By Glenn Mason
‘Billy had brilliant close control and was a natural goalscorer. His forte was to scheme, to shape possibilities with his skill and excellent vision. [He] scored so many goals from midfield he would be a wonder of today’s game.’ Bobby Charlton
Sadly we can only but wonder just how good Liam 'Billy' Whelan could have been. At 22 he died far too young to reach anywhere near the peak of his football prowess.
The 'Busby Babes' seemed set to dominate British and even European football for a generation until eight gifted players died when their plane crashed on take-off from Munich airport on 6 February 1958.
Matt Busby's team was made up of several players who had progressed through the youth team and had delivered on their embryonic promise when given their chance in the first team. Back-to-back league titles arrived in 1956 and 1957.
The death of Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards and Whelan sent Manchester and football fans across the world into mourning. The disaster earned United a legion of new fans among those who had not already fallen under the spell of this extravagantly talented team.
Everybody alive on that dreary February day knows where they were when they heard the tragic news that the plane carrying the Manchester United team home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade had crashed. It was the original do-you-know-where-you-were-when moment.
Liam Whelan's funeral at Glasnevin was one of the biggest in the history of the cemetery and the recognition of his talents 50 years later has served as a reminder to those not old enough to know how good he was.
Many Irish players have worn the red of the Old Trafford outfit: from Jackie Carey, Noel Cantwell and Johnny Giles to Paul McGrath, Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. Whelan's talents could have made him the best of them had he not perished when that BEA Elizabethan went down.
Signed from Dublin schoolboy club Home Farm, Whelan quickly gained a reputation as a skilful inside-forward. On a youth team trip to Switzerland in the summer of 1954, the Brazilian World Cup team stopped by to watch United play a local side. According to Bobby Charlton, they were so impressed by Whelan’s ability that they wanted to take him back to Brazil. It is fitting that Brazil provides the opposition for the Republic of Ireland at Croke Park on 6 February.
In the 1956-57 season, Whelan's reputation as a goalscorer was sealed with 26 goals from midfield, including a stunning, and crucial, strike in the cauldron of the San Mames in a European Cup quarter-final tie against Athletic Bilbao.
By the time Manchester United were drawn to play Shamrock Rovers in the 1957-8 European Cup, Whelan was a regular member of the United starting XI. Rovers were no match for United in the first leg at Dalymount Park: United won 6-0 with Whelan getting on the scoresheet.
Jimmy 'Maxie' McCann played for Rovers in that game and recalls the excitement that the visit of the Busby Babes generated among the Irish public: 'I can remember the crowds trying to get up the lane at Dalymount to get into the changing rooms. You had to almost beat your way up.
'The whole country went bananas when Shamrock Rovers were drawn to play Manchester United. They had lots of great players such as David Pegg, Johnny Berry, and, of course, Duncan Edwards and Liam.'
McCann, who scored in the return leg at Old Trafford as United won 3-2, says the Rovers players would have personally known Whelan and that the tragedy at Munich affected them badly.
'Liam used to come up to train at Milltown because he was a friend of Tommy Hamilton. He became a friend of all the Shamrock Rovers players then. They had a TV in the bar at Milltown and most of the squad went up to watch the news on the BBC. It was a terrible blow. It was like losing one of your own family. Liam was a really lovely guy,' he said.
Recognition of Whelan's talent has been shown in many forms over the past week. An Post issued a 55c stamp bearing his image, which was accompanied by a game in his honour.
The official commemorations take place this week with a club ceremony on 6 February and the potentially volatile Manchester derby on 10 February when both sides will wear retro shorts without sponsors' logos.
It is apt that Manchester United are keen to pay appropriate tribute to a side that played football with passion and that had an ability to enliven and enrich people's lives. 50 years on, the legacy of the Busby Babes remains untarnished.