TOWARDS the end of 1957 word came that Brazil had unearthed a footballer of astounding potential. Pele. "If he's better than Duncan Edwards he must be some item," Jimmy Murphy said.
Matt Busby's assistant at Manchester United and manager of Wales, Murphy had coached Edwards through the ranks at Old Trafford to become a first- teamer at 16 and, at 18 years 183 days, the fourth youngest player to win a full England cap when he turned out in a 7-2 victory over Scotland at Wembley in April 1957.
Worcestershire-born, symbolic of Busby's youth policy, athletic, powerfully built and mature beyond his years, Edwards did not have a weakness worth speaking about. Murphy, a hard task-master, drooled over him. "To have such a player, who can pass, head, shoot, tackle and see things so clearly is a gift from heaven," he said.
What the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, saw was someone who could make all the difficulties of bureaucratic meddling and stubborn resistance to change worthwhile.
As 1957 drew to a close, encouraged by a run of 14 victories and five draws with just one defeat (Northern Ireland's first ever victory at Wembley) Winterbottom felt that England had the resources to be a force at the 1958 finals in Sweden.
Within two months three key members of Winterbottom's team, the man-boy Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, together with Eddie Colman, who would probably have made the squad, were dead, victims of the Manchester United air crash.
Bill Nicholson, then Tottenham Hotspur's coach but soon to succeed Jimmy Anderson as manager and become one of the most successful English football has ever known, went to the finals in Sweden as Winterbottom's assistant.
Now 80, Nicholson reflected on what might have been but for the tragedy that overtook Busby's pool of outstanding young footballers. "Of course, when the awful news came you felt first for the families of those poor lads and for Matt who wasn't expected to survive, but you couldn't help thinking what effect such a tragedy would have on the England team."
Edwards was a player to gladden Nicholson's heart, displaying all the marvellous qualities that he would later find in the Scottish international Dave Mackay. "Duncan had it all," he said. "An exceptional range of ability and, like Mackay, tremendous enthusiasm for the game. I think if he'd lived, Byrne and Taylor too, because they were both outstanding in their positions, England would have gone close in Sweden."
With only Tom Finney and Billy Wright retained from the team that went out of the 1954 finals Winterbottom had introduced the best of his younger players; Don Howe and Byrne at full back; Edwards and Ronnie Clayton of Blackburn Rovers at half-back; the talented Fulham inside-forward Johnny Haynes who would become English football's first pounds 100-a-week player.
Now with Edwards, Byrne and Taylor gone Winterbottom had to revise his thinking. "It was a hell of a job," Nicholson said, "because there weren't that many international class players around and one or two who looked up to it weren't quite ready."
The call went out to a Munich survivor. Bobby Charlton's mesmeric running with the ball, his pace and the violence of his shooting had earned him a Murphy rating in the Edwards category. Gaining his first cap against Scotland at Hampden Park in April 1958, Charlton was an immediate hit scoring one of England's four goals with a headlining 25-yard volley from Finney's centre.
Rather like Michael Owen today, Charlton became everybody's choice for the 1958 finals. Not Winterbottom's though. Charlton went to Sweden but didn't play, his omission causing great controversy. Wright supported the England manager. "Bobby is obviously going to be an international player of the highest class," the captain said, "but you can tell that is he still deeply affected by what he has been through."
Again, England approached the finals in low spirits, a 5-0 thrashing against Yugoslavia in Belgrade where they were torn part by the gifted and combative inside-forward Sekularac, persuading Winterbottom that Charlton wasn't yet up to the responsibilities of a World Cup.
It was the first time that all four British teams had qualified. Shooting themselves in the foot with stupid selection, Scotland finished bottom of their group with only one point from three matches.
Northern Ireland and Wales, however, were remarkable, both surviving until the quarter-finals. England, with the powerful but technically limited West Bromwich Albion forward Derek Kevan a contentious replacement for Charlton, began with a 2-2 draw against the Soviet Union.
Nicholson was dispatched to watch England's next opponents, Brazil, the favourites. The names of Pele and Garrincha would soon be on every lip but Brazil's coach Feloa was not yet convinced of their readiness.
The report Nicholson brought back stressed the importance of neutralizing Brazil's schemer Didi. "A smashing player who went about the game rather like Blanchflower," Nicholson recalled. Using the university lecturer Bill Slater of Wolves as a man marker, England played him so well that Brazil were held goalless for the first time in a World Cup match.
Another draw, this time 2-2 against Austria sent England into a play- off against the Soviet Union for a place in the quarter-finals. Still no Charlton but Winterbottom at last made changes. Peter Brabrook, of Chelsea, and the Wolves inside-forward, Peter Broadbent, were given their first caps but England were out of luck, Brabrook missing two chances. Out of the tournament, another disappointment.
Winterbottom was required to answer questions, one from his young son at the airport - "Dad, why didn't you pick Bobby Charlton?"
England 2 USSR 2
England 0 Brazil 0
England 2 Austria 2
England 0 USSR 1
Brazil 5 France 2
Sweden 3 W Germany 1
Brazil 5 Sweden 2
Brazil 1 Wales 0
France 4 N Ireland 0
Sweden 2 USSR 0
W Germany 1 Yugoslavia 0
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