Former Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes, one of the survivors of the Munich air disaster who went on to win the European Cup, has died aged 81.

United said Foulkes passed away in the early hours of Monday morning.

Foulkes made his debut for United in 1952 and went on to play 688 times for the club - a figure only surpassed by Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes.

Foulkes, whose father and grandfather had both played rugby league for his home town St Helens, started work as a coal miner and was still going down the pit at Lea Green Colliery in the mid-50s, by which time he was a regular member of Matt Busby's United first team and had won his only England cap, in 1954.

After the Munich tragedy, he took over the captaincy and became the leader of the 'Busby Babes'.

He played for United for his whole career, the highlight coming near the end of his playing days when he was part of the 1968 European Cup-winning team, aged 36. Foulkes had played a key part in the semi-final too, scoring the winning goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Foulkes was born in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1932, eventually starting work as a coal miner. He was playing football for the Whiston Boys club when he was spotted by United, joining the club in 1950, turning professional in 1951 and making his debut in a 2-1 win over Liverpool in December 1952.

Foulkes soon matured into a fearsome defender: "He was as hard as nails, as tough as teak," recalled his former team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton. "You didn't want to catch one of his swinging arms or elbows and I was glad that I never had to play against him."

Foulkes was twice called up to the England Under-23 team, and then capped for England, playing at right-back against Northern Ireland on October 2 1954. It was, however, the first and last time he played for England despite going on to win four league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup.

The defining moment in Foulkes' life came in 1958 when he survived the Munich air crash where 23 players, journalists and officials died when the plane carrying the Manchester United team back from Yugoslavia crashed on take off in snowy conditions after stopping to refuel.

Foulkes said in a 1998 interview: "The plane was bouncing along and obviously not going fast enough and then suddenly there were three tremendous sickening thuds and everything was spinning around. A second later I was sitting in my seat with my feet in the snow."

Unhurt, apart from being struck on the head by a bottle of gin that fell from an overhead locker, Foulkes did what he could to help the injured and spent the night in a hotel with Harry Gregg.
Foulkes visited his team-mates in hospital the following morning, including Charlton, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Viollet, Albert Scanlon and Ray Wood.

"I was just beginning to think it didn't look too bad when I asked where the rest were. The nurse simply shook her head and said: 'That's it, everybody else has died'."

After the disaster, Foulkes became club captain but struggled to cope with the memories and later said it was many years before he enjoyed football again.

He was part of the United team that won the FA Cup in 1963, and the league again in 1965 and 1967, which led to the ground-breaking European Cup triumph of 1968.

Foulkes played a hero's part in the semi-final against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu to secure a 4-3 aggregate win for United.
Charlton said: "I couldn't believe what he was doing in the Madrid penalty area in the first place, something must have been triggered in his mind, then George Best crossed it and Bill side-footed the ball into the back of the net."

Foulkes retired from playing in 1970, but stayed with United as a youth coach until 1975 before coaching abroad in the USA, Norway, and Japan.