April 23, 2024

Liam (Billy) Whelan


Irish Footballers that Played for Manchester United – Liam Whelan

Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan – Introduction

Liam, or Billy, Whelan was born in Cabra on the northside of Dublin in 1935. He played for that famous football nursery, Home Farm and was scouted by Billy Behan. Whelan played as an inside forward and had his life not been cut tragically short he was surely destined to become one of Ireland’s greatest footballers. Although not blessed with real pace he was an enormously gifted player with a deadly eye for goal. In his short career with Manchester United, during the era of the Busby Babes, his scoring record was slightly better than a goal in every two games. His early death at the age of just 22 meant that he played on just four occasions for the Republic of Ireland.

Billy Whelan & Manchester United

The famous Manchester United scout, Billy Behan, spotted Liam Whelan while he was playing for Home Farm in Dublin. Behan new that he had unearthed a rare gem of a footballer and didn’t hesitate to recommend Whelan to the then United manager Matt Busby. Liam Whelan signed for Manchester United on the 1st of May 1953.

Whelan began his career with the Red Devils by winning a FA Youth cup medal. He made his debut for the first team in an away league match against Preston North End on the 26th March 1955. Manchester United won the match 2-0. Whelan retained his place in the team and made his Old Trafford debut a week later against Sheffield United in 5-0 victory. Liam Whelan scored the second goal making him an instant hit with the United supporters.

Liam Whelan’s Career Blossoms at Manchester United

Whelan retained his place in the team for the rest of the 1954/55 season as Manchester United finished in fifth place behind league winners Chelsea. During the next season Whelan appeared intermittently as he acclimatised to the rigours of full-time professional football. It wasn’t until the 21st January 1956 that he notched his next goal for United in a 3-1 away defeat to Preston. In that first full season with Manchester United Billy Whelan made 14 appearances and scored four goals as United won the First Division by a huge eleven point margin (this was the era when a win was worth just two points) over second-placed Blackpool.

Manchester United and Liam Whelan started the 1956/57 season in tremendous form. Whelan scored twelve goals in the first seventeen league matches that season. He also scored a hat-trick near the end of the season in a 3-1 away victory against North-west rivals Burnley. During that season United retained the First Division title beating Tottenham Hotspur into second place. This time the margin was eight points with United scoring 103 goals in the League. Liam Whelan scored 26, or a quarter, of the goals scored in the League in the 1956/57 season.

Billy Whelan Dies in the Manchester United Munich Air Disaster

Billy Whelan started the 1957/58 season in a sensational manner by scoring a hat-trick in an away win over Leicester City. Despite scoring a further eight goals during that season Whelan’s place in the team came under pressure from the emerging Bobby Charlton. There is no doubt that manager Matt Busby would have found a way to accommodate these two prodigious talents but as fate would have it Liam Whelan played his last game for United on the 14th December 1957. Whelan scored his last goal for Manchester United in 4-3 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur two weeks earlier.

Following two years of domestic football domination Matt Busby’s focus was on winning the European Cup in the 57/58 season. United had eased their way into the quarter finals by beating Dukla Prague and Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers in previous rounds. Liam Whelan had scored two second-half goals in a 6-0 victory over Rovers at Dalymount Park in the September. Despite losing his place to Bobby Charlton, Billy Whelan was very much in the frame and found himself in the Manchester United squad for the European Cup quarter final away leg against Red Star Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. United qualified for the semi-finals via a 5-4 aggregate win with Whelan’s rival, and friend, Bobby Charlton scoring three goals over the two legs.

On the flight home from Belgrade British European Airways Flight BEA 609 had to stop in Munich, Germany to refuel. The weather conditions were atrocious and the runway was affected by snow and slush. Following two failed attempts to get airborne, for the flight to Manchester, Captain James Thain failed to gain enough velocity to get off the ground and the aircraft careered through a fence past the end of the runway. The port wing hit a nearby house and was torn off and the plane burst into flames.

In the moments leading up to the crash it is reported that Liam Whelan, a devout Roman Catholic, said “If the worst happens, I am ready for death. I hope we all are.” At the age of just 22 the football genius Liam Whelan was lost to the world of soccer. A truly tragic loss for his family, friends, Manchester United, and the Republic of Ireland.

Manchester United Legend Bobby Charlton’s Views on Billy Whelan

In his autobiography had the following to say about the Manchester United and Ireland midfielder:

“… Billy Whelan, the man so admired by the Brazilians … was tall and nothing quite as quick as Viollet. His forte was to scheme, to shape possibilities with his skill and excellent vision. Yet Whelan scored so many goals from midfield he would be a wonder of today’s game. In 1956-57 he finished with a stunning twenty-three, three more than the club’s top scorer the following season, Viollet.”

Liam Whelan – Republic of Ireland Career

Liam Whelan won four caps for the Republic of Ireland but despite his magnificent scoring record with Manchester United he did not manage to score for his country. Whelan made his debut for Ireland in a friendly against Holland at Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam on the 10th May 1956. Ireland won the match 4-1. His other appearances for Ireland were during the 1958 World Cup Qualification campaign.

Liam Whelan’s Appearances for Ireland

Match Type
10 May 1956
Feyenoord Stadium, Rotterdam
1 – 4
03 Oct 1956
World Cup Qualifier
Dalymount Park, Dublin
2 – 1
08 May 1957
World Cup Qualifier
Wembley Stadium, London
5 – 1
19 May 1957
World Cup Qualifier
Dalymount Park, Dublin
1 – 1

References :
Sir Bobby Charlton – My Manchester United Years – The Autobiography; Bobby Charlton with James Lawton (2007); Headline Publishing Group

Liam Whelan – Manchester United & Ireland Statistics

Liam Whelan was born on
1st April 1935 in Dublin
Liam Whelan died in
6 February 1958
Playing Position
Inside Forward
Joined Manchester United
1st May 1953
Manchester United Debut
26 March 1955 V Preston NE
Last Appearance for Man Utd
14 December 1957 V Chelsea
Left Manchester United
1958 (Died in Munich air crash)
No. of Games Played for Utd
Goals scored for Man Utd
52 (Ratio 53%)
Honours Won by Liam Whelan
1st Div – 1956 & 1957
Other Clubs
Home Farm
Republic of Ireland Caps
Goals scored for Ireland


Manchester United History – Irish Man Utd Players

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Derek Brazil Tommy Breen – Shay Brennan – Ronnie Briggs – David Byrne – Noel Cantwell
Johnny Carey Joe Carolan – Roy Carroll – Tom Connell – Gerry Daly – Bernard Donaghy – Mal Donaghy
Tony Dunne Pat Dunne – Jonny Evans – Sonny Feehan – Darron Gibson – John Giles – Keith Gillespie
Don Givens Harry Gregg – Ashley Grimes – Mickey Hamill – David Healy – Denis Irwin
Tommy Jackson Michael Keane – Roy Keane – Paddy Kennedy – Davy Lyner – Mick Martin
David McCreery Noel McFarlane – Pat McGibbon – Chris McGrath – Paul McGrath – Sammy McIlroy
Sammy McMillan Walter McMillen – Liam Miller – Kevin Moran – Tommy Morrison – Phil Mulryne
Jimmy Nicholl Jimmy Nicholson – Liam O’Brien – John O’Shea – Patrick O’Connell – John Peden
James Robinson Paddy Roche – Jackie Scott – Tom Sloan – Frank Stapleton – Billy Toms
Anthony Whelan Liam Whelan – Norman Whiteside

Manchester United Blog – Manchester United Supporters Clubs


Liverpool History – Liverpool Irish Players – Liverpool Supporters Clubs
Glasgow Celtic History – Celtic’s Irish Players


Irish Footballers
Liam Brady – Damien Duff – Eamon Dunphy – Robbie Keane – Niall Quinn