Duncan Edwards: The tragic but glittering life of a unique talent

Preparing his team for a game against England, Wales manager Jimmy Murphy went through a detailed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of each player in the opposing side – bar one.

Duncan Edwards
Duncan Edwards

Wales inside forward, Ray Davies, concerned that the player he had omitted to mention was the one most likely to be marking him, pointed out the oversight to his manager.

Murphy replied: "There is nothing to say that will help us. Just keep out of his way, son."

The player in question was Duncan Edwards. While Jack Grealish this month became Britain's first £100 million player, he probably still has some way to go before reaching the stature of the Black Country-born midfielder, famously described as 'the boy who had the lot' by journalist George Follows.

The statue of Duncan Edwards in Dudley market place

Murphy, who had served as Matt Busby's No. 2 at Manchester United in the 1950s, said that as far as he was concerned, there was no player who could touch 'Big Dunc' for all-round ability.

"When I used to hear Muhammed Ali proclaim to the world that he was the greatest, I used to smile," he said. "You see, the greatest of them all was an English footballer named Duncan Edwards."

Edwards's rise was meteoric, a prodigious teenager who became regarded as the greatest footballer of all time by his early 20s. But it was, of course, a career that was tragically cut short, possibly before he had reached his true potential. Killed at the age of 21, from injuries sustained in the 1958 Munich Air Crash, nobody will ever know what the boy from Dudley could have achieved were his life not snatched from him.

Former professional footballer and retired Black Country policeman Colin Brooks was a 15-year-old 'Busby Babe' when Duncan took him under his wing at the age of 15.

Duncan Edwards about to take a thrown-in

It was 1957, and Edwards was at the pinnacle of his career. One of the first names on the team sheet for both England and Manchester United, his sheer presence on the pitch struck fear into many a slippery young forward.

But Colin, now 79 and living in Kingswinford, remembers him as a proper Black Country man with a dry sense of humour.

"We used to work as ground staff in the day time, and then train with the first team at night," recalls Colin, who settled in the Midlands after joining West Bromwich Albion.

"One night he said to me 'Hey Brooksy, do me a favour and get me some fish and chips from across the road' and gave me some money.

"There was quite a big crowd waiting in the shop, and I was there in my Manchester United training top when I heard a voice from behind. He was obviously the owner, and he said 'Are you from across the way?'

Manchester United goalkeeper Ray Wood and team mate Duncan Edwards, centre, jump high above the snow covered pitch to make a clearance from a Wolves attack spearheaded by centre forward Jimmy Murray (arms forward). Left, looking on is Manchester United's Bobby Charlton.

"He asked me who are the chips for, and I said Duncan Edwards, and he told me 'Don't you ever queue in the shop again. You go straight to the front of the queue and ask for me'.

"I went to give him the money and he said I didn't have to pay.

"Duncan had a great sense of humour. When I got back he said 'You took your time, where have you been, Liverpool?' He then asked for his money back. He knew I would never have to pay.

"I was a lad from Barnsley, so I didn't realise it at the time, but he was a proper Black Country man with a real sense of humour."

Unveiling a statue of Edwards in Dudley in 1999, his former team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton, said he had never played with anybody else who possessed his unique range of abilities.

Duncan's statue in Dudley market place

“In Manchester he is revered as if he is still alive,” said Sir Bobby.

“He was the only player who made me feel inadequate.

“He was the greatest player I have ever played with, and possibly the most skilful player I have ever seen."

Sir Bobby also recalls him being fiercely proud of his Black Country roots.

"He was proud and passionate about Dudley," he says. "I know, because I spent a lot of time with him over the years and he never stopped talking about Dudley, his background and the Black Country."

Duncan as a baby

Duncan Edwards was born in Malvern Crescent in the Woodside area of Dudley on October 1, 1936, but later moved to Elm Road on the Priory Estate where he spent the rest of his childhood.

The oldest child of metal polisher Gladstone Edwards and his wife Sarah Ann, he was born into a footballing family. He was a cousin of Dennis Stevens, an inside forward who played for Bolton, Everton, Oldham Athletic and Tranmere Rovers.

Duncan's prodigious talent with the ball first became apparent when he attended Priory Junior School close to his home, but it was at the Wolverhampton Street Secondary School where his skills truly came to the fore. At the age of 12, he had been picked for Dudley Schoolboys, playing both with and against teenagers three years older than himself.

Jim Cadman has co-written a book about Duncan Edwards

He was spotted by Eric Booth of Dudley Schools FA, who helped him work on his game, and soon he was playing not only for Dudley Boys, but also for the Worcester County XI and his own school. In May 1950 he received his first international call-up when he was selected for England under-14s side playing Ireland. He received a record nine caps for England schoolboys, and by this time the league sides were showing a real interest in him.

Duncan had no doubts at all about where he wanted to play. It was the era of the 'Busby Babes', where Matt Busby's celebrated youth policy was reaping rich dividends, finishing in second place for four of the five seasons after the Second World War.

On June 2, 1952, Jimmy Murphy and Bert Whalley were sent to Dudley to secure Duncan’s signature, and at the age of 15 he became a Manchester United player.

Duncan signing for Manchester United with manager Matt Busby

He quickly made his mark as captain of the youth team, scoring five times in one FA Youth Cup tie, and on April 4, 1953, he became the youngest United player to play for the club in top flight when he made his debut in a 4-1 defeat to Cardiff City.

His crunching tackles, surging runs and incisive passing were as legendary as his intimidating physique, chest like a barrel and legs like tree trunks.

In 1954 he was called up for the England B for the first time, starring in a 4-0 win over West Germany's B-team at Gelsenkirchen in March. His elevation to the England set-up came too late for that year's World Cup, but the following April he became the youngest postwar player to win a full England cap at the age of 18 years, 183 days. That record was not broken until Michael Owen made his England debut in 1998.

Army days: Duncan Edwards top right and Bobby Charlton top and 3rd from right, pictured during their National Service at Nesscliffe barracks in Shropshire

But a few weeks later Duncan would get another call-up, which wouldn't be so welcome. In June 1955 he and his team-mate Bobby Charlton were sent to Nesscliffe Central Ammunition Depot, near Shrewsbury, for two years' National Service.

It could have been worse. While his match-day commute would now be much longer, the pair were allowed to carry on playing for Manchester United. And, of course, for Duncan it was also much closer to home.

"Although not something that he would have accepted voluntarily, he simply shrugged his shoulders and took it on board as nothing more than a minor inconvenience to his footballing career and when asked how army life was simply replied ‘not too bad’,” say Jim Cadman and Iain McCartney, the authors of Black Country Boy to Red Devil.

“Following the match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on August 24, where he scored two brilliant goals, he had an early morning call from the night porter at United’s London hotel at 5am in order to catch the 5.55am train from London back to his unit in Shrewsbury."

His huge appetite for football meant it was not uncommon for him to be playing two or three games a week. And it’s estimated that he played around 180 games for the army during his time at Nesscliffe.

In the 1955/56 season, Edwards helped United win the first of successive league titles and they came close to success in the European Cup, losing only in the semi-finals to eventual winners Real Madrid.

By the time he started his National Service, he had three England caps under his belt and he continued to be selected for the national side.

During this time he also met his future fiancee, 20-year-old Molly Leach and they became ‘practically inseparable’.

His love life, however, did produce an unwanted and embarrassing brush with the law.

"One night, while cycling back to his digs from Molly’s, a policeman stopped him as he had no lights on his bicycle,

“This ‘crime resulted in no simple rebuke from the constable, who would obviously know who he was, but an unwanted appearance before Sale Magistrates, resulting in a 10-shilling fine,” say McCartney and Cadman.

The 1957-58 season began with United seeking a 'double-treble' – a hat-trick of league titles, as well as league, FA Cup and European triumphs. However, it was the pursuit of European glory that bought his career to an abrupt end.

After a hard-fought 3-3 draw away to Red Star Belgrade, which had earned United a place in the semi-final of the European Cup, their plane home stopped off in Munich on February 6, 1958, to allow it to refuel.

Attempting to resume the journey, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they would fall too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By that time, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After hitting the slush, the aircraft ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing was torn off when it struck a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helped pull survivors from the wreckage.

Seven members of the United team died at the scene, along with two members of the coaching staff – including Bert Whalley, the man who visited Duncan's home in Dudley to secure his signature – and Manchester Guardian writer Donny Davies. Frank Swift of the News of the World, died on his way to hospital.

Edwards, whose injuries included chronic kidney damage, a smashed right thigh, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a broken pelvis, was taken to Munich hospital where he died 15 days later on February 21.

He was buried five days later at Dudley's main cemetery in Stourbridge Road. It was reported that 5,000 people crowded outside St Francis's Church on the Priory Estate, where the funeral was held.

In his short career saw him win two league titles, appear in an FA Cup final, playing 175 games and scoring 21 goals for United. He scored five goals in 18 appearances for England. And he was still only 21.

No-one knows what Duncan Edwards might have achieved had his life not been so cruelly taken away from him. Would he, rather than Bobby Moore, had led England to World Cup victory in 1966? Would he have remained a one-club man, or might he have moved to different teams. Could he have moved on to join Wolves, Albion or Villa – or maybe even Shrewsbury or Walsall towards the end of his career?

His was a career which would have not twilight. Instead he joined the likes of Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen and James Dean among the legends who bowed out at the top of their game.

Most Read

Most Read

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News