Whelan, William Augustine (‘Billy’; ‘Liam’) (1935–58), soccer player, was born 1 April 1935 in 28 St Attracta's Road, Cabra, Dublin, fourth among seven children of John Whelan, labourer, and Elizabeth Whelan (née McGuirk). He was educated at St Peter's national school in nearby Phibsborough, and after leaving school at fourteen worked in Cassidy's, an outfitters on South Great George's St. He was an accomplished Gaelic footballer and hurler, but soccer was his first love and at twelve he joined the famous Home Farm club. Although he was regarded as an outstanding prospect, Whelan was only noticed by Manchester United when Bert Whalley, the club's youth team coach, came over to look at another player. Whelan signed for United in May 1953, just in time to play for the club in that year's FA Youth Cup final against Wolverhampton Wanderers. He scored in a 7–1 first-leg victory over Wolves and also in the drawn second match. That youth team, which formed the nucleus of the future ‘Busby babes’, also included Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, and Albert Scanlon. A forward who played primarily at inside-right, Whelan beat his close friend and great rival in his position, Bobby Charlton, into the first team, making his debut for United in a match against Preston North End towards the end of the 1954–5 season. Whelan remained in competition with Charlton for the number eight jersey for the rest of his short career. He made seven league appearances that season, scoring one goal against Sheffield United in his second match for the club. The following season he made thirteen appearances for the club, scoring four times, and winning a league championship medal.
It was the 1956–7 season that saw him establish a regular place in the side, as he made fifty-three appearances in all competitions, winning his second championship medal and finishing as the club's top scorer with thirty-three goals. He also played in a losing FA Cup final in 1957, when he was generally regarded as the man of the match. During this season he also made his European debut for the club, scoring twice in a 10–0 massacre of Belgian side Anderlecht in September 1956. In the next round, against Spanish side Athletic Bilbao, he scored what was probably his greatest goal, when he ran forty yards through slush and snow and beat five defenders before driving the ball past the goalkeeper for United's third goal in a 5–3 away defeat. That goal proved crucial: United's 3–0 victory in the home leg put them through to the semi-finals of the European Cup, where they were beaten 5–3 on aggregate by the then masters of European football, Real Madrid. One of Whelan's last games for United was a 6–0 victory over Shamrock Rovers in the following year's European Cup competition before a packed crowd at Dalymount Park, a stone's throw from the place of his birth. He scored twice that night in one of the finest individual performances seen at the venue. Shortly after, following a series of disappointing results, he was dropped from the team, along with three other players, as United went on a seven-match unbeaten run that brought them back into contention in the league. Whelan made ninety-six appearances for United, scoring fifty-two goals. He was a travelling reserve for Manchester United's ill-fated European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade in February 1958, and was one of eight players to die in the subsequent air crash that destroyed Matt Busby's young team and claimed twenty-three lives.
His youth and tragic death meant that he only played four times for his country, making his debut for the Republic of Ireland in an away match against Holland in May 1956, a game that resulted in an impressive 4–1 victory. He played three more times in 1957, in World Cup qualifiers against Denmark and against England (twice), putting in a superlative performance against the latter in Dublin, when an injury-time equaliser secured both a draw and World Cup qualification for England. Despite the temporary loss of his place in the United team, there was little doubt amongst his contemporaries that he would have developed into one of the world's best players. Indeed, his short career marked him as a top-class performer and it is virtually certain that had he lived he would have gone on to become one of Ireland's finest-ever footballers. A tall, strong, and intelligent player, he was not easily intimidated or pushed off the ball. Although lacking some pace, like many exceptional players he had the ability to appear quicker than he was, and managed to glide past opponents with a combination of timing and magnificent close control, a skill honed by constant practice with a tennis ball as a child. He also possessed an impressive shot. An inside-right of the highest calibre, Whelan was a rarity; an entertaining ball-player who was strong in the tackle and who possessed tremendous stamina. His manager at United, Matt Busby, recalled that after a youth tournament in Switzerland in 1953 he received a number of enquiries from Brazilian clubs about the possibility of signing him. Often the only non-Englishman in the first great team of the postwar era in England, he would undoubtedly have regained his position in the United side and could probably have played in any position, such was his natural ability.
Although of a cheerful disposition, Whelan was also modest and shy by nature, and a quietly devout catholic. He had a particular dislike of swearing and tended to fix a look of pained disappointment on teammates who used bad language: Nobby Stiles admitted that he ‘would rather be caught swearing by the pope than by Billy Whelan’. He often suffered from homesickness and liked nothing better than being at home in Dublin and playing football with his brothers and friends. Two of his brothers, Christy and John, played for League of Ireland clubs. Teammate Albert Scanlon believed that he was ‘embarrassed by his own talent’ (Arthur, 61). His religious devotion regularly fuelled rumours that he was considering being a priest, although at the time of his death he was engaged to be married to Ruby McCullough. Fellow Irishman Harry Gregg, United's goalkeeper and a survivor and hero of the Munich air crash, recalled Whelan's last words as the plane was attempting take-off for the third and final time as ‘Well, if this is the time, then I'm ready’ (Harry's game, 30). The Irish Press, in what can be seen as somewhat of an understatement, described him as Ireland's ‘best prospect for twenty years’ (Ir. Press, 13 Feb. 1958). For many, there was a belief that ‘this gentle Irishman would have been one of the greatest of all footballers’ (Arthur, 61). Whelan died in the plane crash in Munich on 6 February 1958. Thousands attended his funeral on 12 February in St Peter's church, Phibsborough, and lined the streets as the funeral procession made its way to his burial-place in Glasnevin cemetery. In December 2006 Dublin corporation unveiled a commemorative plaque on a bridge at Faussagh Road, Cabra, which was renamed Liam Whelan Bridge.