Duncan Edwards: The greatest footballer who ever lived?

The Munich air crash of February 1958 destroyed one of the greatest teams in the history of sport. But no member of that tragic Manchester United side was as talented as Duncan Edwards

There was no way, not then, that you could divide and quantify the grief in the streets that filled with mourners when it came to the burying of the brilliant young football team that perished in Munich 50 years ago today.

Some said that even the sky wept for Manchester United, but really there wasn't so much demand for tragic hyperbole. You couldn't easily exaggerate the pain or the sense of loss, because the footballers known as the Busby Babes had done more than merely accumulate astonishing success in a few brief years: they had painted a future filled with promise, the idea that anything could be achieved.

For the city, which had sustained so many scars in its time, and for a nation beginning to emerge from the rigours and insecurities of war, they represented so many things that could not be contained by the borders of a football pitch. They were youth, and colour, and beautiful accomplishment, and swaggering self-confidence. And when they are remembered tonight in an executive suite at Old Trafford, the space-age stadium which some will always swear has grown directly from the mystical impact of the lost team, and on the terraces of Wembley, where England play a friendly match against Switzerland, the sadness of many who remember 6 February 1958 will inevitably be intensely personal.

It will be a reminder of that first shock of mortality, of that time on a grey afternoon when winter used to be winter, when you knew suddenly, heartbreakingly, that you, no more than your heroes, would not be allowed to live for ever.

Tonight, though, the perspective of all the years since the British European Airways charter plane slewed off the end of the slush-piled runway of Munich airport and killed eight players, four of them members of the national team, along with officials, journalists and crew members, will carry many back to the moment that they have always felt brought the most crushing blow of all those that came in the tragic episode they will never forget. It was the death, in Rechts der Isar Hospital, 13 days after the crash, of Duncan Edwards.

An extraordinary – and utterly impractical – hope was snuffed out when the news came in; news that Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor who was rehabilitating among his own people in the North-east, still describes as the worst moment of his life. The fiercely communal dream born of collective pain was that Edwards would win his battle against terrible injuries and would, soon enough, return to the fields he had come to dominate so profoundly that some argued – and still do – that he was potentially the greatest player who ever lived.

When Charlton's mother Cissie put her hand on his shoulder and said: "Big Duncan has gone," he said they were the words he dreaded most, because as long as the big man, still just 21 years of age, was alive, it was as though the worst had not happened, could not happen. This flew in the face of the words of the German doctors, who said it was amazing he had survived the first impact when the plane swept through perimeter fencing and smashed into a house – and that he should survive 13 days was evidence of a staggering will.

That belief in himself, and his destiny, was still evident beneath the oxygen tent where Charlton found him when he walked up the stairs to the emergency ward. "Where the bloody hell have you been?" asked Edwards in a voice so strong it both startled Charlton and filled him with irrational hope. "I've been waiting for you all this time."

Charlton said this week: "The other day, I came upon a picture taken of the United youth team which won the FA Youth Cup, and once more I caught my breath. Duncan was twice as big as any other player.

"In those first days after the crash it seemed that Duncan was the key to everything. If he survived, so might we all in our spirit and our willingness to fight on. Of course we would always grieve for the lads who had gone, great players and men we loved, but Duncan seemed to go beyond everything. You see, he was so good; when he was around you thought anything was possible.

"He was more than a great player – sometimes he seemed like some bright light in the sky. He was a giant, and even today his loss is the hardest thing to bear."

In fact, Edwards was less than 6ft tall, but everyone agrees that his aura was immense. When he joined the England team for the first time he was just 18, but a picture taken on the training pitch makes a mockery of such tender years. It shows three players chatting jovially as they run around the pitch. One is Billy Wright, the England captain who would win 105 caps. One was Stanley Matthews, a forward of already legendary skills. Edwards is in the middle. He might be chatting with teenage friends on the way to the cinema.

The England player Tom Finney recalls: "He was so strong people could only see the power, but he had a most delicate touch. Manchester United came back and prospered after the crash, but they never had better than the boys of '58. It is very sad to think what he might have done if he had been allowed. Unquestionably he would have been in the very highest rank."

Such was the authority and passion of Duncan Edwards on the field that it is hard to believe that his place in the game was once threatened by an interest in folk dancing, at which he excelled so much in his secondary school in Dudley, West Midlands, that he had to choose between a national competition and a trial with the England schoolboy football team. After much persuasion, he chose football – and Manchester United were so relieved that they sent their trainer Bert Whalley (who also died in Munich) to sign him in the small hours of the morning.

In those days, financial inducements were illegal. So the legend is that Edwards signed for United, and resisted the overtures of the powerful neighbouring club Wolverhampton Wanderers, simply because he saw the promise of the Manchester club's youth policy. It thus may have been entirely coincidental that his mother, Sarah, soon owned one of the finest washing machines in England. It may, however, have been her reward for listening to the advice of onlookers when she saw her son, then nine, playing in a pitched battle of a game against much bigger boys and some men on a patch of waste ground.

She walked into the fray, with the same determination with which she confronted a burglar shortly before she died at the age of 93 five years ago, and was about to drag her son home. But she was told that no boy had ever so dramatically announced his right to play against any opponent, however large, however old.

Munich meant that we will never know how good Edwards would have proved, but the adoring Charlton, for whom Edwards scoured an army camp in Shropshire for a decent mattress when he joined his older team-mate for national service, is scarcely an isolated witness.

Don Revie, the star of Manchester City who would emerge as one of England's most successful managers with Leeds United, was stunned when Edwards joined him in the England team.

Said Revie: "You don't hear many professionals talk lightly of greatness because it is so rare, but that is what I saw in Duncan Edwards the first time I set eyes on him. He reached the same fabulous standard at left-half, centre-half, inside-left and centre-forward. He is the kind of player managers dream about."

Certainly Jimmy Murphy, the man who stood in for the badly injured Matt Busby, shared Revie's belief the moment he saw the boy easily produce his power and his control. When the tough Murphy, a wartime army instructor, was found sobbing in a back corridor of the Munich hospital, there were many reasons for his pain, but no one doubted that it was the loss of Big Duncan that had left him most stricken.

When the 15-year-old Charlton had arrived in Manchester, Murphy met him at the railway station and drove him to his digs. All the time the old football man talked of Edwards, the diamond he was polishing as though it was the great vocation, the great gift, of his life. Charlton recalls: "I was tempted to say, wait a minute, no one's that good. I'm glad I didn't, because Duncan was everything Jimmy Murphy said he was.

"The last time I played with Duncan was in Belgrade, when we qualified for the semi-finals of the European Cup the day before the crash. I was convinced we were going to win the trophy against Real Madrid at the second time of asking, and I believed that, with him, England would march on to win the World Cup later that year in Sweden. Pele stole everyone's attention in that tournament, but if Edwards had been there I swear he would have had a challenger.

"Duncan had everything. He had strength and character that just spilled out of him on the field. I'm absolutely sure that if his career had had a decent span he would have proved himself the greatest player we had ever seen. Yes, I know the great players – Pele, Maradona, Best, Law, Greaves and my great favourite Alfredo di Stefano – but my point was that he was better in every phase of the game. If you asked such players as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney about Duncan their answers were always the same: they had seen nothing like him.

"Duncan could do anything. If the goalkeeper kicked the ball downfield, he would be heading it, if there was a corner kick he would be knocking the ball in, and if someone was running through he would be the one to dispossess him. So many times he made the rest of us feel like pygmies."

John Giles, a young Dubliner who would later win an FA Cup with United before proving himself one of the great midfield players with Leeds United, didn't see a superstar when he encountered Edwards on his first day at Old Trafford. Rather, he saw a big and rather guileless lad. "He was sitting on a wall eating an apple," recalls Giles, "and he didn't seem to have a care in the world."

The Irishman, and another player, the late John Docherty, a brilliant Busby Babe until he was stopped by chronic knee problems, were not as sure as Charlton about the prodigy's supreme ability to play anywhere on the field. Giles believes that John Charles of Leeds, Juventus and Wales, might have had a shade more delicacy of touch at the front of the attack, and Docherty's theory was that Edwards's natural habitat was the centre of defence, where he "would probably have matured into the very best we have ever seen".

Before an important youth match against Chelsea, at that time when Edwards dominated all around him, Murphy was worried that teamwork might be suffering in the shadow of one player's talent. So he said: "I want you to develop your own games; when you get the ball, don't automatically give it to Duncan. Look for a few options."

At half-time, United were trailing and Murphy was contemplating a rare and unthinkable defeat. His team talk was brief: "Remember, boys, I said not to give Duncan the ball at every opportunity. Well, forget it. Give him the fucking ball whenever you can." They did and United won, comfortably.

There may be more lyrical testaments to the truncated glory of the Busby Babes. There may be wider appreciations of the team that had won two league titles on the run and were threatening the power of Real Madrid, at no more cost than a few washing machines and the odd 12in black and white television set.

No, United were not a one-man team. They had Roger Byrne, a superbly original full-back, who also captained England. They had Eddie "Snakehips" Colman, who had a wonderful swivel and the swagger of his hero Frank Sinatra. They had Liam "Billy" Whelan, a Dubliner who so impressed the Brazilians in a youth tournament that they wanted to adopt him and take him home to the Maracana stadium. They had Tommy Taylor and David Pegg, from mining country, who with Edwards and Byrne were key members of the England team. They had Mark Jones, a centre-half from Yorkshire, who always made a point of encouraging the emerging young star Charlton.

But then, when tribute is paid to Manchester United tonight, when the intervening years shrivel and so many are young again in the memory of that beautiful, doomed team, inevitably there will be one regret above all others. It was that we never got to see if it was really true that Duncan Edwards was the greatest player who, despite his epic fight, never got to live. Not in the fullness of his talent. Not in the haunting reach of all his possibilities.

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