'Fatty' Foulke: The legend of Sheffield United & Chelsea keeper

By Phil DawkesBBC Sport
Foulke with his Sheffield United team-mates in 1902
Can you spot him? 'Fatty' Foulke with his Sheffield United team-mates in 1902

William Henry "Fatty" Foulke was 6ft 2in tall and weighed 24 stone, he is the original subject of the chant "Who ate all the pies?", is the reason ball boys exist, once polished off 11 breakfasts in a sitting and on one occasion ripped a cupboard door off to confront a hiding, cowering referee... while naked.

It is the basis of a great story. Unfortunately, much of it probably isn't true.

What is not disputed is that Foulke existed, from 1874 to 1916. He was a goalkeeper who spent most of his career with Sheffield United, followed by brief spells at Chelsea and Bradford. And as photos attest, he was indeed a very big bloke.

The average height for a man in the UK around the start of the 20th century was about 5ft 8in, but Foulke towered above his peers.

His ample frame didn't go to waste - it is believed that at the peak of his career he weighed about 14 stone and by the end was north of 21.

Not that this prevented him from doing his job. He was one of the most capable goalkeepers of the time, nimble despite his size and who redefined the role with his aggressive style and kicked clearances.

As for the potentially tall tales? Well, we'll get to that.

The big man at the back

Illustration of William Foulke
An illustration depicting Foulke performing one of his famed kicked clearances

Born in Dawley, Shropshire, it was in the Derbyshire town of Blackwell where Foulke, then working as a miner, first began to gain attention for his exploits on the football pitch.

His displays for Blackwell Miners' Welfare FC as a then relatively svelte 19-year-old earned him rave reviews in the local press.

This period also provided the first apocryphal tale, which tells of a friendly against a Derby County XI in 1893 in which Foulke is said to have come out to punch a ball clear but instead performed some amateur dentistry on England forward John Goodall.

A move to Sheffield United followed - a deal that cost them £20 (about £2,500 in today's money) and proved the catalyst for the most successful period in the club's history.

In Foulke's 11 seasons at Bramall Lane, United claimed their maiden first division title (1897-98), finished runners-up twice (1896-97 & 1899-1900) and won the FA Cup on two occasions (1898-99 & 1901-02). At one point he was part of a Blades XI comprised entirely of England internationals, with his sole cap coming in a 4-0 win against Wales at Bramall Lane in March 1897.

As a demonstration of his versatile sporting ability, he also played four first-class cricket matches for Derbyshire in the 1900 season.

"Any footballer that can win two FA Cups, a league title and play for his country in a little over a decade speaks for itself," Sheffield United historian John Garrett told BBC Sport. "I've seen reports describing him as 'as big as a mountain, as agile as a cat'.

"It is fair to argue that Foulke was one of football's first real superstars. There was a showman aspect about him. You think of your Paul Gascoignes with their flamboyance or your mavericks of the 1970s like Tony Currie or Stan Bowles.

"Ernest Needham, a Sheffield United player who was revered by everyone in football as arguably the best half-back who ever played the game, said Foulke was far and away the best goalkeeper he had ever seen or played with."

As Foulke increased in size, so did his legend.

There are differing accounts of where and when this incident took place, but it is told that he once got into the dining room of a hotel he and his team-mates were staying at and polished off all 11 breakfasts.

Another notorious tale followed the 1902 FA Cup final, which saw United concede a controversial late equaliser to Southampton, and which tells of Foulke, naked and dripping from the shower, rampaging after the referee (some variations also have him ripping a cupboard door off to get to the official).

It was his celebrity which ensured that even as his skills began to fade, he remained an asset and, when his playing time was curtailed at Bramall Lane, other suitors were happy to tap into his unique appeal.

London calling

William Foulke tribute at the Chelsea Museum at Stamford Bridge
The Chelsea museum has a tribute to Foulke

It was inevitable that Foulke would end up in London - a larger-than-life character in the big smoke.

Having helped put Sheffield United on the map, he was now tasked with doing the same for a newly formed club in west London called Chelsea.

He would stay only a year at Stamford Bridge before the draw of his family, who had remained in the north, grew too great, but his impact was considerable.

Backed by affluent founders Gus and Joseph Mears, Chelsea knew how to play the PR machine, and they leant on Foulke's legend to boost attendances and attention.

One - again possibly tall - tale suggests that the placement of young lads behind the goal at Chelsea games, principally to exacerbate Foulke's size, was the origin of what would become ball boys.

So did Foulke eat all the pies?

After his year-long London adventure, Foulke would play one more season - at the recently formed Bradford City - before his body gave up on him, initially in the form of a leg injury, but exacerbated by the impact of inactivity on an already ample physique and the early stages of what would later be diagnosed as cirrhosis, the illness later noted on his death certificate.

Even his retirement was fertile ground for legend, though. An oft-repeated myth has him living out his final years in poverty as a sad sideshow attraction on Blackpool beach, saving penalties from holidaymakers for a penny a shot.

The reality is that he spent his later years in Sheffield, as the owner of a shop on Matilda Street and, at one stage, a beer house. He could be seen sauntering around the city in tailor-made suits and a hand-made chain around his neck, from which dangled one of his FA Cup winner's medals.

There would be one last, neat link between Sheffield United and Chelsea that involved Foulke. In the 1915 FA Cup final, United beat the Blues 3-0. The scorer of the first goal that day, Jimmy Simmons, was the big man's nephew.

Finally then, what of the suggestion - made in the Penguin Book of Cliches - that Foulke was the original subject of the chant "Who ate all the pies"?

It is tempting to just accept it as truth to provide him with a very audible legacy to this day. However, the fact that 'Knees up Mother Brown' - the tune to which the chant is sung - originated in 1918, two years after his death, means it is highly improbable.

As with so much surrounding Foulke, when the legend became fact, they printed the legend.

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