Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United captain and 1958 Munich air crash survivor, dies at 81

Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United defender who survived the 1958 Munich air crash that killed eight players and had a key role in the storied team's recovery, died Monday. He was 81.

His death was announced by United, which did not give a cause.

Foulkes won titles four times in the top tier of English soccer and helped the club capture the European Cup for the first time.

"He was as hard as nails, as tough as teak — I was always glad I didn't have to play against him," said Bobby Charlon, a former United teammate who also survived the crash. "He was a really, really good defensive player and you could say he helped change the course of history for United."

Foulkes, who left a mining job to join United in 1950, went on to play 688 times after making his debut in 1952. Only Ryan Giggs, Charlton and Paul Scholes have played more times for the club.

"Bill was a giant character in the post-war history of Manchester United," executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said.

United defender Rio Ferdinand wrote on Twitter that Foulkes was a "great servant to the club."

Foulkes was one of the survivors of the Feb. 6, 1958, accident in which 23 people died and stripped the heart of the "Busby Babes." The plane carrying Matt Busby's team back from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade stopped to refuel in Munich but crashed on takeoff.

"I thought, 'What the hell are we doing in here, this plane, starting to bounce all over the place in snow?'" Foulkes recalled to reporters before the 50th anniversary in 2008.

Twice the pilots aborted the takeoff, but they tried again.

"I could see we were going to take off and thought, 'This is stupid, they're going to take off,'" Foulkes said. "The back end came up and I saw it came up and down again and this meant all the stuff came out of the back and hit me in the back of the head and put me in a bad way.

"I managed to get out of the plane. Someone shouted to me to get out, quick, and I got out the quickest way I thought was there, I could see the light. So I went and I got out of the plane."

Foulkes then entered the next phase of his career, trying to honor the memories of the greats, including Duncan Edwards, who died in the crash. After the crash, the center back was made captain of the team.

"Matt Busby made me captain and nobody refuses Matt, so that was it," the Englishman said.

A decade after the disaster, at 36, Foulkes scored the goal against Real Madrid that took United to its first European Cup final, where it beat Benfica in the final.

"It was in my mind, the fact we survived (Munich)," Foulkes recalled of the Wembley final. "That's what I thought: 'Now we've got to do it.'"

After spending his entire playing career at United, Foulkes enjoyed less success in management mostly in the United States and Norway. He took charge of three teams in the North American Soccer League: the Chicago Sting, the Tulsa Roughnecks and the San Jose Earthquakes, where he coached former United teammate George Best.