Story by Irshad Akbar | Archive photo courtesy of SUFC | Gravestone photo by James Woollen
William Henry Foulke was the most famous of goalkeepers at the turn of the 20th Century and is buried in Burngreave Cemetery.
He was born in Darley, Shropshire and seemed doomed to a life in the coal mines, but his height coupled with his vocation for sport – cricket and football – changed his fate.
He was only 19 when playing in a friendly for Blackwell’s miners against Derby County in 1893, an ill-calculated punch for the ball unfortunately landed on the front teeth of John Goodall (star of the Derby County professionals and spearhead of the England team).
Far from the corpulent stature he would reach by the end of his career, the young William caught the eye of footballing scouts with his courage, strength and his agility. Derby County offered him a contract but he later accepted Sheffield United’s offer of five pounds a week. He made his debut for Sheffield United against West Bromwich Albion in 1894 and led them to three FA Cup finals (winning two) and a League Championship.
The ability to play two sports professionally is rare but Foulke did just this. Whilst playing football for Sheffield United he made four first class cricketing appearances for Derbyshire. His average score was 10.83 with his biggest innings being 53 against Essex. Foulke also won an international cap for England in 1897.
Folklore has it that the football chant “Who ate all the pies?” was first sung in 1894 by Sheffield United supporters, and directed at Foulke.
In the 1902 Cup Final, Foulke protested that Southampton’s equalising goal should not have been allowed. He left his dressing room unclothed and pursued the referee who took refuge in a broom cupboard. FA officials stopped him from wrenching the door from its hinges to reach the hapless referee.
In 1905 he was sold to Chelsea for a fee of £50 and was made club captain. By now Foulke was remarkably temperamental. If he thought defenders were not trying hard enough, he would walk off the field. Opposing forwards were picked up and thrown bodily into his goal. He was, however, a great crowd puller, and Chelsea decided to exploit this. To draw even more attention to his size, they placed two small boys behind his goal. Foulke moved to his final club Bradford City in 1906.
When he retired in 1907 he was the largest player of his time. William and his wife Beatrice purchased a shop back in Sheffield and later ran pubs. Alcohol was the excess that finally killed him. He died of cirrhosis 1916, aged 42, and is buried here in Pitsmoor.