Less than five months later, the Irishman would perish along with seven team-mates in the Munich Air Disaster. This week marks the 56th anniversary of the tragedy.
Whelan was born in Cabra in 1935 and played with the renowned nursery Home Farm before joining the great Manchester United where he won an FA Youth Cup medal. Such were his performances that some reports suggest ‘Billy,’ as he came to be known, was once scouted by clubs in Brazil following his displays in a youth tournament in Switzerland.
The inside-right made his senior début in 1955 against Preston North End. He went on to make 95 first-team appearances in four seasons at Old Trafford, scoring 52 goals. In the 1956-57 season he finished as the club’s top scorer with 33 goals in all competitions as United won their second successive First Division league title and reached the semi-finals of both the European Cup and FA Cup.
Although he lost his place in the side to Bobby Charlton, Whelan was a key member of Matt Busby’s squad attempting to capture the European Cup in 1958. Along their way to reaching the semi-finals, United faced Shamrock Rovers and Whelan scored twice in a 6-0 win at Dalymount Park.
Whelan was just 22-years-old when he died in the plane crash following the quarter final away leg against Red Star Belgrade on February 6th, 1958. During the attempted take-off, Whelan is reported to have said: “If the worst happens, I am ready for death. I hope we all are.” Twenty-three people died in total including three United staff and eight journalists.
Whelan was capped four times for Ireland making his début in a friendly against the Netherlands in Feyenoord and played twice against England in the 1958 World Cup qualifiers.
In 2006, a bridge in Cabra was rechristened the Liam Whelan Bridge in his honour in a ceremony attended by Bobby Charlton.
Liam Whelan is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. R.I.P.
James Carew is an editor of PógMoGoal.com, the Irish football blog with a focus on football culture, design, opinion, and humour.