Cult Heroes: Duncan Edwards

There are some footballers who meander their nights away in a haze of hedonism, hell-bent on attention from the tabloids whilst scrambling for a super-injunction should some of the more savoury moments of their private life come to light. There are some other footballers who, intent on not repeating the mistakes of generations gone by, have the audacity to make a weekend round of golf and Saturday night television with the family their chief joys in life.

There is one footballer, however, whose life was cut short at the age of 21. One normal, Black Country lad who was engaged to a factory worker from Altrincham, yet etched such an impact into English football that Sir Bobby Charlton proclaimed he was “the only player that made me feel inferior”. That one of the greatest players the world has ever seen could bestow such sentiment on another, only underlines the tragic state of affairs that has seen the name lost in the remnants of history; for the record, that name is Duncan Edwards.

Edwards was part of a burgeoning dynasty at Manchester United in the early-1950s which saw Matt Busby’s Babes adorning the Old Trafford pitch with a collective youthful vigour. Indeed, it was Busby’s ethos that cleared the ageing journeymen out of a stagnating squad, a squad which had stumbled along for years starved of success. But rather than searching the far reaches of the British Isles or indeed the globe for hand-picked talent, the Babes were nurtured by the club itself. That such an outrageous blend of talent came together at one moment in history is a lightning bolt that has struck twice at Manchester United, with the likes of Whelan, Blanchflower, Pegg, Viollet and Charlton giving way to Beckham, Scholes, Butt and Neville. For the original class, Duncan Edwards was the name that epitomised them all in a fresh and exciting era.

In the midst of the euphoria that was gradually returning to Manchester, a 16-year-old Duncan made his Football League debut 183 days after his birthday, setting a new precedent for both the club and English football.

The precedent that truly mattered, however, wasn’t the smashing of records and statistics. It was the sheer phenomenon of the player, a unit that was unsurpassed in physical and technical prowess. Two-footed. A hammer of a shot infused with a ruthless accuracy. Boundless strength. Natural stamina. A pass that was as beautiful for its weight as it was its targeting. Masterful heading. A game reader; a game changer.

The array of skills that the man possessed would have allowed him to be moulded into a world class player anywhere on the pitch, but his few short years were predominantly spent as a wing half. In modern translation this relates roughly to a defensive midfielder, yet his role for Manchester United and England would transcend such labels.

But nor was he a fancy Dan whose light would extinguish as soon as a challenge was presented, as in the words of Matt Busby, “the bigger the occasion the better he liked it”. In a grudge match between England and West Germany in the bear pit of Berlin, Edwards promptly tipped the balance. With the game gripped at a deadlock, Big Dunc took possession of the ball outside his own penalty area, bulldozed up the pitch, and drove a shot past the German defence from 25 yards out. For a player in his prime the feat would be truly astonishing. Yet Edwards was a mere 19 years old, having been made the youngest England international ever the year before; a record not surpassed until a certain Michael Owen four decades later.

Yet we never saw Duncan fulfil his potential. It wasn’t an inexplicable loss of form, or off-the-pitch dalliances that came to his ruin. It took a tragedy that shook Manchester United, and the footballing world, to its very core.

On February 6 1958, spirits were high. The Busby Babes has vanquished Arsenal at Highbury only a few days before, playing out a thrilling 5-4 encounter in which Edwards had chipped in with a valuable goal. Now returning home from their European exploits after a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade to send them through to the European Cup Semi Final, their chartered plane stopped for refuelling in Munich. The plane would never leave the runway. Icy conditions preventing the build-up of speed and ultimately ended the lives of 20 people on-board. Players, coaches, and journalists perishing whilst following a sport that they adored.

Edwards would battle on for another 15 days, infused with the fighting spirit that he so often carried onto the pitch with him. A whole host of broken bones and ruptured organs plagued his body, it only being a miracle that he endured for even a few more minutes after being dragged from the wreckage. Only a horrendous twist of fate robbed football of a talent so prestigious and so unopposed, at the age of 21 years old.

There is a danger of thinking we are only mythologizing the man, as his list of talents can scarcely be comprehended in modern terms. A dash of Steven Gerrard perhaps, mixed with a Bryan Robson, a Gascoigne, a Scholes? The comparisons though, are fruitless. Those now nearing their pension years will have as little memory of Duncan Edwards as we can ever hope to picture in our minds. Grainy footage is found on YouTube, but the seconds flitter by so rapidly that it is over before it has even begun. We can only appeal to the testament of his contemporaries and the achievements that he so readily trotted up from his very first steps out onto a football pitch.

Jimmy Murphy, his coach and mentor that had followed him from youth to first team stardom, offers a summary that befits the man. “If I shut my eyes now I can see him; the pants hitched up, the wild leaps of boyish enthusiasm as he came running out of the tunnel, the tremendous power of his tackling, always fair but fearsome, his immense power on the ball. The greatest? There was only one and that was Duncan”.


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