It has always been said that Goalkeepers are the real characters of football. Stories of eccentricity abound among custodians reminding us of the old adage ‘you don’t have to be mad to be a ‘keeper’ – but it helps.’

Perhaps the first, and still among the most famous, of the character-goalkeepers was William Foulke, known most often as ‘Fatty’ for obvious reasons, but also by the much kinder nickname of ‘The Colossus’, who graced the game across two centuries. And whilst I’ll make no claims about the mental health of the man whose star shone brightly during the end of the Victorian and beginning of the Edwardian eras, he certainly had many of those traits that make the men who guard the last line of defence different.

Foulke was born in Dawley, Shropshire in 1874 and started his working life at the nearby Blackwell Colliery. It was while playing in goal for the colliery works team that he first came to the attention of the public. The Derby Daily Telegraph of September 20 1893 reporting on a local match, included the comment; ‘The feature of the game was the goalkeeping of W. Foulkes of Blackwell who certainly has the makings of a first-class custodian.”

Within a year, Foulke’s exploits had earned him a place in the professional ranks with Sheffield United, one of the biggest clubs in the country at the time, forking out £20 to sign him.

On September 1, 1894, the keeper made his debut for his new club, replacing the legendary Arthur Wharton between the posts. He went on to play in 29 of the 30 games that season and helped his team to a 6th-place finish.

Foulke’s reputation quickly grew. A report in ‘Scottish Sport’ commented; ‘In Foulke, Sheffield United have a goalkeeper who will take a lot of beating. He is one of those lengthy individuals who can take a seat on the crossbar whenever he chooses, and he shows little of the awkwardness usually characteristic of big men.’ C.B. Fry, one of the best-respected players at the time, said; “Foulke is no small part of a mountain. You cannot bundle him.”

With his team regularly challenging at the top of the table, Foulke earned international recognition in 1897 when capped against Wales in a 4-0 win. This was to prove to be his only cap however as he could not dislodge the incumbent ‘keeper Jack Robinson, with many at the FA apparently not pleased with some of Foulke’s antics. A report in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph highlighted the problem. “It is a pity that Foulke cannot curb the habit of pulling down the crossbar,” the report stated, “which on Saturday ended in his breaking it in two.

“On form, he is well in the running for international honours, but the Selection Committee are sure to prefer a man who plays the game to one who unnecessarily violates the spirit of the rules.’

In 1897-98, Sheffield United, led by Ernest ‘Nudger’ Needham captured the championship, and finished with the best defensive record. Foulke missed just one game and was described by many as ‘the best goalkeeper in the world.’ Forwards tried to intimidate him. According to reports, George Allan of Liverpool ‘charged him’ in one match and the big man; ‘losing his temper, seized him by the leg and turned him upside down.’

The following season United struggled a little in the league but Foulke added to his medal haul with a 4-1 FA Cup Final victory over Derby County and his form remained excellent. The editor of the Athletic News wrote; “His kicking from goal was as mighty as ever, and his good right hand, doubled up, banged out incoming shots with the force of a sledgehammer.”

Around 1900 Foulke also had a short run of appearances wth Derbyshire in County cricket. He was said to be a fine batsman and slip fielder with one journalist joking that every time he came into bat; ‘there is an appeal against the light.’

Another Cup Final was reached in 1901 but United were undone by Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 in a replay, after the first match finished all square at 2-2. Foulke’s performances, even in those defeats, was of the usual high standard. Reports suggested that it was the big man’s heroics that earned the second match and kept the score down to three in the replay.

Foulke missed the start of the following campaign through injury and it took him a while to regain his place. This wouldn’t have been helped by his ever-increasing weight. After coming into the professional game weighing under 13 stones, the 6ft 4ib Foulke had by now, ballooned to around 20 stones. When he did get back in the team, he was soon back to his best form, and continued to deal with opposing forwards in his own inimitable way. The Athletic News reported; “when forwards try to barge him he doesn’t claim a foul, but simply places that paw of his on the shoulder of the charging gentleman in a most fatherly manner, and pushes him aside with an expression of ‘get on one side little boy’ .” In a Sheffield derby match he fell on Wednesday striker Laurie Bell. “It was really all an accident,” he later recalled. “Just as I was reaching for a high ball Bell came at me, and the result of the collision was that we both tumbled down, but it was his bad luck to be underneath, and I could not prevent myself from falling with both knees in his back. When I saw his face I got about the worst shock I ever have had on the football field. He looked as if he was dead.”

In 1902, United and Foulke reached another FA Cup Final with Southampton the opponents. The match, and the ensuing replay, might well have contained the big man’s greatest performances, as well as a defining moment.

The first encounter finished 1-1 but Southampton’s equaliser was shrouded in controversy. United led from the 2nd minute but it was only the efforts of Foulke that kept the Blades in front. C.B. Fry, later wrote in Southern Echo; “The outstanding feature of the match was the grand goalkeeping of Foulke. He made a number of good saves, and on two or three occasions cleared the ball from what appeared impossible positions. Once, near the end, from a corner, he effected an absolute miracle with four or five men right on him.”

With two minutes to play, Southampton knocked the ball upfield and it fell to Harry Wood who had been tying his bootlaces and was in an offside position. When the ball came his way, Wood straightened up and ran on to score. The referee, Mr Kirkham consulted his linesman and they concluded that the ball had struck a United defender playing Wood onside.

After the match Foulke went looking for Kirkham, ‘in his birthday suit.’ Linesman J. T. Howcroft later recalled; “I saw F. J. Wall (secretary of the FA) pleading with him to rejoin his colleagues. But Bill was out for blood and I shouted to Mr. Kirkham to lock his cubicle door. He didn’t need telling twice. But what a sight!

“The thing I’ll never forget is Foulke, so tremendous in size, striding along the corridor without a stitch of clothing.”

The replay took place a week later and United, with Foulke described as ‘invincible’ by the Athletic News, running out worthy 2-1 winners. ‘The Colossus’ had his second FA Cup winners medal.

Over the following seasons, his ever-increasing weight was starting to affect Foulke’s play. Although his size and girth proved a help in some situations, such as when Bolton forward Stokes ran through on goal but, as a newspaper report said; ‘the mountain of flesh which is posed by Foulke hove in sight, and appeared to paralyse the little Wanderer, who simply shot into the hands of the leviathan.’ But the ever-expanding girth made it increasingly difficult to reach low shots, a problem opposing forwards took advantage of. United fans started to berate him for his performances and he began losing some of his immense popularity.

In 1905, United decided that, if he wanted to remain with the club, Foulke would need to take a pay cut. He refused and was transferred to Chelsea for £50. It was reported that Chelsea, newly formed and in need of personalities, offered him the maximum wage. So he agreed to move to London and was immediately made captain.

In his first season at Stamford Bridge, Foulke’s form was outstanding, he saved 10 penalties and his team finished 3rd in the second division. To draw more attention to his size Chelsea placed two small boys behind the goal. The boys started to collect the ball when it went out of play, and ball boys were ‘born’.

However, the weight problems continued. One report claimed that he would arrive early for a breakfast which had been set out for the whole team and eat the lot. Whilst many of the tales attributed to him might be categorised as ‘urban myths’ (including that the ‘who ate all the pies’ song started with him), it can be confirmed that in a Chelsea match programme from December 1905 it was said; “Foulke says he doesn’t care how much they [forwards] charge him, so long as they don’t charge him too much for his dinner.”

He spent a single season in London before moving back to Yorkshire and joining Bradford City in 1906, again for a transfer fee of £50. He was still performing well, with the local ‘Daily Argus’ newspaper stating that; ‘the mighty goalkeeper is doing a great deal in the direction of inspiring confidence in the team.’ But in November 1907, with his weight a continuing problem, he decided enough was enough and retired from first-class football.

Moving back to Sheffield, Foulke had a shop in the city and also took over the ‘Duke’ public house. But he was soon accused of being involved in illegal betting, was fined £25 and lost his publican’s license.

Foulke died in May 1916 at the age of just 42, with the official cause of death given as “cirrhosis”, an illness often brought on by excessive alcohol use. Some reports stated that he had been reduced to taking part in ‘Beat the Goalie’ sideshows on Blackpool seafront, but these aren’t confirmed and might well be another of those ‘urban myths’.

Over 100 years after his death, memories of Foulke linger. Mitchell and Kenyon footage showing the man in action stands testament to his size. His sporting prowess is documented in record books, and his uniqueness and personality shines through in some of the stories and quotes recounted above. And it’s surely fair to say that there is, and always will be, ‘Only one Fatty Foulke.’

By Vince Cooper