In the annals of English Football, goalkeepers have always held a certain mystique throughout its history. When you think of great English goalkeepers, the names of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence come to mind. Generally, the modern opinion is that you need to be a little mad to be keeper. That opinion was born by the performances of one man, William “Fatty” Foulkes.
For a goalkeeper who played over a century ago to be still remembered is some achievement. I find it quite remarkable that a player who has hardly any living person alive to remember his performances can still invoke images of his giant frame and eccentric behavior.
Foulkes’ career started in local non-league football, playing for Blackwell Town in 1893 and was snapped up shortly afterwards by Sheffield United. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship as Sheffield United became one of the stronger sides in the fledgling Football League. United hit a purple period during the period Foulkes spent at Bramall Lane and Foulkes became something of a celebrity.
Standing 6’4″, Foulkes was staggeringly tall for the time, when the average male height was 5’7″, his towering frame became something of an impassable obstacle. With his presence in the sticks, Sheffield United finished runners-up twice, won the league and reached 3 F.A. Cup Finals, winning two of them.Yet Foulkes’ behavior began to become more erratic as his celebrity star rose. He became known for walking off the pitch if he felt the defenders weren’t playing well enough and dealt with troublesome strikers by picking them up and throwing them in the net.
The F.A.Cup Final of 1902 saw the game finish 2-2, but Foulkes was so incensed by Southampton’s equaliser, as he felt it was offside. Despite being in the nude, Foulkes chased the referee who had to hide in a broom cupboard to save himself.
In the replay, Foulkes put in a man of the match performance to keep Southampton at bay in a 2-1 win for the Blades. Yet behind the glory, Foulkes had become increasingly reliant on alcohol to simply get him through the day and his performances for United started to slide.
As his drinking increased, so did his legendary bouts of bad temper and during the 1904-05 season, his personality clashes with team mates, club officials and even fans saw the club run out of patience with him. Making only 10 appearances after 289 in the previous 10 seasons, United realised they could cope without him.
Chelsea came calling in the summer of 1905 and a transfer fee of £50 saw him travel south to become club captain of the Blues. Chelsea were making their football league debut and the signing of Foulkes was designed as both a footballing and business decision. By signing Foulkes, Chelsea knew they would get more bodies in the ground and Foulkes’ reputation certainly preceded him.
Chelsea also introduced ball boys to stand behind Foulkes to try and emphasis the goalkeepers size and a debut season saw Chelsea 3rd, just missing out on promotion behind the Champions, Bristol City and in their fourth season under the name, Manchester United.
Yet Foulkes, regardless of his status and celebrity at Stamford Bridge, he pined for a return to north of England. For one last hurrah, Bradford City offered him a return leaving Chelsea before the end of the 1905-06 season for one match.
The following year saw his final season at Valley Parade as the League added 4 new clubs in its expansion to two league of 20 teams.As with Chelsea, Bradford had banked on Foulkes to draw the crowds and the side often played in front of crowds in excess of 25,000. As final season’s go, Bradford made a good fist of it, but Foulkes must have been galled to see Chelsea gain promotion without him.
As time went by, Foulkes earned a living as a carnival show in Blackpool and on tour around the UK but his drinking eventually caught up with him and he passed away through cirrhosis of the liver in 1914, aged only 42. His grave can be found in Burngreave cemetery, Sheffield. 95 years on, his name still conjures images of a giant of man keeping goal for Sheffield United, terrorising strikers everywhere.
- 411 League and Cup Appearances for Sheffield United, Chelsea and Bradford City
- First ever captain of Chelsea in their debut season in the Football League
- 1 cap for England in 1897 v Wales
- 1 League Championship medal (1897-98)
- 2 F.A. Cup winners medals (1898-1899 & 1901-02)
- 1 F.A. Cup losers medal (1900-01)