William Augustine Whelan, Liam or Billy for short, was born on the 1 April 1935 in Dublin, Ireland and came from a large family. His father dies in 1943 when he was just eight years old. He, alongside David Pegg, was just 22 when he died. On the fateful day in Munich, Germany it is said that Whelan, who was not a confident flyer, as the plane was aiming to take off, said; “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready.”
Whelan began his footballing career at Home Farm before signing for Manchester United as an 18-year-old in 1953. He was capped four times by the Republic of Ireland but did not score a single goal during his short international career. His brother, John Whelan played for both Shamrock Rovers and Drumcondra FC during his footballing career. Whelan made his United debut on the 26 March 1956 aged 19.
“This is one of most interesting, ‘What if’s?’ Billy Whelan was far too good to not be in first team, but then again so was Bobby Charlton. They could play together, with Billy at 8 and Bobby at 10, but what about Dennis Viollet?!
“Billy did look slow, but was one of quickest in a sprint! He would have dominated the Republic of Ireland side so would have got world exposure. The only fault you could see was that he was just a happy lad, where was the ruthlessness? But then again, did he really need it, considering his goal record?”
Whelan’s first goal for United came in the 5-0 victory over Sheffield United on the 2 April 1955, a day after his 20th birthday. He scored a total of 52 goals in 98 appearances, showing his ability of the game and his eye for a goal, seemingly scoring an average of 0.53 goals per match, which is a good return for a forward. He scored his last goal against Tottenham Hotspur on the 30 November 1957 scoring ten braces in his career and two hat-tricks.
United’s first team was strong at the time of the disaster and Whelan was being kept out of the team by Bobby Charlton and he did not play against Red Star Belgrade on the 5 February 1958, the day before the tragedy in Munich. Whelan was buried at the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and has been remembered in his home city of Dublin.
On the 6 December 2006, the railway bridge on Fassaugh Road/Dowth Avenue junction in Cabra, Dublin 7 close to Dalymount Park was renamed in his honour. This was initiated and organised by members of the Cabra, GAA club, Naomh Fionbarra and sanctioned by Dublin City Council in early 2006. It is close to St. Attracta Road, the street in which Whelan was born. It was unveiled by Sir Bobby Charlton.
Just over a year later, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, Irish national postal body An Post issued a 55¢ postage stamp displaying an image of the player, which was a fitting memorial for the Irishman. Many will think about what could have been if the disaster never happened. Perhaps Whelan would have competed with Charlton for his position in the team – who knows?
A broken plane, a broken dream, a broken heart, a broken team, no word said, a silent vow, we loved you then, we love you now. We’ll never die.
Written by John Walker