Duncan Edwards

I had just started playing football for Lancaster Lads Club Juniors in September 1957 and Duncan Edwards name was on everyone’s lips.  You didn’t have to be a supporter of Manchester United in those days, in fact none of my friends were, to appreciate what a great player he was.  The word hate was never used in connection with the game and arrogance and greed were unheard of.  We were too busy enjoying playing football and “Memory Lane” gives me the opportunity to travel back in time down an imaginary path lined with the fragrant smell of nostalgia.

Duncan Edwards.  It says so much of him, that even now, over 57 years after his passing, he is still probably the most talked about player in Manchester United’s long and rich history.  From the time he lodged at Mrs Watson’s at number 5, Birch Road, Old Trafford, then after he moved to 19, Gorse Avenue, Stretford, and then on to 2, Barlow Road, Old Trafford.

In training before the England versus Scotland match at Wembley, April 1957, with Stanley Matthews and England and Wolverhampton Wanderers captain, Billy Wright.

Duncan with friend, Raymond Woolridge, after being selected to represent England Schoolboys at the age of 15.

Sir Matt Busby

'I rate Duncan Edwards the most complete footballer in Britain - perhaps the World.   He was a Colossus.  Whatever was needed, he had it.  He was immensely powerful. He was prodigiously gifted in the arts and crafts of the game. His temperament was perfect. His confidence was supreme and infectious. No opponent was too big or too famous for Duncan. A wing-half, he could have been a great centre-half, or a great forward striker. He would have been one of the great leaders with his sheer inspiration. If there was ever a player who could be called a one-man team, that man was Duncan Edwards.  His death, as far as football is concerned, was the single biggest tragedy that has happened to England and Manchester United.  He was then, and has always remained to me incomparable.’

‘We looked at Duncan right from the start and we gave up trying to find flaws in his game. (Remember - this was Edwards when he was just 16 years old).  Nothing could stop him and nothing unnerved him.  The bigger the occasion the better he liked it. While other players would be pacing up and down the dressing room, rubbing their legs, doing exercises, and looking for a way to pass time, Duncan was always very calm. He was a good type of lad too. Duncan didn’t want to know about the high life. He just wanted to go home or to his digs. He just lived for the game of football.'’

Sir Bobby Charlton

‘I find that I think about Duncan a lot. I have seen all the players who in their time have been labelled the best in the world - Puskas, Di Stefano, Gento, Didi, John Charles and all the rest - and not one of them have been as good as Big Duncan. There was no other player in the world like him then, and there has been nobody to equal him since. The man was incomparable.  Sometimes I fear that there is a danger that people will think that we who knew him, and saw him in action, boost him because he is dead.  Sentiment can throw a man’s judgement out of perspective. Yet it is not the case with him.  Whatever the praise one likes to heap on Duncan is no more than he deserved.  He was out on his own at left-half and a First Division player in every other position. There was no one else to start with him.  I am not a person to dramatize things or dispense fulsome praise.  It is not in my make-up.  A man is a good player or he is not.  A few are great, and they deserve respect. But Duncan Edwards was the greatest.  I see him in my mind’s eye and I wonder that anyone should have so much talent.  He was simply the greatest of them all.’

Sir Stanley Mathews

‘Duncan Edwards, the boy-man, made his début for Manchester United at 16 and was an England regular by 18. You could play him anywhere and he would slot into that position as if he had been playing there season after season.  For all of his tender years, he was the most complete player of his time and it was a tragedy that his life was taken in the Munich disaster of 1958. When the going was rough, Duncan would be as unmoved as a rock in a raging sea, but for all of his considerable size, he possessed the deftest of skills.’

In 1956-57, he played an astonishing 94 games at different levels - Football League Championship, FA Cup, European Cup, Full Internationals, and he also represented the Football League XI, England “B”, England U-23, and the Army.  He won 2 First Division Championship winner’s medals, an FA Cup Runners-Up medal, 18 full international caps - and those at a time when they were not given away as freely as they are today.  He’d played in the European Cup, World Cup Qualifiers, and had been capped at every level for England from Schoolboys (where he still holds the record for being the youngest ever player capped at that level at just 13 years of age) through to full international. There were so many wonderful players around in that era (Stan Mathews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, just to name a few) who never achieved half of what Duncan did.  Yes, his career never peaked and God knows how much he would have gone on to achieve in his career but for the tragedy, he was the complete finished article.  His pure strength and ability to play the long or short ball coupled with his tremendous reading of a game and to anticipate what was going to happen.  His ability to come up with goal when the going was tough, his strength and determination to be everything he wanted to be - simply the best.

In the parish church of St Francis, in the Midlands town of Dudley, stands a stained glass window, a unique memorial to the life of a remarkable young man. Few are the footballers who could have been commemorated in this way, but Duncan Edwards was not an ordinary footballer.   He was 21 when he died, a victim of that terrible air crash that claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players in the snow and slush of Munich.  The window is all the more touching for having been paid for largely by a football fan.  What was it about a professional sportsman barely on the threshold of his career that not only moved so many people at his death, but also continues to keep a reverence for his memory more than 50 years on?

Those who saw him play - and because his life was cut short there were comparatively few of them - speak of a colossus who comes just once in a lifetime. They have never forgotten.  As the journalist Michael Henderson put it: "Men have grown old with his name on their lips."

Duncan played his last game on February 5, 1958, and had fewer than five full seasons in League football.  Yet he left behind such an impression that even the long passage of time is unable to erase it.  Of all the names in the International Hall of Fame, his is the most poignant.  Not just for what he was, but for what he may have become.  And when fans voted to nominate the best players the world has ever seen, fittingly they remembered him.   Despite the tenderness of his years, no one doubts that he was already a truly great player.  What the world was robbed of was the glorious pleasure of witnessing just how great he could have been.  One only needs to consider that "Big Duncan" had established himself as England's left-half at the age of 18.  In 1966, when England won the World Cup, he would have been 29 and in his prime. The irony is that his position became that of the victorious captain, Bobby Moore, an honour Edwards himself might have held.

Edwards was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, on October 1, 1936.  By the time he was 11, he was starring for the town boys' team, in which the average age was 15.

His talent fed a frenzy among the Football League's leading clubs to sign him. Edwards had joined United as an amateur when he was 15.  But that did not stop their rivals from trying to poach him from under their noses.  United took no chances. Their coach, Bert Whalley, drove through the night, arriving at the Edwards's home in the early hours so that he could rouse the precocious star from his bed and sign him before sunrise on the birthday when he became eligible to turn professional.

He was an amazing prospect, tall and strong and, apart from an abundance of natural skill, he seemed to have non-stop, driving energy.  In a few short years, many a match report would conclude that Edwards played like a one-man team.

He made his First Division debut against Cardiff City in April 1953.  Though a powerhouse at left-half, Edwards had the ability to play anywhere, even turning out as centre-forward in an emergency.  At 18 years and 183 days, he became the youngest player to be capped by England this century, a record only beaten by Michael Owen of Liverpool in 1998.  Edwards played on his debut like a veteran international as England swept away the auld enemy Scotland 7-2 at Wembley.  He was mature beyond his years and possessed an innate ability to read a game quickly.  He was a creator as well as a destroyer and, in what was a galaxy of stars at Old Trafford, he more than any other symbolised the brilliance of the Busby Babes.

In 1955-56, Edwards won the first of what was to be two successive First Division Championships.  The title qualified United for the European Cup but the English FA were not happy to let their teams enter the competition and had banned the previous season's Champions, Chelsea, from taking part.  United manager Matt Busby was having none of the FA's nonsense, defied their instruction and lined up against the cream of Europe's club sides.  His young team were an immediate success. They beat Belgian Champions Anderlecht 12-0 on aggregate and then swept aside Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Bilbao before losing 5-3 on aggregate in the Semi-Final to the eventual winners Real Madrid, the team who had dominated the cup from the start.  That season in the League, United were awesome. They went 12 games without defeat from the start of the season and won the title by 11 points under the old "two points for a win" rule.

The only disappointment was defeat in the FA Cup Final when United - reduced to 10-men through injury to goalkeeper Ray Wood in the days before substitutes - went down 2-1 to Aston Villa.  It cost them a deserved League and Cup double.  But Edwards and the United Babes were ready for another crack at the European Cup.  They reached the Quarter-Finals by beating first Shamrock Rovers and then Dukla Prague to set up a tie with Red Star Belgrade. They won the home first-leg 2-1 and drew 3-3 in Belgrade. They had reached the Semi-Finals again where they were to face the Italian Champions AC Milan.  That 3-3 draw was Edwards’s last match. For the next day disaster struck.   It was 3.04 on a snowbound afternoon.  The date was February 6, 1958.  The day a team died.  The Busby Babes, justly proud of their triumph, were flying home to Manchester. The plane in which they were travelling, a British European Airways Elizabethan, had stopped at Munich to refuel.  There was slush on the runaway as the plane made its fateful third attempt to take off.  The Elizabethan never made it. Just 54 seconds after the pilot opened the throttle; the plane hit the airport's perimeter fence and slithered 200 yards across a frozen field.   A wing had been torn off and the tail section had broken away, scattering bodies into the snow.  Twenty-one people died, among them seven of Busby's Babes - Roger Byrne, the captain, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman and Billy Whelan.  They were members of a team that had won back-to-back Championships, a team with a wonderful opportunity to achieve the dream of becoming the first in Britain to win the European Cup, a team that had not yet reached its peak but had seemed destined to dominate like no other before.  Busby survived, clinging to life in an oxygen tent.  Schoolchildren cut out pictures of the players from newspapers and stuck them on their classroom walls.  Adults prayed for the injured, willing them to pull through.  And foremost in their thoughts was Duncan Edwards.  He fought.  Oh, how that muscular frame fought.  But after 15 days, he died from his terrible injuries.  He had played 18 times for England.  He held the world bedazzled at his feet. He was the bravest of the brave. But he could not make it.

Jimmy Murphy, United's assistant manager and the man who not only did most to develop Edwards's abilities but also to rebuild the club after Munich, described his lost star as "the Kohinoor diamond among our crown jewels."  Bobby Charlton, team-mate and Munich survivor, said: "If I had to play for my life and could take one man with me, it would be Duncan Edwards."  It was to be a further 10 years before United would realise their dream of winning the European Cup.  When they did, Busby spoke of "being cleansed." He had been haunted by the tragedy of his boys, and especially that of "Big Duncan."  It is so long ago now, but the tenacious spirit of Edwards lives on in today's United. The pictures, though fading, remain too.  Edwards, his short hair parted on the side, Fifties-style, in his red, V-necked, short-sleeved, United shirt.  And the memories . . . of a player who was never allowed to discover how much more he might have achieved.

Perhaps, to those aged men including myself "with his name on their lips", he will always possess, like the film star James Dean, the radiance of eternal youth. Because he never grew old, he is a constant reminder of how life used to be, a hero frozen in time, forever a flourishing 21.

Duncan Edwards, five minutes before kick-off at Highbury, signing an autograph for a young admirer on February 1st 1958, his penultimate game.

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