By Ian Hemmens
The fact that following Citys election, Chelsea had also been elected and gained promotion within 2 years put pressure on the Manager and after the sale of star winger and England International Jimmy Conlin to Manchester City for the second largest ever transfer fee, and a fading league performance, October 1905 saw the board lose patience and Campbell resigned his post and left by mutual consent.
Whilst the club looked for a replacement, senior player Peter O’Rourke was asked to look after the team. He was at the time team Captain and centre half but after the game in the FA Cup against Darlington, he handed the captaincy over to George Robinson and Gerald Kirk took over at centre half so O’Rourke could concentrate his efforts on the team. The board were so impressed with his efforts he was rewarded with the post of Secretary-Manager on a full time basis and proceeded to start a rebuild for a promotion push which would finally be achieved in 1908. Still a magnificent achievement for a club only 5 years old with no previous experience in the world of association football.
O’Rourke always emphasised the need for a strong defence and a dominating custodian behind them. When he took over, the No. 1 was the excellent and highly promising Jimmy Garvey but the team was dealt a blow when Garvey was hit by a long term injury and also a bout of rheumatism which eventually caused him to retire prematurely when on the brink of a highly promising career. His deputy was the experienced Edwin Daw who, whilst competent, was prone to lapses of concentration and poor mistakes. Daw eventually lost his place to local product Eddie Gott who was mainly a back-up until his release in 1906.
The goalkeeping situation, the atmosphere around the club that appeared after an exciting start to its life seemed to be beginning to tread water needed to be addressed.
Peter O’Rourke was a thorough and forward thinking manager who had a nationwide list of contacts and scouts on the look out for talent and using his contacts, news got to him that Chelsea’s goalkeeper, the legendary William Foulke was looking to return North. William had signed for Chelsea as a marquee signing and had done much to establish the team and gain popularity with the capitals football fans with his undoubted talents and well known antics.
William Foulke was for the Victorian/Edwardian eras an absolute giant of a man physically. Boorn in the Derbyshire mining village of Blackwell he rose to fame as the last line of defence for the excellent Sheffield United side who were a power in the game in the Victorian era. His career with the Blades lasted 11 years from 1894 to 1905 when he was signed by Chelsea. Also an accomplished cricketer to county standard with Derbyshire he stood at 6’4” tall when the average male height was around 5’8”. Photo’s of the time show him dominating the images with his sheer size. Highly athletic despite this, he played for England in 1897 at the height of his powers. A penchant for good living and a drink saw his weight rise to a huge 24 stones before his retirement. A kind and gentle man, he also had a hint of eccentricity which endeared him to fans all over the nation. Stories of his antics were legendary and have passed into folklore and although some were possibly embellished and exaggerated by a hungry press, most of the stories have an element of truth in them. Probably the most well known of them was the case of polishing off the whole teams breakfasts on an away trip after being the first into the dining hall. On another occasion enraged by an apparent injustice by a referee, he proceeded to chase the terrified official down the corridor at Stamford Bridge stark naked. When Liverpool striker tried to charge William & ball into the goal, the giant was so affronted he proceeded to lift the much smaller man up by his feet and dumped him head first into the muddy turf.
Whilst in the capital, if he visited the music halls, crowds would stand and applaud him whilst he took his seat hoping he wouldn’t be sitting directly in front of them.
His wife Beatrice and their children remained in their Sheffield home running the family shop during his years sojourn at Stamford Bridge. This was seen as the main reason for him wanting to return North although by 1906 his burgeoning bulk and advancing years meant despite his reputation his powers were on the wane.
During his career, just about every description of any thing large was given to him, as well as several names William, his given name, Willie, Billy, the endearing Little Willie and the less endearing Fatty.
As mentioned, the loss of Conlin was a big blow but the fee received went a long way towards O’Rourke being able to rebuild the team for a promotion push the following season. William had a new defensive pair in front of him, both very competent and robust defenders in Fred Farren and future club legend with a familiar name in Robert ‘Bob’ Campbell who was to remain until retirement during WW1.
With the dominating Foulke and other new signings in place, a new optimism surrounded Valley Parade showed by the growing crowds. Barnsley were again the visitors for the first game of the new season and a crowd of around 13000 saw the team win 2-0 to set up a far more confident showing than in the previous seasons.
During the season, the Sheffield United committee refused William permission to allow him to continue training at Bramall Lane. Possibly they wanted a clean break from the past which had been a great era but now were in much leaner times. He now had to make a daily trip to Bradford to train with his new team. As well as his performances on the field, his antics continued to bring mirth to the local media and his many fans. Before the cup tie with Accrington, he had misplaced his kit bag and came out in his old Chelsea shirt. Accrington objected but a shirt large enough couldn’t be found so he appeared with a huge bed sheet wrapped around him and pinned together. Its another urban myth that the 1-0 victory led to the phrase ‘clean sheet’. It was also said that Manager O’Rourke insisted on the giant Foulke squeezing through a small gate to receive his wages when they were handed out much to the amusement of his fellow team mates.
City would finally gain the much cherished promotion to the top of the English game the following season and then consolidate themselves before pushing on and winning the FA Cup in 1911 but the big mans contribution to kick starting the momentum again which was starting to dissipate cannot be underestimated such was his celebrity nationwide. It is to the credit of Peter O’Rourke that he could see the club needed a focal point whilst he rebuilt the team In today’s society of huge media, social media and hype that goes with any sort of celebrity, one can only imagine how a character like William would be feted these days.
He returned to his Sheffield home to run the family shop and also run a public house.
In 1916 after watching a wartime game at his beloved Bramall Lane between Sheffield United and Grimsby Town he was taken ill and admitted to a local hospital but his condition worsened and on May 1st 1916, William Foulke died aged 42 years.
A huge crowd gathered at the citys Burngreave cemetery to bid farewell to a legend of not only the game but society itself.
The fact that he is still known today and spoken about is a wonderful legacy for one of the games early superstars.
Recommended reading – Colossus by Graham Phythian