Although he played his last game over 100 years ago most true football enthusiasts will have heard about the legendary 24 stone goalkeeper, William `Fatty' Foulke. I suspect that the majority of those though will, like me, have assumed that being so heavy Foulke wasn't a `proper' footballer and was merely an amusing sideshow who played at a time when football wasn't the sophisticated game it is today. After reading this book I now know that I was doing him a massive disservice. Foulke was no lumbering circus act; he was a truly outstanding goalkeeper, whose solitary England cap was scant reward for his magnificent performances for Sheffield United, Chelsea and Bradford City.
Despite his bulk, Foulke was an incredibly agile man who could throw his body around to stop shots in a way that almost defied belief. It was only in the closing days of career, when his weight reached its peak and opposing forwards had cottoned on to his weakness against low shots aimed close to his body that he started to struggle. It wasn't this that foreshortened his career though. He retired when he started to become prone to injury and his general health started to fail.
Because of his size but also because of his personality, Foulke became an extremely popular figure and was a regular in the sporting pages at the turn of the 19th century although I suspect that likening him to Paul Gascoigne, as author Graham Phythian does in this book is slightly wide of the mark. There are many anecdotal stories about Foulkes - for example he is credited with eating his and all his team-mates breakfasts one morning whilst stopping at a hotel - and this book recounts them all. Phythian attempts to show that many of these tales are apocryphal, but as all of the participants in the anecdote are long since long it is impossible to be sure one way or the other.
Whilst this is an extremely informative and enjoyable book it is slightly lacking in depth. For example little is written about Foulke's one England appearance and, most disappointingly, we never really learn why his weight ballooned in the manner it did. We read that he liked a drink and had a good appetite but even eating a dozen or so breakfasts doesn't really explain how he managed to reach 24 stone.
This book is a fine tribute to one of football's greatest characters though and it left me bemoaning the fact that very little remains of his performances on film as I would love to have seen him in action.