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[34] From Red News past… Tom Clare on Duncan Edwards

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  • [34] From Red News past… Tom Clare on Duncan Edwards

    From Red News past… Tom Clare on Duncan Edwards

    "The best player that I've ever seen, the best footballer that I've ever played with for United or England, the only other player who ever made me feel inferior." Those are the words of one of the greatest players ever to grace the world football stage, one of the greatest ambassadors of the game, and most of all, one of life's gentlemen - Sir Bobby Charlton. The player that he was talking about? Well, he was a young man - just. He played the game until he was only 21 years and 143 days old. But in that so short career, he left such an indelible mark, both on the game, and for the people that were fortunate enough to have watched him, on their memories. It says so much about him, that even now, almost 47 years after his passing, he is still talked about and remembered, not only by the fans of the club for which he played and loved so much, who cherish that memory so guardedly, but also, by football fans throughout the British Isles and Europe. He was a household name by the time that he reached his eighteenth birthday. He was indeed world class, a colossus, a giant in the truest sense of the word, a great, and he has certainly become a legend. In the modern day, when those words are bandied about and bestowed upon players so freely and so easily, when put against this young man's profile, no other words could describe him more aptly - he is of course, Duncan Edwards.

    During the last few weeks, the BBC has been running their "England Dream Team" competition. Of course, Duncan was amongst the nominations but never even got near to the team finally selected. There are a number of reasons for this, the main one being I suspect, would be the fact that the majority of the voters were too young to have watched him play. Others I also suspect, just can't accept that there was once a young player who was just so good. It's difficult for them to believe that there was ever "the perfect player." It must make them wonder just who this wonderful young man was? Could he have been the player that he was made out to be? Are the descriptions of him over-exaggerated? Over the years, much has been written about Duncan, some of it true, some of it myth. Those of us who were around during his time and did watch him play, know which is which.

    I was fortunate to have watched Duncan for the majority of his first team career and have so many, many, memories of him. He was a wonderful human being as well as being a great football player. Let me tell you a few things about him, and then about my memories of him.

    Duncan was born on October 1st, 1936, to Gladstone and Sara-Ann Edwards, in a little terraced house at 23, Malvern Crescent, in the Black Country town of Dudley, Worcestershire. They were a typical hard working, working class family, just like so many of their contemporaries of that time. His late Mum used to tell the story about Duncan being able to kick a ball before he could even walk! His parents had a set of reins which they would tie around his waist, and whilst Gladstone would hold him upright, Duncan would kick the ball up and down their living room, much to their amusement. He grew into a young giant for his age, a huge frame - much bigger than children of his own age. He loved to play football. His waking hours were spent playing the game whenever the opportunity would arise, and if he wasn't actually playing football, then he would dream about it. It was obvious to anybody watching this young man, that he was so gifted and skilful where football was concerned. At the tender age of eight, he was playing in his School team against boys two, and three years older than himself. By the time he was eleven years old, he was playing for his Town team, and also representing Worcestershire Schoolboys, his County team - he was three years younger than his team mates. Around that time, Duncan wrote an essay at school in which he recalled a conversation between his father and uncle. During that conversation, he had heard his father remark that England would be playing Scotland at Wembley Stadium, the following Saturday. Duncan plucked up the courage to interrupt the conversation and ask the question; 'where is Wembley Stadium?' His uncle told him that it was in London. Duncan related to him how much he would like to play there. Little was he to know at that time, just how soon his dream would come true. On April 1st, 1950, at aged just 13 years old, Duncan strode out from the tunnel and onto the hallowed Wembley turf, in front of 100,000 spectators, wearing the shirt of England Schoolboys, representing his country, playing at left half, against the Wales Schoolboys team. He played in every England schoolboy international fixture for the next three seasons, and was even made England captain at just 14 years old. That record of playing for three successive seasons for England schoolboys still stands today, as does his being the youngest ever captain, and I doubt very much if those two records will ever be broken.

    Obviously, a talent such as this attracted a lot of attention. From the moment he became a schoolboy international, lots of the top professional clubs courted his parents in the hope that they would eventually land the signature of this remarkable young boy. All the big Midlands clubs were prominent, Wolves, Albion, Villa, Birmingham, as well as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea. A chance conversation between two old adversaries, as well as old army friends, was the beginning of the road to Old Trafford for Duncan. In 1950, Joe Mercer, then still playing for Arsenal, was doing some coaching with the England schoolboys team. After a game between United and Arsenal, Joe happened to remark to Matt Busby what a remarkable talent he had seen in the England schoolboys team, and that in his opinion; 'young Edwards is going to be some player'. This alerted Busby, and he sent his trusted chief scout, Joe Armstrong, down to Dudley to watch the young Edwards play. After just ten minutes, Armstrong had seen enough, and recommended that Busby should go and watch this young man for himself. The following week, both Matt and Jimmy Murphy slipped unobtrusively into Dudley and watched Duncan play. They too, did not have to stay for too long watching Duncan play, and on the way back to Manchester, Busby told Jimmy that this was one young player that United must not miss out on. For the next two years they kept an eye on things and at 2 a.m. on the morning of October 1st 1952, a bleary eyed Gladstone Edwards came downstairs to answer the knocking on the front door of his home. Stood there outside in the darkness was Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy. He invited both men into the living room, and called Sara-Ann. For the next hour the four of them talked about the possibility of Duncan joining Manchester United. Gladstone told both of them that the decision would be left to Duncan as to which club he would like to join - unbeknowns to him, Sara-Ann already knew the answer! Duncan had confided to her the previous morning. Gladstone called Duncan, and this big giant of a boy arrived in the living room wearing his pyjamas, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, and immediately upon recognizing Matt Busby said; 'Mr. Busby, there's only one club that I want to play football for, and that's Manchester United. I'd give anything to sign for them'. It was as simple as that - he'd followed the exploits of the United team that had won the FA Cup in 1948, the 1st Division Championship in 1952, and who had also finished runners-up in the league on four other occasions. Their brand of football had captivated him. He was a United fan! A few minutes after meeting Matt Busby, Duncan was a Manchester United player, and a few days later he left the family home for digs in Stretford, and a career in professional football.

    Upon his arrival at Old Trafford Duncan was quietly introduced and within weeks it was apparent that here was somebody truly remarkable, with a remarkable talent, and one which hadn't been seen before. The coaches reporting back to Busby stated that there was absolutely nothing that they could coach into this kid. He was just so natural, and gifted, in everything that he did. Nothing fazed him, the surroundings, his team mates, opposing players - he just had the perfect temperament. In no time at all Duncan had been promoted into the reserve team and his performances belied his young years. Even at this youthful age, he had a superb physique. Players of his own age looked under nourished compared to him! But for a big lad, he was exceptionally quick over the ground, could turn either way with a devastating body-swerve, had two great feet, a tremendous shot in either foot, was exceptionally powerful in the air, so strong in the tackle, but most importantly, for one so young, his positional play was flawless because he read the game so well. It also soon became apparent that he could play anywhere in any position, and still be the most outstanding player on the park! Just six months after his arrival at Old Trafford, the day that he had lived and dreamed about arrived. On Saturday, April 2nd 1953, at the age of 16 years and 185 days, he appeared out of the tunnel wearing the number 6 shirt in Manchester United's first team playing against Cardiff City in a Football League Division One match.

    My earliest recollections of Duncan are of seeing him play in a reserve team game at Old Trafford early in 1953. It was astonishing to see this young giant playing amongst men. In hindsight, it was his age that first attracted me to him being a favourite of mine. United?s reserve team wing halves in the second half of that season were two really young players - Jeff Whitefoot, who was younger than Duncan when he had made his first team debut, and Duncan himself. After he made his debut, Duncan hardly appeared in a reserve game again, although he did play in the Youth team, and won a winners medal in the inaugural season of the FA Youth Cup. In 1953/54, his reputation started to gain momentum, and even though he was just 17, he appeared for the England Under-23 team against Italy, in Bologna. He had already started to earn rave notices with his outstanding displays in the first team. In those days, there was some really outstanding players around who had huge reputations. They meant nothing at all to Duncan - even at such a young age, he just eclipsed them with the power and polish of his own performance.

    The late Jackie Milburn used to tell the story of the day that he first came up against Duncan. He recalls early on in the game standing besides him and listening as Duncan told him; 'I know that you are a great player Mr. Milburn, and that you have a big reputation, but it means nothing at all to me. Today I am not going to allow you a kick at the ball.' This was from a young 16 years old boy - it wasn-t arrogance, or egoism, it was Duncan's inherent self-belief in his own ability. As Jackie was to say; 'the thing was, Duncan was absolutely true to his word, I hardly did get a kick throughout that game and United won 5-2. I just could not believe how mature this young kid was, and what ability and self-belief he had'. His reputation had already started to grow, but it never went to his head. He had his feet firmly planted on the ground. Duncan knew he was special, I don't think that he ever doubted that. He just loved to play, be it in the first team or even the Youth team, he gave each game the same commitment. His appetite for playing was voracious. Jimmy Murphy recalled another game, this time a Youth team match early in the stages of the competition against a well known London team. From the very start of the game, there was a loud mouth sat behind Jimmy who kept on baiting him by shouting; 'where's your famous Edwards then Murphy, where's this so-called superstar?' Jimmy just gritted his teeth and said nothing until about ten minutes into the game, a tackle was won in the centre circle, and the tackler was away with the ball and moving towards goal. Several of the opposition players tried to get within touching distance of him, but he was just too strong. From full 30 yards he unleashed a tremendous shot that hardly got off the ground. Before the home goalkeeper could move, it was past him and nestling into the back of the net. Jimmy just smiled, turned around, looked the loud mouth straight in the eye, and said; 'that's Edwards!'

    The Youth team were formidable in those first years of the Youth Cup competition, and nigh on unbeatable - they won it for the first five years of its inception. I personally can recall a semi-final against the Chelsea Youth team. Ted Drake had also put together a really good team of youngsters in 1954/55. The first leg had been drawn at Stamford Bridge 2-2. In the return leg, played at Old Trafford on a Saturday morning in front of 30,000 spectators, Chelsea held the upper hand at half-time and led 2-1. In the second half, Edwards moved up to centre forward. Within minutes of the re-start, Terry Beckett floated over a cross from the right, and there was Duncan powering into the area, soaring above everybody, to really thump the ball with his head past the goalkeeper, and level the tie. Sometime later, there was a corner to United on the left hand side at the Scoreboard End. Denis Fidler floated it towards the penalty spot, and once again, Duncan's timing and power got him there b!
    efore anybody could react, and another bullet header was planted into the net. He then moved back to left half, and his influence on the young kids around him, made sure that they were never going to lose that tie.

    He was such a wonderful young boy. In those days, United players used to make their own way to the ground for home games. Duncan used to have an old Raleigh bicycle, and this was his mode of transport for getting to and from the ground. I would stand on the railway bridge and wait for him as he would come wheeling down what was then Warwick Road (now Sir Matt Busby Way). Once across the bridge he would turn left and free-wheel down to the old Ticket Office, with a stream of kids (me included) chasing after him. He would alight from his bicycle, prop it up against his leg, get all the kids to line up, and he would stand there signing the books and bits of paper before taking a piece of string out of his pocket, secure the bike to a drain pipe, and disappear inside to the dressing room. It was the same ritual in reverse after the game - out he would come, line up the kids once more, sign every book and bit of paper before untying the bike, climbing aboard it, and then he was off, back up Warwick Road, and on to his digs in Stretford.

    In April of 1955, he was selected to play for England against Scotland at Wembley - he became the youngest player ever to play for his country at senior level at the age of just 18 years and 183 days. Unheard of in those distant days - teenagers just weren't good enough, nor experienced enough to play for England - or so the thought process went! He had in fact represented England at schoolboy, Youth, Under-23, and B-team level before then. He took to international football like a duck to water, and was never left out of England's team again. In the Autumn of 1955, England went to Berlin to play the then World Champions, West Germany, at the Olympiastadion, in front of 100,000 spectators. For the first 20 minutes of the game, the Germans had given England a torrid time, but then Duncan made a tackle midway inside the German half and won the ball. His acceleration was so quick, it just took him past two startled German defenders, and from 25 yards, he just bombed the ball into the back of the net before the 'keeper could move. Even today, the Germans remember him by the nickname that they bestowed upon him that day - "Boom-Boom!" The following winter, the Brazilians arrived at Wembley, testing the water for their assault on the World Cup Finals to be held in Sweden in the summer of 1958. Most of the players the Brazilians used in Sweden actually played in that game at Wembley. They were outclassed by an England team that won 4-2, and missed two penalties in the process. Tommy Taylor led their defence a merry dance, but Duncan eclipsed the man who was to be their big star in Sweden - Didi. Didi was made to look more than ordinary, and believe me, this fellow was up there with the best of them - Pele, Best, Di Stefano, Puskas. Edwards won 18 caps in total and scored 5 international goals. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have played for England for a very long time but for fate. I also believe that England, and not Brazil, would have lifted the 1958 World Cup but for Munich, and also the cruel loss of Jeff Hall, the Birmingham City full back, to polio. The very heart was ripped out of a very, very, good England team.

    In 1955/56, Matt Busby's famous "Babes" team became of age and lifted the Championship with an average age of just 22 years, and by a margin of 11 points. They suffered a shock defeat in the FA Cup third round against Second Division Bristol Rovers at Eastville by the astonishing scoreline of 4-0. Last year, I had occasion to ask one of the 606 Substitute guys who lives in Bristol, to recall this fact to an old friend of his. This old friend looked at Steve when asked about that game and said; 'Aye, we won 4-0, but you have to remember that Edwards didn't play in that game'. That was the esteem that Duncan was held in by the British football fan.

    From late 1955 to late 1957, Duncan also had to serve his National Service, and did so in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He hated having to do this time in the Services, but like most of the young men of that time, he took it on the chin and just got on with it. In 1956/57 he picked up another Championship winner's medal and also appeared in United's losing Cup Final team against Aston Villa. In that Final was the only time that he came close to losing self control on the football pitch. He was horrified to watch the vicious assault by Villa winger Peter McParland upon Ray Wood in the United goal, during the opening minutes of that game. It effectively put Wood out of the game with a fractured cheek-bone and reduced United to 10 men. As McParland lay on the ground Duncan strode over to him, but then held back before the red mist descended. He was scrupulously fair, and expected nothing less from opposing players.

    He played in European competition that year also, My abiding memory of him during that European campaign was not of him in any of United's victories, but in the semi-final, second leg defeat by that great Real Madrid team of that era. Although that game had been drawn 2-2, United had been eliminated by 5-3 on aggregate. Over the two legs, the Spanish Champions had employed some really dubious tactics, and also United were on the end of some very suspicious decisions from the referee in the away leg in Spain. Twice they had what seemed legitimate goals ruled out for offside. As he came off the field that evening, I could see the hurt, and dejection etched in his face. He'd run his socks off that night, but even his superhuman efforts were not enough to pull of an almost impossible victory. It hurt him, you could see that.

    The last time that I saw him play was on Saturday, January 25th 1958 in a 4th round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, against Ipswich Town, which United won by 2-0. His last appearance in England was on February 1st 1958, against Arsenal at Highbury. It was fitting that it was a game that was an absolute classic, which United won by 5-4 and Duncan was outstanding, scoring very early in the game with one of his specials. The result was of little importance in retrospect - football won that day. It left a lot of fans with the memory of a truly outstanding young footballer who performed in a truly outstanding young team. His last appearance for United was on February 5th 1958 in the Army Stadium in Belgrade in the 3-3 draw with Red Star, and again, it was fitting that he gave another outstanding performance. On a treacherous pitch, he floated and glided over it with grace and power. In the second half, when United's defence was on the rack, he tackled like a demon and marshalled everybody superbly, again he was the outstanding player on the pitch.

    Duncan was very reserved off the field, almost to the point where he was shy, and retiring. He just lived for football and would have played everyday if he had been allowed. Oh! yes, he knew that he was gifted, and he knew that he was special - but it never put an edge upon him. He didn't feel any different from his team mates. For his age he was so mature, nobody took liberties with him. Bill Foulkes recalls a tale from a game against West Brom in 1957. Maurice Setters (who was later to join United) was a really tough, abrasive, intimidating in your face, wing half. Early on in the game, he made the mistake of trying to intimidate Duncan by standing nose to nose with him as Duncan tried to take a throw-in. Duncan just looked down at this craggy crew-cutted man - there was a slight movement of Duncan's chest, and Setters went back 10 yards on his backside. It was as though he had just swatted a fly. Setters was nowhere to be seen after that. How many players have played for England at senior level one week, and their club's youth team the next? He did. How many players have played for the youth team in the morning, and the first team in the afternoon? He did. He was never in the media for the wrong reasons, and in fact the only time that he ever got into trouble was one Saturday evening after a "derby" game at Old Trafford in 1955. City had trounced United 5-0, and as usual, Duncan was on his way home on his bike. An overzealous policeman stopped him in on Chester Road, and booked him for riding a bicycle without lights. On the Monday morning he was fined 10 shillings in the Magistrate's Court, and upon arriving at Old Trafford, Sir Matt fined him two weeks wages for bringing the club?s name into disrepute! He lived his life as the professional should. He conducted himself impeccably, looked after his body, and just loved the club that he played for. He was an icon to young boys like me, and without doubt was the perfect role model.

    He survived for almost 15 days after the tragedy. He fought, my how he fought to live. His injuries were so severe though, especially to his kidneys. Dr. Georg Maurer the eminent doctor and surgeon at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich, where all the injured were taken and treated, said that any less mortal than Duncan could never have survived those injuries for as long as he did. His fitness, stamina and courage, were unquestioned. In the first few days after the tragedy, when Jimmy Murphy visited him as he lay there fighting for his life, his first words to Jimmy were; 'what time's the kick off against Wolves on Saturday Jimmy? I can't miss that one'. It must have broken Jimmy's heart to see his big champion lying broken and battered as he was. There was a very, very close bond between those two men. Jimmy tells a few stories about Duncan against himself. In an England v Wales game at Ninian Park in Cardiff, Jimmy as the Wales team manager was in the dressing room just prior to the game. One by one he was giving players their instructions on how to combat the England players. When he had finished, Reg Davies, the Newcastle United centre forward piped up; 'but Boss, you haven't mentioned this here fellow Edwards - what do we do about him? How do you want us to play him?' Jimmy looked Reg straight in the eye and said; 'stay out of his way son, stay out of his way. If you don't, you'll get hurt'. During the second half of that game, with England leading 4-0, Duncan had to collect the ball from close by the dugout so that he could take a throw in. Seeing Jimmy in there he looked up and said; 'hey Jimmy, what time's the next train back to Manchester? You're wasting you?re time here!' Jimmy exploded; 'wait till I get you back there on Monday young man - I might make you into a half decent player!' Yes, there was a special bond between them.

    Not long before the tragedy, Duncan became engaged to a young lady named Molly. He also bought a car, even though he couldn't drive. Sunday mornings would see he and Molly outside his digs, busily polishing that car! It was his pride and joy. It must have been heartbreaking also for his parents, and young Molly, to listen to him as he lay in that hospital. He told his Mum; 'I've got better things to do than lie here Mum. We?ve got an important game on Saturday'. She reminded him that he also had a car waiting at home for him, an he just replied; 'keep it on the road Mum, keep it on the road'. At 1:18a.m. on the morning of February 21st 1958, this giant of a young man succumbed to those terrible injuries which he had received in the tragedy of two weeks before. When the news broke in the City of Manchester later that morning, once again a great pall of mourning enveloped the people.

    My memories of him never dim. I can still see him today as he comes bounding out from the tunnel, taking those giant leaps into the air, heading an imaginary ball. Standing there in the middle of the pitch expanding his chest and shouting to his team mates in that thick Black Country accent; 'come on lads, we 'aven't come here for nuffink!' He was special alright - in some ways he was a freak, and I say that in the nicest possible way. He was the perfect human being, the perfect footballer with the perfect technique, temperament, the one player that I have seen that really did have everything and could play anywhere and still be the most outstanding player on the field. People often ask me today as to who would compare with him. Well, the honest answer is, I haven't seen anybody come near to him. To try and explain I tell them, take a little bit of Bobby Moore, a little bit of Bryan Robson, a little bit of Roy Keane, and a little bit of Patrick Viera - mix them together, and maybe! , just maybe, you may just get a little bit of Duncan Edwards. Have a look at the websites and and read the various newspaper reports and testimonials about him - it will give you an idea of just how gifted this young man was. There was a famous athlete years ago who used to proclaim 'I am the greatest, I am the greatest.' Well, unfortunately I have news for him, even he got it wrong. You see, "the greatest" was a young 21 years old wing half, who played for Manchester United and England, and in my opinion, was the most complete player the game of football has ever witnessed. Dear Dunc, I say it so often, the years roll by, but your memory never dims and your legend will live on forever.

    by Tom Clare, author of Forever a Babe, and the Men who were the Busby Babes, which can be ordered below
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