For every generation of fans and players, there is always one player that stands out for a variety of reasons. For every Sir Stanley Matthews, there will be a George Best, for every Gary Lineker, there will be Paul Gascoigne. Players who captivated their peers but for some reason, lost the passion, fell into bad habits and faced battles off the pitch far worse than anything they ever encountered over the white line.
Yet one name stands out amongst all others in post war English football as 0ne that was stolen away from us. Along with the other 7 members of the Manchester United side that died on 6th February 1958 in the Munich Air Disaster, Duncan Edwards’ name has flowed down throughout the last 51 years. Edwards is held up as potentially the greatest English player of his time and maybe of all time. The plaudits which have been lauded on the likeable West Midlands born lad have continued since he passed away.
Edwards’ career began as most others in those days, playing local league football for both his school, Birmingham County and Worcestershire. Incredibly, it seems that even at 12 years old, he had sides chasing his signature, with 3 of the biggest of the time vying for his attentions ; Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Manchester United. Spotted by United’s scout Jack O’Brien, Busby was urged to sign “A 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley”
In time of course, the lure of Manchester United became too much to resist and he joined them in June 1952, still 4 months short of turning 16. Wolves’ manager of the time , Stan Cullis was livid and accusations of financial incentives were bandied about. Edwards however simply informed them that he had always wanted to play for United and that was all their was to it. Edwards stock was rising and it was with no surprise that he quickly forced his way into the first team squad making his debut in April 1953, aged 16.
Over the next 5 seasons, Edwards would make himself a regular fixture in the exciting and dynamic side that Sir Matt Busby was building at Old Trafford. Two successive league titles saw United begin to push Wolves’ dominance of the First Division and the 1957-58 season saw both sides going for the title once again. Edwards, whilst primarily becoming renowned for playing as a defensive midfielder was equally adept at playing in most outfield positions. In one game for United, he started in midfield, was pushed up front as a replacement striker and finished the game playing in central defence.
Both Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore were fans of his tenacity, coolness and the presence he had on the field of play. He played with a calmness that belied his years and in the 5 seasons he played for United, he appeared 177 times as well as turning out 18 times for England. By the beginning of 1958 the football world was at his feet. He’d now become a regular for England and was expected to play a major part in the attempt to win the 1958 World Cup, to be held in Sweden that year.
All that changed on 6th February 1958, when the plane carrying the Manchester United squad back from Belgrade crashed on the Munich-Reim runway. United had just qualified for the semi finals of the European Cup after a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade had seen them win the tie 5-4 on aggregate. The plane skidded and lost control attempting to take off for the third time on a slush covered runway, smashing into the ground. Edwards suffered massive injuries, with multiple leg fractures, broken ribs and severely damaged kidneys. Edwards held on for 15 days but a kidney transplant caused internal bleeding and he passed away through renal failure on February 21st.
23 people died as a result of the crash, 7 United players and 3 members of Manchester United staff, 2 crew members, 9 journalists and 2 additional passengers. Amazingly 21 people survived, but it saw United’s season decimated and obviously the club struggled to maintain the season in the circumstances. At just 21 years old, Edwards’ light had flickered its last.
Edwards was laid to rest 5 days later in a grave next to his sister who had passed away in 1947. The streets of his home town Dudley saw 5,000 people for his funeral and the town is rightly proud of the brief but brilliant legacy this quiet young man left in just 5 years. Over the years the plaudits have continued to be given towards Edwards. His grave is still visited regularly, not just by United fans, but fans of all clubs and people who just want to pay their respects.
“He was the only player that made me feel inferior” Sir Bobby Charlton
“There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football, with United and England, but the best in the world. George Best was something special, as was Pele and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill” Tommy Docherty
“Edwards was like a rock in a raging sea” Sir Stanley Matthews
- Played 177 games for Manchester United, scoring 21 goals
- 18 games for England and 5 goals
- Potentially England’s greatest ever player
- Held the youngest England international record until Michael Owen beat his record in 1998.