’t they say: ‘this is it, we’ll take off tomorrow if the weather is better.’
“I felt we were robbed. Whatever it was that took the team, a bad decision or bad luck, i don’t know.
“Afterwards, when i was back at the hotel, I took a deck of playing cards from my back pocket. The top of the pack of cards inside the box was sliced off, like by a razor, by a quarter of an inch. So whatever came past and did that, could have cut me in half.
“I’ve often thought about it. I still think about it.”
And today, February 6th, I still think about the day I met Bill Foulkes.