Duncan Edwards: what could he have achieved in his Manchester United career?

by Sam Peoples

Duncan Edwards a player this excited most who saw him play (Getty)

Duncan Edwards was born in Dudley, Worcestershire on the 1st October 1936, at his parents home in Malvern Crescent in the Woodside district of Dudley.  His father was called Gladstone and his mother, Sarah Anne. Duncan was their only child due to their daughter, Carol Anne dying just 14 weeks after being born in 1947.  The Edwards family later moved to 31 Elm Road, in the Priory Estate in Dudley. Duncan attended Priory Primary School from 1941 to 1948, and Wolverhampton Street Secondary School from 1948 to 1952. He played football for his school, as well as Dudley Schools, Worcestershire and Birmingham District teams. He also represented his school in morris dancing. He was selected to compete in the National Morris and Sword Dancing Festival, but was also offered a trial for the English Schools Football Association under-14′ team, which fell on the same day, thankfully Duncan chose football.

Physically, he was enormous. He was strong and had a fantastic football brain. His ability was complete — right foot, left foot, long passing, short passing. He did everything instinctively.

–Bobby Charlton

At the trial, Edwards was selected for the English Schools XI and made his debut playing against a similar side from Wales, at Wembley Stadium on 1st April 1950. Soon after her was appointed as captain for the team, which he held for two seasons. During his time playing for the English Schools XI, he had already been picked out by the Manchester United scout, Jack O’Brien in 1948, who reported back to the then Manchester United manager, Matt Busby. O’Brien told Busby “today seen a 12-year-old schoolboy who merits special watching. His name is Duncan Edwards, of Dudley”.

Joe Mercer, coach of the English Schools XI, urged Matt Busby to sign Edwards, who also attracted the interest of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa. The Dudley lad then signed for Manchester United as an amateur on the 2nd June 1952.

Duncan Edwards playing for Manchester United (manchester-united-fans-site.com)

Edwards began his Manchester United career in the youth team, where they went on to win the first ever FA Youth Cup in 1953. By the time Duncan played in the final, he had already made his debut for the first team. On 4th April 1953 he played in a Football League First Division match against Cardiff City, in which Manchester United lost 4-1. Duncan was aged just 16 years and 185 days, making him the youngest ever player to play in a top division. The Manchester United team of 1953, was full of older players, and Matt Busby wanted to bring through some younger players. Edwards had already made the grade. Busby then brought through Dennis Viollet and Jackie Blanchflower, along with a few other players. The collective was from then known as the ‘Busby Babes’. The Manchester Guardian reviewed Edwards debut for Manchester United, saying “he showed promise of fine ability in passing and shooting, but will have to move faster as a wing half”.

In the 1953/54 season, Edwards emerged as a regular in the first team. He made 24 league appearances and also played in the FA Cup defeat to Burnley. Although he was now playing in the first team, Edwards still played for the youth team and helped in winning the FA Youth Cup for a second consecutive season. He was then called-up to the England U-23 team and made his debut against Italy in January 1954. He was then considered for the England senior team. On the day Edwards was watched by the England selection committee, he did not play that well and was not called-up.

In the 1954/55 season, Edwards played in 36 first team matches and scored his first goal for Manchester United. At the end of the season he had a goal tally of 6. His performances revived the calls for him to be selected by the England senior team. His match against Huddersfield Town, was the one the selection committee would watch. Again no call-up was made but he was selected for a Football League XI, which played an exhibition match against a Scottish League team. In March 1955 Edwards played for England B against a second string Germany side. Despite the press criticising Edwards for a “poor showing”, he was called-up to the England senior side a week later.

Edwards made his full England debut against Scotland on 2nd April 1955 in the British Home Championships, aged 18 years and 183 days, making him the youngest player to ever play for England since the Second World War, a record which stood until Michael Owen made his first appearance for England in 1998. Three weeks later, Manchester United took advantage of the fact that he was still eligible for the youth team to select him for the club’s third consecutive FA Youth Cup final. The decision to field an England international player in the youth team was heavily criticised, and Matt Busby was forced to pen a newspaper article defending Edwards’ selection, which paid off for United as the player was instrumental in a third Youth Cup win.

In May 1955, Edwards was selected for the England team which would travel to mainland Europe and play France, Portugal and Spain. He started all three matches. When he returned home from the tour he started a two-year stint in the British Army, serving the the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), stationed at Nesscliffe near Shrewsbury. Edwards served alongside Manchester United team-mate Bobby Charlton, but were both allowed leave to play for Manchester United. Edwards also player football for the army, and in one season he played nearly one hundred matches in total.

Duncan Edwards playing for England (dailymail.co.uk)

In the 1955/56 season, Edwards missed two months due to a severe bout of influenza. He made 33 appearances and scored three goals for Manchester United and won the Football League Division 1 by a lead of 11 points over Blackpool. In the 1956/57 season, Edwards made 34 appearances, taking his total past 100 for Manchester United, and won him another championship. Manchester United missed out on a double after being beaten 2-1 by Aston Villa in the FA Cup final. Edwards also made 7 appearances in the Manchester clubs first outing in the European Cup, including a 10-0 win over Anderlecht, which is still a club record as their biggest ever margin of victory. Edwards was also a regular in the England team and had played in all four of their qualification matches for the 1958 World Cup, scoring in the 5-2 win over Denmark in December 1956. Duncan was expected to have a big role in the 1958 World Cup and was seen as a replacement for veteran Billy Wright who also held the England captaincy.

In the 1957/58 season, Edwards started in good form and there were rumours that a host of top Italian clubs were looking to sign him. He played his last game in England on 1st February 1958, when he helped Manchester United defeat Arsenal by scoring the opening goal in the 5-4 win. The press was very critical of his performance, notable the Sunday Pictoral’s correspondent wrote “think [Edwards’] display in this thrilling game would impress England team manager Walter Winterbottom, who was watching. He was clearly at fault for Arsenal’s fourth goal when, instead of clearing, he dallied on the ball”. Some five days later, Edwards would then play his final match for Manchester United in the 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade, in Belgrade, which saw Manchester United progress to the semi-finals in an aggregate 5-4 victory. Edwards nor none of the other ‘Busby Babes’ knew what was ahead of them on their way back home.

The Last Line-up of the Busby Babes (therepublikofmancunia.com)

The 6th February 1958 was the worst day in the history of Manchester United. The team that beat Red Star Belgrade on aggregate landed in Munich, Germany, to refuel as the “Elizabethan” class Airspeed Ambassador was out of range or flying direct to Manchester without stopping. When the go ahead to leave was given, the pilots, Captains James Thain and Kenneth Rayment, abandoned two attempts to take off due to boost surging in the port engine. After the take-off was abandoned, the player were asked to leave the place and wait in the departure lounge of the airport. In fear of losing time the Captains rejected an overnight stay in Munich, instead they attempted a third take-off, one which resulted in catastrophe.

As the Airspeed Ambassador 2, which was built in 1952, was gathering speed, which was not enough to take off, the place his some slush, which had built up at the end of the runway, it had started snowing between the second abandoned take off and the third attempt. The plane careered off the runway, through a fence and then the port side wing hit a house and was torn off. When the plane came to an eventual stop, Captain Thain immediately se upon getting the survivors as far as possible from the plane as he thought it might burst into flames. Despite this threat, Manchester United goalkeeper, Harry Gregg stayed behind and was helping the victims of the disaster. A West German investigation team immediately blamed Captain Thain for the disaster, which was overturned some 10 years later in 1968.

The victims of the Munich Air Disaster were (all photographs sourced from Getty Images);

Crew members: Captain Kenneth Rayment and Cabin Steward Tom Cable

Manchester United players: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam “Billy” Whelan

Manchester United staff: Club Secretary Walter Crickmer, Trainer Tom Curry and Chief Coach Bert Whalley

Journalists: Alf Clarke, Donny Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Frank Swift, Eric Thompson

Two other people died, I was unable to find photographs of them; Bela Miklos, travel agent and Willie Satinoff, racecourse owner and personal friend of Matt Busby.

A broken heart, a broken dream,

A broken plane, a broken team,

No words were said, a silent vow,

We loved you then, we love you now,

The red flag will always fly,

For Man United will never die

Never to be forgotten – 6th February 1958

The survivors of the disaster were; Crew: Margaret Bellis, stewardess (died 1998), Rosemary Cheverton, stewardess, George William “Bill” Rodgers, radio officer (died 1997), Captain James Thain, pilot (died 1975); Passengers: Manchester United players, Johnny Berry (never played again, died 1994), Jackie Blanchflower (never played again, died 1998), Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon (died 2009), Dennis Viollet (died 1999), Ray Wood (died 2002); Manchester United staff, Matt Busby, manager (died 1994); Journalists and photographers, Ted Ellyard, Daily Mail telegraphist (died 1964), Peter Howard, Daily Mail photographer (died 1996), Frank Taylor, News Chronicle reporter (died 2002); Other passengers, Vera Lukić and baby daughter Vesna, passengers saved by Manchester United player Harry Gregg. At the time of the accident, she was pregnant with her son Zoran, who also survived, Mrs Eleanor Miklos, wife of Bela Miklos and Nebojša Bato Tomašević, Yugoslavian diplomat.

Duncan Edwards died in hospital in Munich on 21st February 1958, 15 days after the disaster. He had suffered multiple leg fractures and broken ribs along with damage to both kidneys. An artificial kidney was sent to the hospital the day following the disaster, but this made it near enough impossible for his blood to clot, leading to internal bleeding. Despite this, Edwards asked assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy “What time is the kick off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn’t miss that match”. By the 14th February Edwards’ condition was reported as “dramatically improved”, but just five days later his condition was sinking fast. The German doctors were “amazed” at his fight for life. Edwards succumbed to his injuries on the 21st February 1958.

Duncan Edwards was buried five days after his death in Dudley Cemetery, with his 14 day old sister, Carol Anne, who died in 1947. More than 5,000 people lined the streets of Dudley for his funeral. His gravestone reads “A day of memory, Sad to recall, Without farewell, He left us all”. His grave is regularly visited by fans.

Duncan Edwards grave in Dudley (mrszooropa/flickriver.com)

A statue of Duncan Edwards also stands in the town centre of Dudley, in the memory of one of the best footballers the town produced.

Duncan Edwards Statue in Dudley (menmedia.co.uk)

Here is a video tribute of Duncan Edwards from YouTube user ‘dawncrystal’;

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjOMWY4ZdF8]

United’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded all our Munich dead,
Before their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their heart’s blood dyed it’s every fold.

Then raise United’s banner high,
Beneath it’s shade we’ll live and die,
So keep the faith and never fear,
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.

By Paul Bienkowski

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