Former Deputy Editor of the Official United Magazine, Sam Pilger, has written an excellent book on United’s best ever XI. The eleven players are named and reviewed, looking at their qualities and revealing stories you probably haven’t heard before.
One of the centre-back positions in our best ever team goes to Duncan Edwards. Here’s an excerpt from Best XI Manchester United:
LESS THAN FOUR months before his life was tragically cut short, Duncan Edwards played one of his last internationals for England against Wales at Ninian Park in Cardiff.
On that day in November 1957, the Welsh manager was Edwards’ mentor and Manchester United’s assistant manager Jimmy Murphy.
Before the game Murphy stood in the centre of the Welsh dressing room, going through the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the England side in great detail.
He talked about ten players, but not Edwards, prompting Reg Davies, the Newcastle inside-forward, to put up his hand.
“What about Edwards?”
“Just keep out of his way son, there’s nothing I could say that could ever help us.”
Edwards inspired this kind of rare awe in all those who saw him play in the five years between his debut and his premature death.
The greatest Busby Babe of all, he has become an almost mythical figure, forever young. His legend is kept alive by only a few black and white newsreels and the memories of those who shared a pitch with him.
I once asked Sir Bobby Charlton to describe how good he was, and sitting in a box overlooking Old Trafford, he turned and looked at the pitch Edwards had once bestrode.
“He was the only player who made me feel inferior,” he said. “Duncan was without doubt the best player to ever come out of this place, and there’s been some competition down the years. He was colossal and I wouldn’t use that word to describe anyone else. He had such presence, he dominated every game all over the pitch. Had he lived, he would have been the best player in the world. He was sensational, and it is difficult to convey that. It is sad there isn’t enough film to show today’s youngsters just how good he was.”
By the time he died at 21, Edwards had already played for United 177 times, winning two League Championships, three FA Youth Cups, an FA Cup runners-up medal and 18 England caps. He had become both the youngest player to appear in the First Division at just 16 years and 184 years and the youngest England international of the 20th century, aged 18 years and 183 days, a record which stood for nearly 43 years before Michael Owen claimed it.
Edwards was revered for his all-round game and versatility, and how he could excel at almost every position on the pitch, whether it was centre-half, centre-forward, inside forward or half-back. “He was never bothered where he played,” said Murphy.
However, he would make the majority of his appearances as a left-half, a hybrid between a defender and a midfielder, which was his favourite position as he was constantly involved and could use both his defensive and attacking abilities.
“He was Roy Keane and Bryan Robson combined, but in a bigger body,” is how his former teammate Wilf McGuinness described him. “He could play as an attacker, creator or defender and be the best player on the pitch… He was world class when United had the ball, and when the opposition has the ball he was our best defender.”
“Most players they are good at certain things; in the air, or good with their left or right foot, they read the game well, or they have pace. But Duncan had it all, he really was better at everything than anyone else,” said Charlton. “From the first moment I saw him he could play anywhere and do anything. He was brave, great in the tackle, could pass it long or short and score goals. When I arrived at United Duncan was the only player who could do things I knew I wasn’t capable of.”
In February 1958 United made it to the semi-finals of the European Cup for a second consecutive season with a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade. After the game Red Star’s Dragoslav Sekularac called Edwards: “Maybe the greatest player in the world.”
On the way back from Belgrade, United’s plane stopped to refuel in Munich. Amid the snow and ice, United’s plane twice aborted it’s take-off and the passengers returned to the terminal. Once inside, Edwards assumed they would stay overnight and sent a telegram to his landlady Mrs. Dorman in Stretford: ‘All flights cancelled. Flying tomorrow. Duncan.’
But the captain of the BEA Elizabethan decided to make one final attempt to take-off, which ended in the crash that would kill 23 people, including seven of Edwards’ teammates.
Edwards sustained terrible injuries, including damaged kidneys, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken pelvis and several fractures of his right thigh, and for fifteen days he bravely clung to life.
In the days after the crash Jimmy Murphy visited Edwards in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich accompanied by United’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who survived the crash physically unscathed. Gregg recalled how Duncan was lying still when they approached his bed, then suddenly opened his eyes and asked, “What time is the kick-off against Wolves? I mustn’t miss that game.” United’s next game was indeed against Wolves that weekend. An emotional Murphy bent down to him and whispered, “Three o’clock son.” Duncan replied: “Get stuck in!”
During those dark days, Bobby Charlton recalls visiting Edwards in his bed, and seeing how much pain he was in. A distressed Edwards asked where the gold watch Real Madrid had presented to him was, prompting Murphy to order a search of the wreckage. The battered watch was recovered and was strapped back onto Edwards’
wrist, bringing him some relief and happiness.
But on February 21 at 2.15am Edwards finally succumbed to his injuries. He was dead at only 21. “I have seen death many, many times, but not like this,” said one of the surgeons who tended to Edwards. “In all my years I have never seen a hospital staff so upset. This boy we have never seen before, he is so young, so strong… so
brave. Ach, but he had no chance.”
Maybe the passage of time has dulled the impact of this loss to English football, but imagine if Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had died at the same age. It is too dreadful to contemplate.
In the corridors of the youth academy at Manchester United’s training ground there is now an enormous 10ft poster of Duncan Edwards to inspire the generations that seek to follow him.
If Edwards had survived, it was believed his injuries were so serious he would almost certainly never have played football again. The sports writer Frank Taylor, who survived the crash at Munich, and recovered in the same hospital as Edwards, wrote about his harrowing experience in his book The Day A Team Died.
“One of Duncan’s nearest and dearest friends told me: ‘Maybe it was better this way. The doctors said, had he lived, he might have had to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Duncan couldn’t have stood that. Now I can remember him as he was: the greatest thing that has happened in British football for years.’
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