William ‘Liam’, ’Billy’, Whelan made his Central League bow for Manchester United in January 1954 as an eighteen year old.
Despite this uncompromising physical environment, Whelan made an immediate impression as inside forward with six goals in his first seven games, including a hat-trick in a 7-0 win at Derby County.
He ended that campaign with 7 goals in 11 appearances overall. With a return of 16 in 26 games the following season, it was clear he would deserve a chance sooner or later in the first team. When that came, he grabbed it, scoring in only his second game.
Alongside Bobby Charlton, Whelan formed a fearsome partnership in the second string, and in the 55/56 season he scored twenty times, which included a run of nine goals in seven games in the autumn. Not that the Irishman was a ‘streaky’ scorer. He consistently delivered.
First team chances came fleetingly – in thirteen outings, he managed a decent return of 4 goals.
From the 56/57 season onwards, Whelan was an ever-present in the United first team, just about. He scored 26 goals to help United win the league in 1957 and had scored 14 in 24 by 6th February 1958.
His team-mates were almost universal in praise of him. Bill Foulkes said that he could look slow and moved awkwardly but his ball control was exceptional – Albert Scanlon said that Whelan was a ‘magician’ with the ball with great vision. Bobby Charlton has said in more recent years that Whelan would suit today’s game. There’s a temptation, almost, to describe him as a Berbatov or Matt Le Tissier style forward.
His place in the first team had ironically come under threat by Bobby Charlton’s emergence – once his partner in crime, now he was battling with his friend for a starting spot. Whelan, like his team-mates, accepted the challenge and scored at Barnsley in a 6-5 defeat in his first game back in the stiffs in January 1958.
His performance in a 4-3 win against Wolves was enough to get him back in contention to make the trip to play Red Star. He was amongst those who did not play and sadly lost their lives.
For United historian Roy Cavanagh, who wrote this biography of Whelan, this was a player whose potential was huge. Cavanagh says: “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?”
There was no doubting that Whelan was a valuable member of the United squad and had a remarkable record of 52 goals in 98 games for the first team.
He may well have divided opinion on whether or not his undoubted immense talent was enough to get him a place in the hugely competitive United team at the time – which just goes to show how incredible they were – but one thing that everyone would agree on was that Whelan was a world class talent whose potential was nowhere near realised yet.
This article is part of a ‘Lost Babes’ series. If you have enjoyed it, please consider purchasing the forthcoming biography of Jimmy Murphy, “The Man Who Kept The Red Flag Flying”. The book has been heavily researched and is the official biography of his life as authorised by the Murphy family.
Additionally, this series will not feature Duncan Edwards in great detail. So much has been written about Duncan that there was little point writing an individual feature about him, but he was featured in the first in this series which included Eddie Colman. Tommy Taylor will also not feature due to the intention of this series, to shine a light on those young players who came through the Central League, and to present some facts and figures that most supporters are unlikely to know.
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